Public Radio Wrestles with Digital Future

I love NPR, and public radio, as much as anyone, but I have some qualms with the way its material is shared, or not, on the web. I understand (unlike some, apparrently) that public radio is operating with limited resources and that the shift from a broadcast to a My Time model is a complicated one. Furthermore, I understand that NPR’s web strategy is complicated by the question of how to integrate member stations and that many well-intentioned people much smarter than I are working hard to ensure that public radio’s values thrive in this new world. But there is something ridiculous about breaking a significant story while keeping in the dark the vast majority of the world that didn’t happen to be listening to the radio at the right moment.

Last month, I heard Scott Simon on Weekend Edition refer to an NPR report alleging, once again, that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs. He made the story the centerpiece of both his commentary as well as the sports segment of the show, but I missed the report itself. I visited, and the Weekend Edition page, which informed me that “A listing of today’s stories will be posted at approx. 8:00 a.m. ET.” Two hours later, there was still no mention of the story. Isn’t there a way to share material, especially breaking news, so I don’t have to base my life around Scott Simon’s schedule?

While whining about NPR and its web strategy, I thought I should revisit Mixed Signals, the NPR blog. (It doesn’t mention the Armstrong story, either.) Most of the posts appear to have attracted no comments. (An exception is this story about the look for a new obbudsman in light of Jeffrey Dvorkin’s departure.) Speculation why the lack of participation:

  • NPR maintains an oddly-crafted comments policy: “Comments are reviewed and edited by NPR prior to display. All comments will be read, but not all will be posted.” No, plenty of us review comments before they are posted, but this makes the blog sound more like letters to the editor than a two-way conversation.


  • There’s an off-putting legalistic addendum at the end of the comments section with a link to a lengthy terms of use policy:

NPR reserves the right to read on the air and/or publish on its Web site or in any medium now known or unknown the e-mails and letters that we receive. We may edit them for clarity or brevity and identify authors by name and location. For additional information, please consult our Terms of Use.

  • There is no clear way to imbed html in the comments– so we don’t really know who the commentators are, nor can they easily point to other places. Also, no trackbacks—shouldn’t every NPR story have a trackback?
  • NPR seems to shift their blogger every few days. I understand group blogs, there are some good ones, but they require a sense of community that Mixed Signals has yet to develop.

Lucky for me and others concerned that public radio makes it in the digital era, NPR has convened the Digital Distribution Consortium (DDC), a six-member working group tasked, says Jake Shapiro, to “think through digital distribution services that would benefit from a greater degree of coordination across the system.” As part of its transparent process, the DDC and has started a wiki, while Todd Mundt of Michigan Public Radio and Jake Shapiro of Public Radio Exchange are blogging the meetings. Jake describes the group’s first week of work:

We’ve decided to organize our efforts by writing a business plan for an ‘entity’ that would perform these services, describing the markets it would target, its products and services, revenue model, competitive position, strategic partners, risks, technology and operational needs, expenses and investment requirements — a full picture.

We’ve agreed that the character of the service is ‘enabling’: it should help a wide variety of stations, networks, producers, and other partners offer digital content to existing and new audiences across multiple platforms in innovative ways. It should leverage the collective assets of a more broadly defined public media field to create a significant presence online, increased relevance and engagement with audiences, and new sources of revenue.




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