A recent article in Wired News discusses the difficulties podcasting is creating for NPR. With free podcasts finally becoming more common for NPR programming, more and more listeners are turning to them in order to listen to their shows whenever they want, and in some cases to avoid pledge drives. The latter is the real issue, because the NPR affiliate stations depend on donations in order to fund their programming.
"Unfortunately, in a typical market only 8 percent of the audience become members of their station, so if you erode that even to 7 percent or 6 percent because they're not getting the shows through the terrestrial station, that's not a good business model," says Paul Marszalek, a radio industry expert who consults with dozens of public and private radio stations. "There is not a single person on the local affiliate level who has not expressed some level of trepidation."
The cool thing is that NPR’s response is not to freak out and declare podcasting evil, but to change their business model. NPR is underwriting all their podcasts and is proposing to build a central directory for all affiliate stations and distributing funds to the producing stations, based off of ad revenue.
While all that may sound well and good, I’m pretty concerned about the idea of NPR becoming more intrinsically tied with commercial ad revenue. It seems to me that it would make more sense to run the pledge drives in the podcasts as well and use the directory as a centralized pledge site. Each pledge would be associated with a particular show (just like the affiliates do during fund raising), and those funds would then be distributed to the producing station. This can still cause problems for the smaller affiliate stations that can’t afford to produce as much content, and rely on purchasing programming from other stations. I don’t know what can be done about that.
It is great to see that NPR is working to adapt to this new medium, but I really hope that they don’t stray to far from a donation based system.