NPR steps back from the future

We’ve chatted in this space a number of times about the future of terrestrial radio — public radio in particular — in an age where more people are getting their audio stimulation from podcasts.

There’s probably nothing that creates more tension in radio these days than the subject of podcasting.

So it’s illustrative that NiemanLab has pulled the curtain away a bit to reveal the depth to which this tension exists between NPR and, reportedly, the local public radio organizations (not MPR, for the record, we’re all about podcasts).

The kerfuffle started anew yesterday when NPR updated its ethics policy to tell its radio announcers to stop promoting podcasts, an interesting directive considering that a lot of smart people think podcasting is the future of radio.

It is, as I wrote last year, the moment when the way things are collides with the way things are going to be.

– No Call to Action:We won’t tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them. No mentions of, iTunes, Stitcher, NPR One, etc.


“That’s Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and our blogger on the same subject and Bob Mondello, NPR’s film critic. Thanks so much.


“OK, everyone. You can download Alt.Latino from iTunes and, of course, via the NPR One app.

– Informational, not Promotional: When referring to podcasts, and the people who host, produce, or contribute to them, we will mention the name of the podcast but not in a way that explicitly endorses it. References should not specifically promote the content of the podcast (e.g., “This week, the Politics Podcast team digs into delegate math.”) If you feel a podcast title needs explaining (e.g. Hidden Brain), some additional language can be added (e.g., “That’s Shankar Vedantam, he hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It’s called, Hidden Brain” ). Just to repeat: Be creative in how you back announce podcasts, but please avoid outright promotion.

– No NPR One: For now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.

There will be exceptions to these rules, but when in doubt let these principles be your guide.

Joshua Benton at NeimanLab sees a parallel here with other long-time institutions that tried to ignore the inevitable technological change at their doorstep:

The most optimistic way to look at this is that a radio listener is more valuable on average to NPR than a digital listener, and NPR does not want to convert any of Group A into Group B. This is no doubt true, today, in 2016. But it was also true, in earlier days of the web (and still today!), that a print newspaper reader is more valuable than a digital newspaper reader. I remember heated debates in the late 1990s and early 2000s about whether or not newspapers should mention or promote their websites in print. I think that approach is shortsighted — as it turns out, people found out about the web even without newspapers printing URLs in 2002! — but at least there’s a certain internal logic to it.

The less optimistic way to look at this — and what I suspect is the correct way — is that it’s just that station dynamic playing out again. That would be a clear sign that there’s a real strategy tax at work here. Unfamiliar with the idea of a strategy tax? One definition:

A strategy tax is anything that makes a product less likely to succeed, yet is included to further larger corporate goals.

The classic example is Steve Ballmer-era Microsoft, where lots of unusual product decisions were made because Nothing Could Be Done That Might Weaken Microsoft Windows.

“I have enormous sympathy for the people making these decisions at NPR — just as I had enormous sympathy for those working through an analogous set of questions at newspapers 5 or 10 years ago,” Benton writes. “But if you see a future, at a certain point you’ve got to commit to getting there.”

The problem for NPR is that the future is already here.

Keep in mind the comment earlier this year from Jad Abumrad, the creator of RadioLab.

“I don’t know a single 20-year-old who has a radio,” he told PBS NewsHour.

Check back in a few years when a lot of darkened radio stations are wondering what the heck happened.

Reaction: Prudent? Out of touch? Reactions vary to NPR guidelines on podcast promo (Current)

Related radio: Streaming media: Where the creativity goes to thrive (NewsCut)

NPR, radio at a dangerous intersection (NewsCut)