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Radio Web/Tech

The Next Generation of Public Radio

Late last week, Doug Kaye spilled the beans about his plans for the future of IT Conversations and went on to discuss his new business model for the service.

In some ways, Doug’s plan seems to me to represent the next generation of public radio – except that Doug’s audio content – as with all podcasts, by definition – will be available when you want it, rather than when a public radio station’s program director chooses to run it.

Many years ago, the FCC started granting non-commercial radio licenses. It was a wonderful thing – an appropriate amount of our radio spectrum – a public resource – was set aside for non-commercial purposes. Over time, these non-commercial stations began to distribute the programming of various content production and distribution services including National Public Radio among others.

As I understand it, a typical public radio station’s budget includes fees paid for each of us listeners having real-time “over the air” access to this content — along with all of the other expenses involved with operating and maintaining an on-the-air FCC-licensed radio property.

As we move forward into the podcasting world, we can begin to see how this “legacy” content creation and distribution model of public radio might have to shift. Public radio audiences will begin to shrink, as radio audiences generally have done. Their ability to raise membership fees may be impacted as fewer listeners choose to support their legacy broadcast model – which can be thought of as “come listen to the programs on my schedule, not yours!” They may also end up suffering soon as a result of proposed Congressional reductions in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which funds, on average, about fifteen percent of local NPR member public radio station budgets.

The smart public radio stations will see what’s coming — and embrace the changes. They’ll make their original content, to the extent they still have any, available via a distribution model similar to what Doug’s now proposing. If you want it quickly, pay for speed (one-time or membership options available, thank you). Share the revenues generated with all of the stakeholders responsible for getting that content to the listener. Alternatively, other stations might make today’s or this week’s or last week’s content available for free – with archive access perhaps requiring a fee or an annual membership. Maybe we’ll finally have an access control reason to subscribe during those inane public radio pledge drives!

The big gorilla, NPR, has some serious thinking to do here. It’s under assault not just by podcasting but by satellite radio. Ultimately, I think the bigger threat is podcasting — but the more immediate one may be Bob Edwards on the bird. How they decide to address the podcasting threat/opportunity will be very interesting to watch. Whether they decide to “go direct” to the listener and cut out their long-time local public radio affiliates will be an important test. While more efficient, I’d prefer to see them continue to keep their partners in the financial loop — enabling me, for example, to buy an MP3 podcast of today’s Fresh Air via my new form KQED membership that let’s me feel good about listening real-time over the car radio but gives me unlimited access to audio content archives when I’m looking for great stuff to tuck into my iPod for that long trip to China. We shall see.

Some automation of all of this payment and access control would be wonderful – and seems ultimately required for all of this to work right. Apple, with its new iTunes podcasting support now deployed on zillions of both Windows and Mac desktops, appears to be in a superb position to be this broker.

Apple could sign up content providers (including both KQED, Doug Kaye and NPR), support the various access control policies and user fee collection options, manage the annual subscriptions, etc. – and collect a sliver of the revenues along the way. Ideally, it would also manage the fee distribution splits among the various parties involved in bringing all of this content to life in my earphones – at a time when I want to listen to it.

Potential future metaphor:

iTunes is to podcasting as PayPal is to eBay.

As has been said many times before, we certainly do live in interesting times! And, can video (think The Newshour with Jim Lehrer or Charlie Rose) be far behind?