As sure as the leaves turn and the snap of winter returns to the State of Jefferson, comes JPR’s annual dance with the national public radio networks for rights to carry the national programs you hear each day on JPR. Each year I hope the conversation with NPR and the other national networks goes a little easier and makes more sense for JPR and its listeners. And, each year I leave these conversations sorely disappointed. I never cease to be amazed how skewed the national public radio economy is toward stations serving large metropolitan markets at the expense of stations serving smaller communities, especially stations in the mountainous west.
At JPR, we spend approximately $1 million each year to locate, operate and maintain the transmitters that bring our signals to our listeners. That’s the cost of broadcasting silence — before we purchase or create a single program. And, for the privilege of passionately bringing great public radio to small places, we also have the distinction of paying significantly more than our fair share for the programs the national public radio networks distribute since most national programming is priced based on the amount of money stations raise each year. The goal of the system is laudable, to have stations with more money pay more for programming. But, the system ignores the circumstances of stations like JPR which must raise far greater resources to sustain a complex and expensive network of transmission facilities, due to the accident of geography, than stations with less costly networks serving larger markets. For instance, JPR pays about half of what KQED in San Francisco pays for most NPR programs other than Morning Edition and All Things Considered. When I think about the revenue potential of underwriting, membership and foundation support of KQED (serving a primary media market ranked 4th in the nation with over 6.2 million potential listeners) versus JPR (serving a primary media market ranked 208th in the nation with 177,000 potential listeners) I can’t help but think that KQED, with a market size 35 times greater than JPR, should pay a bit more than twice what JPR pays to air the same NPR programs.
Each year, when we do the dance and explain this reality, the nice folks at NPR say they understand and empathize but can’t really do anything about it since NPR’s pricing structure is developed by their board of directors, which is comprised of community members who don’t understand the details of NPR’s pricing policies or are generally station managers of large market stations who have little incentive to delve into a complicated issue in order to increase their own costs. The consequences of this problem are very real. Small market stations with more expensive transmission plants often must choose between carrying the most popular national programming that listeners want (or will find using emerging technologies) and investing in local programming that make them truly unique and indispensible to the communities they serve. Ultimately, I hope the national public radio community will address this problem with the goal of creating a stronger, more equitable system for all stations and citizens.