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Sept. 17, 2012, 10:41 a.m.

NPR’s Todd Mundt says public radio needs to innovate or die

His worry for local stations: Without jumping on digital opportunities, someday soon they “will be revealed as rather pedestrian repeaters of national content.”

Todd Mundt

NPR has become a poster child for legacy news organizations’ ability to reinvent themselves for the digital age: Its website and mobile apps are used by millions of people, NPR Music is a runaway hit, office hack days are a model for other newsrooms, and the network’s news apps team is attracting top talent.

And then there are individual NPR stations, so many of which have no reputation for innovation. As consumers find more ways to get NPR in their ears, they have fewer reasons to tune in to their local broadcaster.

“I think there’s great opportunity, but what I’m afraid of is that many stations won’t embrace the opportunity and they will have the emperor-has-no-clothes moment,” said Todd Mundt, editorial director of NPR’s Digital Services division in Boston. “They will be revealed as rather pedestrian repeaters of national content.”

Mundt — long an innovator in both the FM and digital spaces — joined NPR in April after working at a number of stations. His job now is to dole out NPR’s resources and know-how to stations in need of digital training and strategy. (And that’s whether they like it or not: NPR caused much consternation when the Digital Services fee became mandatory for all stations last year.)

I caught up with Mundt last week at the end of the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Las Vegas, where he had just spent few days thinking meta about his industry. Here’s a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Andrew Phelps: Let’s start with your bio.
Todd Mundt: I listened obsessively to public radio when I was a teenager, and there was just something about the sound and the quality of the voice of public radio that really drew me in. I knew that that was the kind of radio I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go into radio right away and did it, from ninth grade on. And since that period of time, from college to now up to this last April, it was a standard kind of public radio career of being on the radio. You know, I did Morning Edition for 20 years, I hosted a talk show for a while, and I kind of moved also in a management track, but always kept an on-air piece.

The management track was a way for me to express new ideas that I had or even new interests that I had, but the interests were a lot around digital. I thought it was very exciting that digital was changing the medium. And it became apparent I think to all of us very quickly that that was happening even though we weren’t exactly sure the ways in which it was happening or going to happen.

Kinsey Wilson told me once that he wasn’t native to digital originally, obviously, either. There’s a whole bunch of us in my generation and older who had to learn this as we went along. And I think a number of us stumbled into it first as an interest and then tried to build the skill around it. Which is a real effort.

Phelps: Why was your experience going the member-station route, to different markets, important?
Mundt: To me, it’s going to be very interesting how the landscape of public radio evolves over the next few years, because central in my mind is this question about the position of the member stations going forward. It’s not a question of whether they will exist or not in the future — it is a question, in my mind, as to how many will exist and what part they will play in the public radio ecosystem and the radio ecosystem more largely.

“I feel like a lot [of stations] are kind of just moping along, you know, in 1995.”

I don’t have the answers to those questions now, so what I’m trying to do is trying to work in such a way that I or people at NPR are positioned at least to care about local stations. Some of it is what my team does in the digital news training, but some of it is us working with NPR to take some of their resources and make them more available to stations. I think we have to make them as strong as possible and bring as many stations into the loop in terms of generating more content for the web.

For a long time, we’ve thought that would mostly be text content. Now of course, with mobile, we’re trying to be more aware of the ability to leverage the core competencies to produce really great audio — and not just audio that was on the air, but try to think of new and smart ways to generate more kinds of audio that would be interesting to people with a mobile device.

You know — on a larger view, carry the station brand forward as the generator of that great content and help the station preserve its place going forward. So I feel like what I’m doing now is trying to make sure they’re all as strong as possible.

Phelps: Arguably the monopoly of the radio tower is what has kept local public radio alive and well, more so than a lot of other media. The car — I wonder how big a deal you think the IP radio thing is and, honestly, why a user shouldn’t just go directly to NPR? Why bother with a station when I have access to the world at my fingertips?
Mundt: This first part is hard for me because it’s colored by my own practices. I don’t own a radio anymore, and I haven’t for a long time, and I don’t have a car anymore now that I live in Boston, so I don’t even have a radio in the car. And so all of my listening is online, just naturally.

Frankly, for many public radio stations, I don’t know what the difference would be between listening to the public radio station and turning on the NPR app and listening to the Infinite Player. Or even just using the NPR app or a local station app and zooming to another local station.

I mean, at this conference I’ve been at, even this morning, there are people up there saying local is really important to people. Local news is important and local connection and weather and traffic, and I guess I get that in a way — and again it’s probably colored by how I use radio and the kinds of information I seek — but for me to actually go to a local station there has to be something there that’s important that I think I want to hear. Otherwise I don’t see the point of it.

“I think sometimes we don’t understand that we can be very creative in very simple ways.”

I don’t believe in having a gloom-and-doom future for radio stations, because I think there’s great opportunity. But what I’m afraid of is that many stations won’t embrace the opportunity and they will have the emperor-has-no-clothes moment. They will be revealed as rather pedestrian repeaters of national content.

