Touring the dial of public radio's future

Seattle lawyer Linda Larson takes the reins of Public Radio International's board, while local stations and the networks battle for dominance in a fast-changing broadcast landscape.
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Linda Larson, a Seattle lawyer and the new board chairwoman of PRI.

Seattle lawyer Linda Larson takes the reins of Public Radio International's board, while local stations and the networks battle for dominance in a fast-changing broadcast landscape.

To most public radio listeners around Puget Sound, it matters little who'ꀙs actually producing the popular shows heard on local stations such as KUOW, KPLU, and KBCS. Clock radios and kitchen receivers bring Morning Edition and Marketplace Morning Report. In the car on the way home it'ꀙs All Things Considered. Doing weekend errands, This American Life, Studio 360, and The Splendid Table fill the miles and minutes between groceries and soccer games. It all comes out of the same speakers.

Beyond the handful of local folks who actually work in public radio, the behind-the-mikes stuff is just so much shoptalk — but not for Seattle lawyer Linda Larson.

Larson, a native of Bellevue and graduate of the University of Washington and UW Law School, is a partner at the Marten Law Group, where she specializes in litigation of environmental issues. She'ꀙs also a longtime public radio enthusiast who was recruited in 2001 to join the board of Public Radio International (PRI). Now, as public radio (and radio in general) faces serious challenges to its survival, Larson has just been elected to a two-year term as chairwoman of the PRI board. (Disclosure: Larson was also an investor and boardmember of Crosscut in an earlier, for-profit incarnation, but has no connection with the site now.)

Larson says her interest in public radio stems from 'ꀜa personal belief that intellectual freedom and access to information is critical to democracy and to having healthy communities and healthy community debate.'ꀝ She was serving on the Seattle Public Library board when she came to the attention of PRI.

Unlike the typical listener, Larson knows that most shows on public radio are produced or distributed by one of three big players. Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio (NPR) is the biggest and best known, producing Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, Wait Wait ... Don'ꀙt Tell Me!, hourly newscasts around the clock, and many more programs, including several heard on both KUOW and KPLU. Though much smaller than NPR, American Public Media, founded in 2004 by Minnesota Public Radio and based in St. Paul, Minn., is best known for distributing the weekly live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, but also produces and distributes such programs as Marketplace, The Splendid Table, and, until it was canceled earlier this year, Weekend America (all heard on KUOW).

PRI, founded in 1983 as American Public Radio, is based in Minneapolis and produces or distributes programs including This American Life (heard locally on KUOW and KPLU), The World (co-produced with WGBH and the BBC and heard on KUOW) and The Takeaway, a relatively new morning program produced in New York in partnership with WNYC and carried in the Seattle area by KBCS 91.3 FM.

There'ꀙs definitely competition between NPR, APM, and PRI, Larson says, and it isn'ꀙt always friendly: 'ꀜIt depends on the day.'ꀝ There'ꀙs also a history of conflict. Minnesota Public Radio and PRI collaborated to develop Marketplace in 1989, but parted ways when Minnesota Public Radio decided to produce and distribute Marketplace on its own. It was then that Minnesota Public Radio created its own distribution network — American Public Media — for its other programs, also previously distributed by PRI.

History aside, the fiercest competition nowadays is for dollars, which means getting as many stations as possible to carry programs. That generates revenue for PRI, NPR, and APM in two ways. First, local stations pay fees in order to carry national programming, so the more local stations that PRI, NPR, or APM can persuade to carry their shows, the more money these producer/distributors can make. Second, in addition to fees paid by stations, the more stations that carry a particular show, the more NPR, APM, or PRI can charge national sponsors.

While PRI and APM programs are evening and weekend fixtures on many public radio stations, NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered have long dominated 'ꀜdrive time,'ꀝ the lucrative weekday morning and afternoon periods when the most ears are pointed toward radio speakers.

Which is why Larson is so excited about PRI'ꀙs recent entrant into the morning battle. The Takeaway is designed to be less formal than Morning Edition, to appeal to a younger demographic, and unlike Morning Edition (which often repeats complete hours) to be broadcast live even for West Coast listeners. KBCS carries The Takeaway from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., with the first two hours live and the third a repeat (known in the business as a 'ꀜrollover'ꀝ).

