The Pubradio Files, Part 1: The rise of public radio
(This is the first of three essays on the state of public radio. The second will look at the consequences of public radio’s recent successes. In part three, I will offer some ideas for a more relevant, vibrant public radio. As someone with nearly 20 years of experience in the field, I think I have some insight to offer. Hope so, anyway.
Previously, I wrote “There Is No Spit in Cremo!” which discussed the original concept of radio as a public service and its rapid descent into commercialism. In an attempt at drollery, I dubbed that essay “part zero” in the series.)
Back in the 1940s, all the big commercial broadcasters were on AM radio. Hard to imagine, I know. FM radio was in its infancy, it had very few listeners, and no one yet realized its potential as a superior broadcast medium. That didn’t happen until the late 1960s.
So in the ’40s, when the government set aside the lower end of the FM dial (from 88-92) for “educational” broadcasting, commercial broadcasters didn’t really care. Without that decision, we wouldn’t have any kind of public radio today; FM “real estate” is far too valuable to let any of its profit potential go to waste.
For its first couple of decades in existence, “educational broadcasting” was largely a backwater. Most licenses were held by colleges and universities, and operated in accordance with their educational mission. They didn’t really care how many people listened. And relatively few did. The bulk of the programming was classical music.
This began to change in 1970 when National Public Radio was established. The following year, NPR created All Things Considered, its afternoon news and information program. In 1979, Morning Edition went on the air. Those programs attracted an audience eager for serious news on the radio, and soon displaced other offerings from the prime hours of radio — “drive time,” roughly 6-8 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Those are the peak ratings hours for all radio stations.
My own broadcasting career began in the mid-1970s, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. A couple of internships at the university’s public radio station led to a part-time job after I graduated.
At the time, Michigan Radio was a congenial place to work. Staffers received generous pay and benefits, and were given wide latitude in doing their jobs. A few seized the opportunity and did some unique, exciting programs. Some, on the other hand, became too comfortable. They did minimal work, churning out pretty much the same stuff every day.
But the biggest force for change was Ronald Reagan. When he became President, he made large cuts in funding for public radio and television. This forced local stations to become more entrepreneurial, seeking funds from listeners, corporations, and foundations. This meant that they had to pay more attention to their audience.
Michigan Radio was hit from multiple directions. The energy crisis of the late ’70s delivered a big blow to the US auto industry, and hence to Michigan’s economy. All three of Michigan Radio’s major funding sources — federal, state, and University — were cut at almost the same time. In the ensuing budget crunch, several staffers were laid off. Including me.
The Reagan cutbacks, along with the early success of NPR’s daily news programs, set public radio on the course it has followed to this day. Stations needed listeners. The number-one attraction: NPR. From the early 80s onward, public radio gradually shifted away from music and cultural offerings and toward news and information. Also, away from local programming and toward higher-quality, higher-cost national programming.
This trend accelerated in the early ’90s, when NPR launched a full weekday schedule of news and information programming. The consistent format was an attractive proposition for stations that were hamstrung by mixed schedules of news and music: every time a station shifted from one to the other, there was an almost complete turnover in the audience.
This was a huge problem for stations becoming ever more dependent on donor support. The magic words for public radio fundraising are “time spent listening” (TSL). If you listen more than a certain number of hours per week (roughly 8-10 hours, last time I checked), you are very likely to donate. If your TSL is lower, you are very unlikely to give.
If a station wants to boost audience and TSL, a consistent format is a must. Since the news format was invariably more popular than music, the choice was clear.
Through the 1980s, Michigan Radio gradually, and rather grudgingly, adjusted to these new realities. But its finances continued to erode, eventually reaching a critical stage. In 1995, new management was brought in. The following year, most of the old staffers were let go and the station dropped classical music in favor of NPR’s news and information schedule.
I had rejoined Michigan Radio in 1993 after several years in commercial radio. I was, I believe, the only on-air regular who fully survived the 1996 transition to the new format. I stayed there until 2000, when my wife and I moved to New England.
Meanwhile, commercial radio had virtually abandoned any kind of news and information programming. Most commercial stations don’t even pretend to offer any news. Even the so-called “news” stations do little or no original newsgathering; their news departments largely consist of anchors, ripping and reading copy from the Associated Press or lifted from newspapers and websites. Into this massive breach stepped NPR, offering high-quality news that towered above the meager efforts of commercial stations and networks. NPR had a clear field. And it was a very fertile field; news listeners tend to be well-educated, affluent, and inclined to become donors.
In many markets, public radio stations are very competitive in the ratings race. In some markets, the public station is actually #1. And thanks to the affluence and loyalty of its audience, public radio has become a fundraising powerhouse — especially in large markets. Most public radio stations have become highly professionalized operations, becoming more and more separate from their roots in higher education.
Public radio has done (and still does) wonderful things. It provides an absolutely unique service to our social dialogue and our political system with its serious and objective news coverage. By and large, it has used its success wisely, making significant investments in its programming. It has also done better than many traditional media outlets in adjusting to the Internet age, providing supplemental material to its broadcast offerings and plenty of original stuff as well. This is, in most respects, a golden age of public radio.
But success has its consequences. I’ll explore those in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned.