A half-century of NPR

KPCCNPR, which turned 50 yesterday, used to mean National Public Radio. It still does, at least legally; but they quit calling it that in 2010. The reason given was “…most of our audience — more than 27 million listeners to NPR member stations and millions more who experience our content on NPR.org and through mobile or tablet devices — identify us as NPR.” Translation: We’re not just radio any more.

And they aren’t. Television, newspapers and magazines also aren’t what they were. All of those are now experienced mostly on glowing rectangles connected to the Internet.

Put another way, the Internet is assimilating all of them. On the Internet, radio is also fracturing into new and largely (though not entirely) different spawn. The main two are streaming (for music, live news and events) and podcasting (for talk and news).

This sidelines the radio sources called stations. Think about it: how much these days do you ask yourself “What’s on?” And how much do you listen to an actual radio, or watch TV through an antenna? Do you even have a radio that’s not in a car or stored away in the garage?

If you value and manage your time, chances are you are using apps to store and forward your listening and viewing to later times, when you can easily speed up the program or skip over ads and other “content” you don’t want to “consume.” (I put those in quotes because only the supply side talks that way about what they produce and what you do with it.)

This does not match the legacy structure of radio stations. Especially technically.

See, the purpose of stations is to stand in one place radiating sound (called “programs”) on signals, in real time (called ‘live”), around the clock, for a limited geography: a city or a region. Key thing: they have to fill that time.

For this stations can get along without studios (like companies in our current plague have found ways to get along without offices). But they still need to maintain transmitters with antennas.

For AM, which was born in the 1920s, the waves are so long that whole towers, or collections of them, radiate the signals. In almost all cases these facilities take up acres of real estate—sometimes dozens of acres. For FM and TV, media born in the 1940s, the waves are short, but need to radiate from high places: atop towers, tall buildings or mountains.

Maintaining these facilities isn’t cheap. In the case of AM stations, it is now common for the land under towers to be worth far more than the stations themselves, which is why so many AM stations are now going off the air or moving off to share other stations’ facilities, usually at the cost of lost coverage.

This is why I am sure that most or all of these facilities will be as gone as horse-drawn carriages and steam engines, sometime in the next few years or decades. Also why I am documenting transmitters that still stand, photographically. You can see a collection of my transmitter and antenna photos here and here. (The image above is what radiates KPCC/89.3 from Mt. Wilson, which overlooks Los Angeles.)

It’s a safe bet, for a few more years at least, that stations will still be around, transmitting to people mostly on the Net. But at some point (probably many points) the transmitters will be gone, simply because they cost too much, don’t do enough—and in one significant way, do too much. Namely, fill the clock, 24/7, with “content.”

To help get our heads around this, consider this: the word station derives from the Latin station- and statio from stare, which means to stand. In a place.

In the terrestrial world, we needed stationary places for carriages, trains and busses to stop. On radio, we used to need what we called a “dial,” where radio stations could be found on stationary positions called channels or frequencies. Now those are numbers that appear in a read-out.

But even those were being obsolesced decades ago in Europe. There a car radio might say the name of a station, which might be received on any number of frequencies, transmitted by many facilities, spread across a region or a country. What makes this possible is a standard called RDS, which uses a function called alternative frequency (AF) to make a radio play a given station on whatever channel sounds best to the radio. This would be ideal for the CBC in Canada and for regional public stations such as WAMC, KPCC, KUER and KCRW, which all have many transmitters scattered around.

Alas, when this standard was being worked out in the ’80s and early ’90s, the North American folks couldn’t imagine one station on many frequencies and in many locations, so they deployed a lesser derivative standard called RDBS, which lacked the AF function.

But this is now, and on its 50th anniversary public radio—and NPR stations especially—are doing well.

In radio ratings for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, San Diego, and dozens of other markets, the top news station is an NPR one. Here in Santa Barbara, about a quarter of all listening goes to non-commercial stations, led by KCLU, the most local of the NPR affiliates with transmitters here. (Best I can tell, Santa Barbara, which I wrote about here in 2019, is still the top market for public radio in the country. Number two is still Vermont.)

But I gotta wonder how long the station-based status quo will remain stationary in our listening habits. To the degree that I’m a one-person bellwether, the prospects aren’t good. Nearly all my listening these days is to podcasts or to streams on the Net. Some of those are from stations, but most are straight from producers, only one of which is NPR. And I listen to few of them live.

Still, it’s a good bet that NPR will do well for decades to come. Its main challenge will be to survive the end of station-based live broadcasting. Because that eventuality is starting to become visible.