That The Takeaway is broadcast (mostly) live here is important to Larson, who as a Seattleite is especially sensitive to the needs of West Coast listeners. She bemoans that local listeners often have to settle for broadcasts of Morning Edition and All Things Considered made up entirely of rollovers. Larson takes the West Coast perspective pretty seriously; she'ꀙs also irked that PRI'ꀙs The World is a few hours old when it'ꀙs heard each day at 3 p.m. on KUOW.

Larson says that launching The Takeaway 18 months ago was a major effort, and that the program is meeting PRI'ꀙs main goal: to persuade stations that also carry NPR'ꀙs Morning Edition to drop at least one hour of that program and replace it with an hour of The Takeaway.

Steve Ramsey, general manager of KBCS, says he'ꀙs pleased with the program, which was added to KBCS mornings in August. 'ꀜThe jury'ꀙs out in terms of audience impact,'ꀝ Ramsey says, adding that reliable numbers won't be available for about a year. He points to the recent addition of Celeste Headlee as co-host (with John Hockenberry) of The Takeaway as a good thing, and says that PRI has structured the show to allow stations multiple places to include local content.

The addition of The Takeaway was perhaps the most noticeable of KBCS'ꀙs recent programming changes. The moves generated controversy for the station in August and complaints from a few hundred listeners, according to Ramsey. He also says the majority of the audience are OK with the changes so far. 'ꀜThe lion'ꀙs share of our audience is just listening'ꀝ and giving the new program lineup a chance, Ramsey says.

While NPR, APM and PRI compete with each other for stations, the stations compete with each other, and, perhaps more significantly in terms of the future, they also compete with new media. One of the biggest new-media questions facing local public radio stations is how to hold onto market share and associated revenue in the face of podcasts and other factors eroding traditional audience. Local public radio stations make most of their money two ways: through on-air membership drives and through underwriting announcements made several times an hour during local and national programs.

For example, it was just a few years ago that the only way a local listener could hear NPR'ꀙs popular weekly game show Wait Wait ... Don'ꀙt Tell Me! was to tune in KUOW on Saturday mornings at 11 (the show has since moved to 10 a.m.). With station breaks at the 20-minute and 40-minute marks in the show (as well as at the end of the hourly newscast), KUOW has opportunities to sell underwriting announcements, in which local advertisers provide cash contributions and are mentioned on-air as supporters of KUOW.

With the advent of podcasts, listeners can now automatically download the program to their MP3 player when it posts on Sunday. This is great for the end user, who can listen anytime, and stop, start, rewind, and fast-forward the show. It'ꀙs not so great for KUOW, which loses those podcast listeners for that hour of traditional listening, driving down the value of the underwriting announcements sold in part on audience size. Meanwhile, the national sponsor of the show doesn'ꀙt suffer (since the podcast of the program includes the national sponsor'ꀙs underwriting message), nor does the producer/distributor (which still delivers an audience to the sponsor, though via multiple platforms). It'ꀙs the local stations that have the most to lose in this new model.

Larson doesn'ꀙt know how new media hurdles like this will shake out between national producer/distributors and the local stations that carry their programs, and she'ꀙs not alone. Neither Jeff Hansen, program director at KUOW, nor KBCS'ꀙs Ramsey has an idea either.

For Hansen, it'ꀙs up to public radio stations to envision what the next level of program production and presentation looks like, and to create a future that 'ꀜfits with public radio'ꀙs strengths.'ꀝ With this in mind, Hansen says KUOW is experimenting with local 'ꀜmagazine format'ꀝ programming blocks on weekday afternoons and evenings, and on Saturday afternoon.

Local programming is important to KBCS'ꀙs future, too. Ramsey says recent changes at KBCS were meant to provide listeners with consistent fare during drive time, which, if all goes according to plan, will effectively subsidize the station'ꀙs more eclectic and very local programming during other time periods.

While it'ꀙs unclear what specific steps NPR, APM, and PRI can do to help their affiliates prepare for the future, it'ꀙs clear that major changes in the current production and distribution model are in the offing. Though not without serious administrative bloodshed, radio survived the advent of TV in the early 1950s and emerged a very different medium with a much more local focus than during the so-called Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. It'ꀙs not a stretch to predict the same for radio'ꀙs prospects in the completely wired world that may be just around the corner.

In spite of the challenges, Larson is upbeat and says PRI has at least one more exciting initiative in the works. But in addition to being chairwoman of the PRI board, Larson is first and foremost a seasoned legal professional who knows her way around attorney-client privilege.

What exactly is PRI'ꀙs exciting new initiative? 'ꀜI'ꀙm not allowed to talk about it,'ꀝ she says with a chuckle.


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