Dispute between radio station and This American Life is fight for public radio’s soul

The fight between public radio stations and developing technology spilled into the open again today when an Indiana station said it will stop carrying This American Life because Ira Glass has cut a deal with Pandora to provide exclusive on-demand streaming. Public Radio stations can still stream the shows live on their websites.

Mike Savage, the GM at the station in Lafayette, Indiana, says the deal is inconsistent with the mission of Public Radio.

“I am all for improving the bottom line, however we as public radio leaders must keep the balance between mission and bottom line in the forefront,” he writes. “If all we wanted to do was grow the audience, we could change our formats to country music and accomplish that objective. We must respect the mission. Does the ends justify the means? For a program that got its start on public radio and had some of the best on-air fundraising messages for listeners where Ira Glass says he is volunteering his time because he believes in the mission of public broadcasting, the move by This American Life to Pandora is disingenuous at best.”

Savage, who is on NPR’s Board of Directors, says he will pull This American Life from his station in August.

The action appears to mirror the rationale for NPR’s decision to stop mentioning its podcasts on-air, because some stations worry that people will stop listening to terrestrial radio and listen to podcasts and streaming instead.

That, as one might imagine, is not sitting well with Ira Glass, the host of TAL, who said in a reply on Savage’s LinkedIn page that making money isn’t incompatible with public radio, and doing so won’t hurt the medium that gave Glass his start.

Mike has asked, what do member stations get out of it, when a show like ours generates revenue from Pandora and from elsewhere outside the system? My answer is: better programming. The money we’ve made from podcast advertising and from Pandora is money we’ve invested in our core product: making more ambitious, mission-driven shows. Because of that money, I’m able to fly five producers to refugee camps in Greece at the end of this month. Because of that money, we were able to send three reporters for five months into a high school that’d had over two dozen shootings in a year (stories that later won the Peabody). Because of that money, I can have one producer work for over five months full-time with the Marshall Project and ProPublica on an episode about rape (which won them the Pulitzer) or Nikole Hannah-Jones’s and Chana Joffe-Walt’s three programs on the re-segregation of American schools (winner of a Peabody this year). The money we make elsewhere, we use to do more in-depth reporting. To do stories we never could’ve afforded for the first decade we were on the air.

But Savage says he’s not against podcasting. He’s against Pandora.

Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation is. In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandoras main goals to put traditional radio out of business. So if I am concerned that core content like TAL which has really defined public radio for many years is now available on a purely commercial platform as Ira says to reach a larger audience, you’ll have to forgive me for being protective of public radio’s mission driven service.

The disagreement has sparked quite a discussion on Savage’s page that also gets to the one thing that makes public radio news veterans nervous: Money.

“I think of the musical nostalgia fundraisers on public TV, for example, pre-empting Frontline,” Judith Smelser, a pubmedia journalist, writes. “That’s a break in the trust. It’s cynical, it’s a short sell, and it’s the beginning of the end. We haven’t done that yet in public radio. But the risk of dedicating ourselves primarily to fulfilling metrics or budgets is always there.”