The Future of Radio 

With technology changing how we consume information, will public radio have a voice in the world of tomorrow?

Kevin Klose, the president and CEO of National Public Radio visited Idaho last week. Boise Weekly caught up with him to ask a few questions.

Boise Weekly: NPR and public radio has traditionally been the alternative to commercial radio. But as technology is evolving, how is NPR changing to adapt to new technology? Specifically, what about satellite radio?

Kevin Klose: We actually are on two channels on Sirius satellite radio and they provide to listeners an aggregation of the best of a number of high quality interviews and talk shows that are not heard nationally.

So it's a different kind of programming than what you would hear on local public radio?

Yeah, it's different. But it also includes some of the great standards. It includes Car Talk and Fresh Air, and A Prarie Home Companion.

Have you heard of any fear or concerns of competition coming from any of the member radio stations?

These separate platforms, which any program producer or program distributor can put their material on, have been around for a long time. In effect, as it is called in this part of the industry, it is a bypass issue. And NPR or other program producers-PRI, even a number of stations-are providing content directly to satellite, irrespective of their colleagues in public radio elsewhere. What they want, and what we all want to do, is have the values of public radio available to satellite listeners. We can't control who is going to listen, but we want the extraordinary relationships that public radio has with its listeners to be available to people that go on satellite.

Traditionally, local stations have gotten their membership and funding through local fundraising drives, and some of that money is redirected back to NPR for programming fees. Are the subscribers to satellite radio going to circumvent locally raised membership dollars and support for local stations?

Every time there is a new platform, Americans have shown to some extent that they will go use that platform. They may use what they were using before, stay with their traditional basis, but they may go sample other things. Millions of people now get their news over the Internet who never did before, because the Internet didn't exist. When people started to provide high quality or headline news over the Internet, people went there. That is one of the reasons. Unfortunately, daily newspaper readership is dropping all over the country.

For our stations we have made a compact. The long poles in the tent of public radio are two programs produced by National Public Radio: Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Morning Edition has about 13 million listeners a week, which makes it, in the morning hours, anywhere in this country, the most listened-to radio program in America, without a challenge. Across all the day parts, it is the second most listened-to program right behind Rush Limbaugh. All things Considered has above 11 million listeners a week and this is the third or fourth most listened-to radio program in America. There is nothing else in public radio that comes near them. The next thing in line, as far as listenership, is maybe Marketplace,[which is] early equaled by Car Talk.

So what we've agreed to with our stations, and it is our view, is that as long as these programs are available everywhere, that is to say they're widely carried across the whole country, there are no public service gains by putting them on satellite.

What about the Internet? Increasing numbers of people have been listening to NPR programs by downloading the programs from the NPR site and then listening to them at their leisure. Has that changed listenership?

There are some stations that are podcasting, reaching out beyond their normal audiences to podcast. That is different from streaming on the Internet. It is a different technology. We stream our daily programs after they have last been heard over the air. So, again, it is in the same sense that as long as they are available virtually everywhere over the air first, there is no point on putting them online concurrently. We also have enormous amounts of material archived that is available via listeners online, either through member station websites or through to npr.org.

Have you been able to track usage online?

Yes, the usage is going through the roof. It's now about 5 million user visits per month. We believe that is quite significant for the economical way which we approach the Internet.

With our own website we notice that more and more people use the Internet to spend time with the stories, preferring to read them online.

We have the same view. Since NPR audibles are searchable on the Web, making content available to listeners on demand, it is responsive to the on-demand generation-which keeps rising. What we know is that a lot of people come to the Web site to supplement what they have heard on headlines somewhere else, the Internet, over the air or by satellite. Because of what our specialty is-fact-based, contextual journalism-people are looking for "What's that headline about?" Or "I heard about an interview which I didn't hear myself." But they want to get to it, because they want to participate in the NPR experience.

What about the Internet? Increasing numbers of people have been listening to NPR programs by downloading the programs from the NPR site and then listening to them at their leisure. Has that changed listenership?

