Around these parts it's NPR pledge week, which used to mean that I'd spend even more time in the car on the cellphone to avoid having to listen to my local affiliate's endless fundraising guilt trip. But now that I've switched to an iPhone, I've noticed a different behavior. I'm listening to more and more of my favorite NPR shows (This American Life, Terry Gross's Fresh Air, Science Friday, etc) as podcasts, something that finally suits me thanks to having a phone that automatically loads the latest shows. I don't have to avoid the NPR pledge drive anymore.
At the beginning of each podcast Terry Gross tips her hat to the local broadcast affilates, which is nice but otherwise pretty pointless. But every now and then Ira Glass (pictured), the host of This American Life, reminds us that the bandwidth bill for these free podcasts is more than $100,000 a year, and encourages us to go to the show's website to donate something to offset that. And I just did that, donating $50 in a week when I'm ignoring my local NPR affiliate's plea to do the same.
Why? Well, in thinking about it, I realized that I don't really support my local affiliate. I love some of the shows it broadcasts and hate others (have you heard the California Report? Dreadful). My attachments are to individual shows, not to a broadcast station. My engagement with public radio is at a more granular level than the affiliate. I just don't care that much about KQED, and now that I've got another way to get the shows I like, I don't really feel much of a connection to it.
Now that I get my radio via podcast, I don't have to take the bad shows with the good. I've got an a la carte menu, and I assemble my own schedule with what I want and when I want it. My feelings about radio stations are mixed, but my feelings about individual shows are crystal clear.
What if everyone did what I do? Well, both radio-via-airwaves and radio-via-podcast are free, and both can appeal directly to contributors to help pay their bills. Of course most of This American's Life's costs are covered by affiliate syndication fees, and if the affiliates couldn't pay those, it would take more than an online tip jar to pay the costs of making the show. And obviously those who don't have access to podcasts would be hurt if public radio broadcasters shut down.
But look at the arc of history here. The podcast model is getting cheaper and more ubiquitously available (who doesn't have a cellphone?), and it serves individual needs and taste better. Meanwhile the broadcast model, which is all about one-size-fits-all taste, is based on human labor costs and costly transmission equipment and is only getting more expensive. You can see how this story ends.
My shifting of funding from the general (radio station) to the specific (show) tells me that radio is going to get microchunked, just like the rest of media. The more granular, the better. We're about to find out where people's loyalties really lie.