And just because NPR isn’t in the business of delivering Morning Edition live now doesn’t means that the bypass issue isn’t real, or that stations can’t slowly become irrelevant. It’s concerning to me where this goes, especially as mobile listening increases. Terrestrial radio listening is still very powerful, but I think there’s a belief in this industry that the phone makers are gonna give us an FM chip in our phones — which is ridiculous. It’s utterly ridiculous. I mean, you look at the technology inside the phone — where are you gonna put that stupid little chip, and why?

We have to understand that we have to embrace the digital space, but we also have to be prepared that the days of some kind of panacea making it possible for us to continue to operate as we have, it’s just gone. And again it’s not bad — because a lot of stations do good work — but I feel like a lot are kind of just moping along, you know, in 1995.

Phelps: So say you make this case to stations and a few of them hear you and they say, “You know what, we are worried about the disruption coming. We hear you, Todd.” What do you advise a smaller station — maybe not the one-person station, but not the fifty-person station — what do you tell them? What should they be doing?
Mundt: To the station, I would say — and this is not easy, so just saying it, it sounds glib — but I think that there are people inside almost every station who are very original and very thoughtful audio creators.

And so stations are struggling on the web with websites and trying to generate enough news, and that is a struggle, it’s probably important in some way. But there are great audio people inside the station. And I feel that, you know, sometimes we force them into creating the five-minute pieces for radio and those pieces get repurposed on the web, but they don’t — you know, that’s not what the web is really about. It’s trying to come up with new things.

“If the industry won’t consider consolidation, then I guess it will have to have it forced upon it by some major event.”

And I think we have to find a way to open it up to people on staff to do new and interesting things. And it’s not about, you know, necessarily producing everything at a Radiolab kind of quality, where they’re spending 50 hours trying to come up with a half-hour of online material and you can’t use them on air at all.

When you look at Andy Bowers, you know, he goes to Slate and, as you guys have reported at Nieman, sometimes the most compelling stuff is just very simply produced podcasts.

I think sometimes we don’t understand that we can be very creative in very simple ways. And it’s looking at your staff and saying, you know, who is potentially creative, what might they do, it might be a highly produced thing, or it might be — you know, there’s ways that you can differentiate yourself and produce something that attracts attention.

It doesn’t have to be at the level of Here’s The Thing or it doesn’t have to be at the level of 99% Invisible — but these are really interesting shows, some of them tied to stations, some not, that have created a really great brand. And not every small station can generate that, but I think a number of them can. You know, just something that attracts some local interest and attracts a following, I think that’s a really good thing. And so stations have to figure out where those talents lie in their building and which producers — a lot of them are young producers who can do this, but there have been producers who have been there 20 or 30 years who discovered they wanted to do longer-form pieces than radio will allow, and maybe there’s a chance you can fit that in your time schedule.

Then I want to say one thing about the industry as a whole. If the industry won’t consider consolidation, then I guess it will have to have it forced upon it by some major event — whether it be the fiscal situation or rethinking of support for public media by the government or some other leg of the stool that disappears. And again, certain consolidations, you know, may not make sense. But there are ones that do.

Commercial radio consolidated just by going in and throwing everyone out the door, goodbye. And it’s all done. Public radio could consolidate in such a way that the operations that keep public radio functioning, that can be replicated across multiple stations and can be consolidated without much effort — can happen. And will make sense, and will save a lot of money. And then that money can go into, you know, “How about that larger newsroom? How about a producer or two who are just allowed to roam and come up with really amazing things?”

There has to be a certain scale at stations before you see creativity really begin to grow. Because there have to be enough people who aren’t completely tired out by just the general production of radio every day to come up with ideas. I think that’s some reason why WNYC — 200 or so people there, everybody is busy, but so many people have just a little time every day to think of a really great idea and do something on it.

We have to be able to do that in public radio, and if all the stations are really small, and they all kind of compete against each other in markets, and they counter-program each other, or even sometimes program the same thing at each other, their management structures are duplicated from station to station — that’s a lot of money. You know, in a $1 billion public radio economy, how much goes to the back end and how much goes to the front end? I think that’s telling.

Phelps: I’m wondering what you heard at the conference, given what we’ve been talking about.
Mundt: You know, these conferences have turned very positive and people are in a good mood, but I don’t know that we’ve solved any of the issues. The ones that are out there, about finding the right kind of talent for our organization or even really thinking how well we’re going to position ourselves.

This morning, one of the speakers said — I think it was probably Mark Ramsey, who does so much work with radio, public and otherwise — that, you know, we’ve come to the point now where it’s almost like a checklist again, now that we’ve gotten over our fears.

Like, well, you have the Facebook, and you have the Twitter, and if you post five times on the Facebook, you’re all right, and if you post 10 times a day on the Twitter and some of them are real and some of them are auto tweets. You know, it’s all become a formula. It’s about engagement, and so we’re saying a bunch of words, I don’t think we’re actually doing a lot of those things.

I think the struggle of these conferences is to try to find ways to give new ideas to people. And we are moving forward every year.

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2012, 10:41 a.m.
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