There are some stations that are podcasting, reaching out beyond their normal audiences to podcast. That is different from streaming on the Internet. It is a different technology. We stream our daily programs after they have last been heard over the air. So, again, it is in the same sense that as long as they are available virtually everywhere over the air first, there is no point on putting them online concurrently. We also have enormous amounts of material archived that is available via listeners online, either through member station websites or through to npr.org.

It was big news when the estate of Joan Croc, of the McDonald's fortune, donated $200 million to NPR. What has been happening with the money? What are the plans? Have the plans changed from what the original plans to use the money for?

Mrs. Croc made two requests to us. The larger one is in the range of $195 million. That was to go in to a restricted endowment, the principal of which cannot be spent and must be preserved. And so if we're smart about it we can actually make it grow. It would produce income from investments and we can use the income to offset costs to NPR international. That flows downstream, offsetting costs to stations. We've been able to expand our operations without significant extra charges to stations.

The other part of it, about $33 or $34 million, went to NPR, the corporation for its cash reserves.

So you're increasing what you are able to provide to local member stations?

Yes. For example, in Baghdad, we've used some of the income from this extraordinary and visionary bequest from Mrs. Croc, we've used some of the revenue to take very focused steps to increase the security of our reporters and producer. Typically we have two or three reporters plus a field producer on the ground in Baghdad. Because of the wholesale decline in the security situation across Iraq, we've had to make four changes of where our operations are located in Baghdad. We've moved four times to increasingly more secure places. We also have taken other measures in the way of getting advice from international security firms and training for our staff going in to make sure they are as safe as best as we can-nobody can be sure of anything in Baghdad. But we've taken every step that is practical to make sure they are secure there. We've always tried to be very discrete in our activities in Iraq-try to float in the sea without standing out. And these measures, which I won't get in to, have been very costly. We feel enormously gratified that these kinds of resources are available to us to take these measures. Because the last time-to cover the first Gulf war in '91- NPR management went to member stations and asked them for a special wartime coverage supplemental payment to cover us. So we're in a different place now.

Over the years the percentage of NPR's budget which the stations, which have been the principal component of our income, has gone down. Twelve years ago in the 90s, the station component of the NPR budget was in the range of 70 percent of our income. Now they are down near the 50 percent level. Most of the Joan Croc bequests have come to us in the form of capital preservation treasury notes. That is slowly being converted very carefully to a variety of investment funds of various kinds. We expect that that process-which will take nearly another year to complete-as the money moves around to more income oriented investments, the flow of income will rise into the NPR stream of income. As that happens, we believe the station percentage of our costs will continue to decline. And that is to the advantage of every station. The more money that stays home to build their service to their local communities-in addition to the service that they provide to their listenership through our programming-the more that can be focused locally. We'll all be better.

Across this country-as you well know, broadcast and cable, so called "news media"-a lot of substantive local reporting is not occurring. And NPR members stations-to the credit of the extraordinary non-profit, independent, autonomous collection of community radio stations that are voluntarily NPR stations-have shouldered the responsibility for reporting in their communities such things as bond issues, city council elections, county council elections, even congressional elections. That has disappeared basically in any substantive way, I believe, from much of our commercial brethren because they have other issues they have to respond to.

My secretary just came back from maternity leave and has a four-month-old daughter. And I'm thinking, what is this democracy that this four-month-old baby will grow up into? What are we to be in terms of bringing fact-based journalism, fact-based reporting and a search for common ground to this country? When this baby is 17, 20, 25, what is going to be left behind? I'll tell you what will be left behind if we're lucky. Public radio will be left behind, doing a job others have turned away from.

What can both the people who access NPR on the Internet and the local listeners of public radio can expect from NPR in the future?

First of all, lets start with basic radio listeners, which is where the bulk of our support is from. NPR and the member stations are at the forefront of technological change in radio transmission.

In 1979 you were the first to distribute to memberstations your programs.

