NPR's Growing Clout Alarms Member Stations
By LYNETTE CLEMETSON
Published: August 30, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 - With a newly robust endowment burning holes in its
not-for-profit pockets, National Public Radio is in the midst of a major
expansion. But NPR's ambition has stirred anxiety within the public
radio system over how to preserve the character and financial viability
of local stations in the ever larger shadow of the national production
service they created more than 30 years ago as a modest support
NPR, a member organization governed in part by local stations, is
pumping $15 million into its news division over the next three years,
using interest from a recent bequest of more than $236 million from Joan
B. Kroc, the widow of Ray A. Kroc of McDonald's. NPR executives have
touted the expansion as unmatched in a time of media cutbacks and
But at a meeting earlier this month in Los Angeles between NPR
executives and station managers from the top 25 radio markets to discuss
cultivating future major gifts, the NPR team faced a flurry of pointed
questions about its long-term intentions.
Among the questions, according to several station representatives: Was
NPR trying to woo away coveted local donors? What, if anything, would
NPR give to member stations from the Kroc endowment? And what about
rumors that NPR was considering taking its top-rated shows to satellite
"The local stations created NPR as a newsgathering organization for us,"
said Alan Chartock, president and chief executive of WAMC Northeast
Public Radio, a regional network that serves seven states from
Pennsylvania to Vermont. "If the tail is now wagging the dog to
literally compete with us, then we have to protect ourselves."
Kevin Klose, the president and chief executive of NPR, said it was
merely responding to an increased appetite for the type of wide-ranging,
in-depth news that public radio can provide. NPR's audience has doubled
in the past 10 years to roughly 22 million listeners a week, according
"We want to be the authoritative source for broadcast journalism in this
country," Mr. Klose said, "the place people go to first."
The first fruits of the expansion will become evident soon. To cover
more breaking news and to provide more investigative and analytical
reporting, NPR is spending $4 million this year for everything from
domestic beat reporters to expanded foreign bureaus to pricey satellite
telephones that transmit higher quality sound.
Many public radio executives contend that NPR's growth offers potential
benefits for all players. While people are spending less time listening
to radio over all, public radio's share of radio listenership is up,
from roughly 1 percent 20 years ago to more than 5 percent of all
listeners today, according to the Station Resource Group, a public radio
strategy and analysis organization.
Much of the anxiety about NPR's growth has less to do with changes at
NPR than with broader changes on the radio landscape.
Satellite radio companies are fast expanding their services to include
channels with public-radio-like content and sensibility. Last month XM
Satellite Radio - the largest satellite operator, with 2.1 million
subscribers - announced that it had hired Bob Edwards, the former host
of NPR's flagship news program "Morning Edition," for a competing
That move sparked fears among public radio stations that NPR, to remain
competitive, might consider offering "Morning Edition" and its other
staple, "All Things Considered," to Sirius Satellite Radio, XM's rival.
The two NPR-produced programs are keys to sustaining listenership and
fund-raising for many public radio stations, which pay millions in
annual dues and programming fees to NPR to support their production.
"These programs have required an enormous public investment," said Ruth
Seymour, general manager of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. "To simply sell
them to a commercial entity is completely against the principles of
NPR has a contract to program two Sirius channels, NPR Talk and NPR Now.
But Mr. Klose said there were no plans to add the top-rated news
programs to its satellite lineup against station wishes. "We will
respond to the will of the system," he said. "And the will of the system
right now is that they should be where they are."
Still, executives at both NPR and the two satellite companies speak of
their continuing flirtation as something that will eventually bloom into
a more serious relationship.
Jay Clark, executive vice president of programming at Sirius, said he
hoped to add NPR's top programs to his schedule "down the line." And XM
is poised to approach NPR when its contract with Sirius expires in 2007.
"I love 'Morning Edition' and 'All Thing Considered,' " said Hugh Panero,
XM's president and chief executive. "I would love, when it becomes
appropriate, to explore having them on XM Satellite Radio, and I hope
NPR would be open to exploring making them available to the largest
As stations confront inevitable changes in the structure and
distribution of public radio, they are also being forced to examine
their own reliance on NPR. While local stations created NPR in 1970 to
act as a centralized producer and distributor to supplement their own
programming, it now provides up to half of the content for many of the
more than 770 stations that make up the country's public radio system.
For years stations have sought to diversify their programming options.
Public Radio International, which was also created by stations and has
become NPR's primary competitor, markets and distributes programs
produced by local stations, like "Marketplace," the popular business and
economics report produced by Minnesota Public Radio, and Michael
Feldman's "Whad'Ya Know," a weekly entertainment show produced by
Wisconsin Public Radio.
This year Minnesota Public Radio moved to strengthen its position as a
content provider by forming American Public Media, which independently
distributes programs like Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion."
But the newer national distributors, too, are changing with the times.
Both Public Radio International and American Public Media are providing
content for satellite radio.
"Listeners are embracing new technologies," said Jim Russell, general
manager of American Public Media West and the creator of "Marketplace."
"If you don't get on the train, it's going to leave the station. It's as
if the makers and users are stretching their arms trying to reach one
another in new ways, and in the middle there are the stations trying to
figure out an economic model to make the new reality work."
To remain viable, many managers say that their local stations must gain
more leverage vis-à-vis NPR by producing and promoting more of the kind
of distinctive, localized programs and segments that help shape public
radio's eclectic character.
"We have to work very hard to make sure NPR sees our relationship as a
joint partnership and an opportunity to work together as opposed to them
being highly resourced and the stations being merely a vehicle to
transmit their programs," said Laura Walker, president and chief
executive of WNYC in New York. "I think the jury is still out as to
whether they get it. But I'm hoping that they will."
After building for years, the imbalance in resources between local
stations and NPR has been exacerbated by the Kroc endowment. The
donation was facilitated by Ms. Kroc's long relationship with her local
public radio station, KPBS in San Diego. The gift, and the future
development that it has made possible, Mr. Klose said, made NPR
executives realize that there should be a joint strategic plan with the
stations to cultivate other major donations.
One idea thrown out by Mr. Klose and others at the meeting in Los
Angeles was to allow NPR to court donors in local markets more directly.
"We may have 22 million listeners, but we can't tell you who they are,"
he said. "The stations have those databases. The Joan Kroc gift
demonstrates that there is potential for fund-raising out there in the
country that we need to explore."
Talk of directly courting local benefactors left many at the meeting
"NPR has had its appetite whet by this gift," said Torey Malatia,
president and general manager of Chicago Public Radio. "It's kind of
stunning to many of us in the system, because having that kind of money
in the endowment is like a dream. But all it's done is create a scramble
for even more. Now they want to know if there is a way to come into
communities to meet people, wine and dine them and get more gifts."
Mr. Malatia and other station managers say that NPR's growth is
ultimately good for the entire public radio system but that it will
require a shift in the way stations and NPR view and work with one
Many in public radio speak of the system as a big, dysfunctional but
close-knit and loyal family. That perspective, Mr. Malatia said, is
perilously out of step with the times.
"NPR has gotten so good that it needs to be managed as a business,
rather than as a familial adjunct to stations," he said. "Many of us
have been caught sleeping, and we have to get moving, so that we can
stand with NPR, each of us doing something distinct, but the sum of
which amounts to an irreplaceable public service."