March 14 2008, 9:11 AM
National Public Radio is struggling with the question of whether to make more of its popular news programs available by downloadable podcasts, a technology that is increasingly popular with listeners, but could undercut local affiliates who use those programs for fund-raising.
"The fear in its raw form is that NPR will market itself directly to consumers and â€¦ and completely eclipse their local stations," says media consultant Michael Marcotte, a former San Diego public-radio news director. The debate within NPR became public last week after the network's board fired CEO Ken Stern. Mr. Stern, who'd been in charge for 18 months, had pushed NPR to offer its news through mediums other than terrestrial radio. News reports blamed the firing on Stern's embrace of technology initiatives, but NPR officials deny that. A larger factor, says Mr. Marcotte, may have been Stern's inability to persuade member stations to trust his plans for delivering programming via technology other than old-fashioned radio. Whatever the reason for his removal, the venerable news network with hundreds of member stations is facing challenges. While NPR's listener base has jumped this decade to some 30 million people a week, people are listening to radio overall less than in the past. It's unclear how people will listen to NPR in five or 10 years and whether it can carve out a place amid iPods, cellphones, and whatever hot new gadget awaits.It's an issue that's causing sleepless nights beyond the radio industry. Several Denver TV execs have told me about their fears that online viewing of prime-time network shows will cut into the audiences for the local ads they sell into the broadcast versions of those shows. Which explains why stations like 9News are expanding their local news offerings -- it gives them more ad slots to sell to Dealin' Doug and Jake Jabs.