Yes, we got off the phone lines. But what is coming next is HD radio, which is digital radio transmission. We and our member stations have proven to the FCC that as this digital pipe emerges and analogue transmission-which is the way radio is transmitted now in this country-transitions to digital transmission, we have shown to the FCC that we can multiplex down the pipe. In other words we can put two or more non-interfering channels into the same frequency. It's amazing. Nobody was interested in this. The commercial side was utterly disinterested. They didn't want to go through the rigmarole of having new competition with each other.

So you could double the number of stations in a market?

You can double the service to a market on the same frequency. There are also some other things that were once difficult outriders. There are about 275 member stations, but over 100 have voluntary services that take a subcarrier on the analogue frequency that can carry voice in a very restricted way that doesn't interfere with the main frequency. The radio that you have is not filtered to pick up that frequency. But if you were vision impaired, or blind, and couldn't read the daily paper, how would you get the paper? You would have to have somebody read it to you. Well, these radio-reading services read the paper every day. The listeners have to have special receivers that are costly because they aren't a huge market. And these radios won't pick up the normal frequency. So they have to have two radios if they want to hear their local radio station. So that's a double cost for those people who are often at the lower end of the economic sector, because being vision impaired they often don't have the same resources and are more likely to be in need of social services.

What has happened because of digital audio transmission-and our proof to the FCC that you can put multiple signals down the channel- is that in a few years we'll be able to merge in one receiver these various kinds of services. So you would have KXYZ channel one, channel two would be radio reading services, on one single radio, on one frequency, just flip it around and get two ... three channels. This is hugely important. And what is going to happen when that goes forward is that the use of these services for the vision impaired will rise exponentially across the country because people aren't using it now due to the costs of the receivers. And there are many people who aren't vision impaired. They are dyslexic or they have attention deficit disorder and they can't read a newspaper. But they can get it in audio. This is another piece coming out of our leadership in what we call HD radio. This is all going to come about in the next ten years.

Are there any new programs in store? I know you started up the Tavis Smiley Show for a while and he left.

We had him on for three years and we were in the midst of negotiating a follow-up contract and he quit. We were a little surprised because we were in negotiations. We would not have been in negotiations if it were a negative relationship. He has his own trajectory, his own arc of where he wants to get. We were together for three years and now were not. We wish him well going forward.

We have a successor program called News & Notes with Ed Gordon, a program of interview and perspective and news reporting. The host is Ed Gordon, an African-American who was Tavis' predecessor at Black Entertainment Television. He is well known in our line of work for having an interview with Trent Lott in which the Senator-who was then majority leader-expressed the opinion that Strom Thurman should have been elected president in 1948. And that led to his being replaced as majority leader. Ed Gordon is a smart, thoughtful-deeply thoughtful-host. We are very pleased to have his show. It's on about 85 stations.

Other programs, you know about Day to Day our new midday program. We have two great initiatives inside existing programs. One is called This I believe, which is ... back in the 50s, Edward R. Murrow did two years of brief, spot, in-depth interviews with Americans of all walks of life. They expressed their views about what it was to be an American. It was generally known as the "This I Believe series" with a great producer named Jay Allison. We're going to be doing interviews at all levels of society, in every part of it, with individuals who live in this country, citizens or not.

Another remarkable independent producer named David Isay, a former McArthur Genius Grant fellow, has been a great independent producer for us. He operates out of New York but most of his content is on NPR. He has created something called StoryCorps, he is going to be traveling around the country in two Airstreams [trailers]. About two years ago he got a grant in association with the Library of Congress, creating remarkable segments in which cross-generational conversation occurs facilitated by a practiced radio producer. So you get grandma and grandson together for the first time without the parents in the way talking about what it was like to grow up in 1925. Some of these vignettes have already been on our air. This will be on Morning Edition in a regular slot starting in May. What will happen is that we will-with David's assistance in selecting them-take these interviews and put them on Morning Edition. The bulk of them will go to the Library of Congress for the oral history of the United States project. We're very proud to be a platform for this nationally. It's very moving. We've had some of these already. Last Valentine's Day a grandmother was telling her grandchild about when she got her first valentine.

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