NPR, radio at a dangerous intersection

Politico Media’s Capital New York has exposed a bit of the tension between podcasters and broadcasters in the public radio realm, including a brewing battle of the generations.

In its article today — “Can NPR seize its moment” — Politico Media reveals a heated meeting that allegedly took place in New York between NPR boss Jarl Mohn, an old-school radio guy, and a reporter for the upstart “Planet Money” podcast.

To this bullish bunch of radio journalists, the podcasting craze was like a lightning bolt that could potentially electrify their workplace.

Mohn, on the other hand, seemed a bit less sanguine—you can’t predict a hit, he told the group—and he found himself fielding tough, skeptical questions.

At first the back and forth was tense but respectful. Then, as Mohn parried with “Planet Money” reporter Zoe Chace, according to four sources who were either present for the meeting or familiar with how it went down, the heat started to rise.

Chace invoked a shift in the music industry in which more young people started becoming exposed to new music digitally than over the air. Mohn asked Chace if she knew how many young people had listened to radio the previous week. No, she didn’t, she said, but that wasn’t the point she was trying to make and—well, that’s pretty much when things went south.

The conversation escalated and Mohn lost his cool, shouting Chace down in front of her colleagues.

“It was intense and charged,” said one of the people who was there. (Chace, who now works for “This American Life,” emphatically declined to comment.)

It was a symbolic moment of the way things are vs. the way things are going to be.

The radio audience for NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition “are on the downswing,” Politico Media says. And the radio audience is getting older for the shows at the network, which has been operating in the red.

These shows are important because they bring in the lion’s share of revenue through annual fees from member stations, which pay to broadcast them with a sprinkling of their own local content mixed in. (The rest of the pie comes from corporate underwriting, fundraising, grants and other sources.) There are no podcasts or mobile apps for “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” reflecting their sacred cow status among members stations who fear that their local listeners might flee if freed from the geographic limitations of radio air, and that their own fundraising could begin to dry up as a result.

Moreover, a large slice of NPR’s audience is aging out slowly but surely. More than half of NPR radio listeners are now over the age of 50, according to the audience measurement firm GfK MRI, and that number has been rising every year. NPR is therefore working to attract younger listeners from the highly coveted, digitally-wired millennial demographic. (The media age of its podcast listeners, according to Edison Research, is 38.)

Podcasting upstarts are becoming magnets for people who’ve left NPR, which is no longer “the only game in town.”

“I’ve been in public radio for almost 25 years, and this is far and away the most exciting time ever,” said Adams Davidson, a Planet Money co-founder. “When I got into the field there was only one career path—work at a local station and hope you get a job at NPR. Now there are so many paths, so many companies to work for, and it’s been a little heartbreaking for those of us who love NPR to see NPR largely sitting on the sidelines of this exciting moment.”

NPR’s defenders point out the network has a few popular podcasts (it also announced a new one yesterday).

But stunning in its absence in the Politico Media analysis is the dismissal of radio technology as a growth medium.

“I understand the frustrations people have. I get it,” said Mohn. “But I can’t just wave a magic wand and say we’re gonna pump the brakes on radio, pump the brakes on the newsmagazines. We have been losing money for six years, and my first job is to right the ship.”