James Cridland

NPR and its transmitter mindset

In a memo as dull as much of its news programming, US public radio organisation NPR has forbidden its staff from promoting NPR podcasts. No explanation of how to download a podcast — a bland, beige mention of the existence of a podcast is all that’s allowed.

Further, NPR’s Chris Turpin adds this inexplicable line: “No NPR One. For now, NPR One will not be promoted on-air”.

If ever there was a pointed example of the “transmitter mindset”, it’s this. Because what NPR is doing is allowing the owners of its transmitters — the member stations that broadcast its material — to be in charge, rather than its listeners.

Look — I can understand not wanting to promote iTunes, Stitcher, Player.FM or Pocket Casts on NPR programmes. That’s advertising, after all. I do think it would benefit the audience to be occasionally taken through the detail of how to download and listen to a podcast, though: many won’t have done so before (even now). I still lose count of the people with an Android phone who don’t think they can get podcasts.

But not to promote its own NPR One personalised news app on-air at all? The thing that I’ve been mentioning, again and again, as a shining example of the future of news radio? That seems, um, a little short-sighted.

“Cutting off your nose to spite your face has rarely ever been a shrewd business move,” says tech website The Verge. Nieman Lab adds “If you see a future, at a certain point you’ve got to commit to getting there.” NPR’s own ombudsman writes, on NPR’s own website, “NPR and the member stations must confront the challenges inherent in the transition head-on or risk going the way of newspapers.”

Radio consultant Mark Ramsey defends NPR by saying “I could argue the very last people who need to know about the digital availability of NPR content are those folks enjoying it on the radio, if only because those folks are already enjoying it on the radio”.

But Ramsey misses the point: for he assumes that listeners are binary. In Ramsey’s world, either you listen to “the radio” (by which he means AM/FM live radio), or you listen through podcasts and apps. And, as we know, people actually do both of those things.

It’s this binary thinking that does most harm to radio. Just as TV viewers will consume DVDs as well as live television, many of our radio listeners consume podcasts. The NPR One app is an excellent choice for NPR listeners when the station they listen to has dissolved into plinky-plonky jazz or dense programming they don’t like. Far from being competition with the transmitter, it’s retaining listeners within the NPR brand, instead of forcing them to find something else.

NPR, and their member stations, is in the content business. Not the transmitter business.

Let’s hope they notice before it’s too late.