Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why Public Radio Hates Public Transportation

In the early years of this low, mean decade (to paraphrase Auden), while all hell was breaking loose in New York City, Washington, DC and other parts of the world, a curious media event was occurring. While audiences drifted away (or fled, in some cases) from mainstream media, public radio enjoyed a renaissance of unprecedented proportions.

To be precise, it wasn't really a renaissance, since "renaissance" means literally RE-birth. In a way the doubling of the public radio audience between 2000 and 2005 was more of a birth or a genesis that anything else.

Public radio always had a core audience which allowed for the stations (about 900 of them) to continue to exist on a combination of listener support, federal largesse (not very "large") and corporate underwriting. No one got rich working in public radio, but for the most part, no one really expected to.

The incredible boom in public radio began its remarkable growth (now around 30 million listeners) at the turn of the millennium because of a combination of circumstances. There were a few visionaries in public radio management who made some excellent decisions about the Internet and focusing public radio's resources into news instead of cultural programming. There were also some stupid and short-sighted decisions by commercial broadcasters. There was also some plain dumb luck (Mrs. Kroc's $250 million donation to NPR comes to mind).

The reasons are fascinating for those of us of this wonkish inclinations.
But there is one aspect that deserves a little mulling - the complex relationship of Americans and their automobiles. People who were stuck in their cars during their long commutes to and from work were captives of NPR programs. After all, there is only so much of Blue Oyster Cult that can be endured.

During my stint as NPR's Ombudsman (2000-2006), I noticed that a lot of email came in around 9 am local time. I concluded that listeners who heard the program in their cars would arrive at the office, steamed about something they had heard. They turned on their computers and fired off an email usually to express some level of exasperation about NPR's "Morning Edition."

I would receive emails of a similar nature in the late afternoon and early evening. But the volume was less (even if the intensity was similar). That's because once people got home, when faced with the choice of launching an email or downing a cocktail, they frequently chose the latter.

For an Ombudsman, this was the best of times. On more days than I care to remember, I was in the middle of a veritable hailstorm of emails about one issue or another.

But a column in the Toronto Globe and Mail by Richard Florida leads me to think that those days of email heaven (and hell) might soon end. Florida is the author of "Who's Your City?" and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. He's also one of the more interesting thinkers about how cities work, don't work and could work.

Florida writes that $4 plus for a gallon of gasoline will change the way people live in some unexpected ways, including an end of suburban sprawl as people rethink the value of long commutes. He thinks that in the not too distant future, people will rethink and revisit the idea of living downtown.

Among other consequences of that idea will be the end of the public radio listeners, stuck in their cars and the growth of the public radio audience (already flat for the past couple of years) may soon end as dramatically as it began.

I always got a cheap laugh when I said that NPR's success was based partly on the listeners' addiction to their cars and that there would be trouble if people decided to start taking the bus. Hence "public radio hates public transportation."

But that scenario is now upon us with a vengeance and listenership is only one of the places where the collateral damage of this decade will fall.

2 comments:

  1. Your commentary ignores one important truth: a lot of radios don't come with cars attached to them.
    Commuters who use overground transport (e.g. buses and above-ground trains) can listen on portable radios. Those who travel on underground transit systems can listen to podcasts.
    One could even argue that the transit crowd comprise even more attentive listeners than their car-bound counterparts, who (hopefully) are dedicating a good portion of their attention to what's happening on the road in front of them.
    Those of us who use transit are no less "stuck" than those who are stuck in their cars. It's not like we have knitting groups and coffee klatches on the bus. Everyone is in his/her own world usually, reading the paper or listening to a portable radio/MP3 player, etc.
    It's important for public radio to tell listeners who are abandoning their cars for public transit that yes, they can take public radio with them.

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  2. Good point. I hope public radio is surveying to see how often news programs are being downloaded. I'll see what I can find out.

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