I have been both listening to public radio and using the internet since long before NPR’s awkward, vaguely Luddite first encounters with the World Wide Web. I recall vividly Linda Wirtheimer’s bemused tone as she gingerly announced that listeners could finally provide feedback via “the email”.
Gradually, and mostly to great advantage, NPR began to make online services available that acted as force multipliers for listeners. We could email questions to Diane Rehm or Talk of the Nation instead of wasting time hanging on the phone. We could look up broadcast schedules. We could break annoying outmoded regional monopolies by listening to distant stations’ live feeds. (Local stations HATE this.)
More important than all of this, we could listen to any episode from almost any show at our convenience. This, at least to someone like me who actually owns a dusty cassette tape of an episode of Morning Edition I ordered by snail mail, was the real revolution. By now, being human, I’m a little jaded about it, but I can still remember being a bit drunk with power at the ability to call up any story from any episode of All Things Considered going back years.
My how things have changed. A charming mild suspicion of the more laughable and faddish aspects of Web tech (still appropriately evinced by On The Media) has, on most NPR shows and in its executive conversation pits, transmuted into a gushing fanboi obsession that is echolalic at best and gigglingly hysterical at worst. It reminds one of certain scenes in “Reefer Madness.” The indiscreet charms of Tweet-By-Night Web 2.0 social media, their nauseating, Octomom- like fecundity, and their ultimate shallowness, have not been kind to NPR as it attempts to mainline all of them simultaneously.
Diane Rehm’s Tweets accidentally got routed via LinkedIn through the Facebook page of Krista Tippet’s podcast and then into the comment stream of Danny Zwerdling’s blog. Tragedy ensued when Terry Gross naively gave it a Digg, Buzzfeeding it back to WAMU’s RSS reader, ultimately causing the Minnesota Public Radio’s Streaming Server to become sentient and go Cloverfield during a recording of Prairie Home Companion.
Or at least that’s what I imagine is the reason my now thrice-damned Media Player won’t let me listen to an only slightly stale episode of Fresh Air.
I’m not actually overreacting here. The problem is one I expressed concern about in my original positive review of the NPR Media Player (which I am now dubbing the “NPR Media Gatekeeper”): it’s a giant step backwards and makes the internet worse. Congratulations.
In the good old pre-Gatekeeper days you could stream or download many NPR programs, and it seemed like it would soon be true of all of them. This is the best of all possible worlds for listeners, but for NPR itself there are some major problems with this whole “information (media) wants to be free” ethos:
1. It’s difficult to manage advertising in this kind of model. For one thing it’s not easy to keep the ads current. If they, for example, pre-encode a commercial for Archer Daniels Midland in a downloadable podcast then it’s there forever – even if ADM stops its sponsorship when NPR reports on something unflattering about them involving melamine.
2. It screws local stations. Why should I listen to my local affiliate or even go to its website if I can listen to my favorite show live or at any later time from NPR’s site?
NPR appears to have adopted two stratagems to deal with this. They don’t make shows available to listen to live, and after-the-fact they want to force you to use the Media Gatekeeper to listen to them.
The Gatekeeper, of course, has the nefarious power to insert ads live, though I really don’t resent that in principle. What I do resent is that when the Gatekeeper doesn’t work, which in my experience on numbers of different computers happens frequently, you find yourself unpleasantly back in the early ’90s before Susan Stamberg’s smith-coronaphilia had ever been troubled by the phrase “web site.” It’s 2009, and while we don’t have flying cars I absolutely refuse to lower myself to ordering a cassette tape. What would I play it with?
This restriction to using the Gatekeeper or nothing is what’s known in the world of corporate I.T. as “business logic.” In other words the question becomes, as Diane Rehm so likes to say, not what NPR can offer on the internet but what it chooses to offer. This is bad behavior by a network that is directly funded by its listeners.
So here’s my oh so unsolicted advice to NPR: find a happy medium between your former web ignorance and your current Web 2.0verload. Spend less effort chasing every MyblogSpacebookfeeder trend that comes along and more time making your content available to all in every form they’d like to have it.
We’ll see if NPR’s new boss “gets it” and takes this in a better direction.