Quora: Can Public Radio Survive the Web, Podcasting and Republicans?

fm radio norway
The future of public radio is complicated, Bob Garfield writes. Wikicommons

Quora Questions are part of a partnership between Newsweek and Quora, through which we'll be posting relevant and interesting answers from Quora contributors throughout the week. Read more about the partnership here.

Answer from Bob Garfield, Co-host of On The Media and Host of The Genius Dialogues:

Will public radio ever go extinct? That depends on what you mean by "radio."

Over-the-air transmission of audio and pictures is headed for extinction, because in a fully wired world, there is no need for it. So whatever happens to public radio, the network of high-wattage broadcast transmitters will in due course cease to be the means of distribution.

Why do we even have them now, when you can swipe your phone and get any public content from anywhere at any time? To this question there are two principal answers:

  1. You can't switch out airplane engines in midair. The system we depend on is complex — technically, legally, financially and politically — with almost every element interdependent with others, so that even the most obvious change to the existing model can create chaos within the larger system. Whatever evolves to replace that system will do so over time.
  2. Local news, talk, culture. In many markets, these are the heart and soul of public broadcasting. But they are expensive and difficult if not impossible to sustain out of the context of NPR's national programming and other syndicated content from the breadth of the public-radio production universe. And here's the key thing: most of the money that underwrites public radio flows in from these member stations. Any change in the distribution model means reinventing the business model.

As to the larger question—the future of high-quality audio content, especially journalism, largely insulated from commercial interests—that answer is complicated, too. The podcast revolution has obviously created a content boom, a bona fide golden age of audio. You can listen to great stuff 24/7 and never interact with public-radio entities for an instant. The problem is, this private marketplace is funded mainly by venture capitalists, amateurs and monks; is it sustainable as a business—and will sustaining it means following cable-TV's path away from quality and to the lowest common denominator? There are unknowns.

There is also political pressure. Republicans in Congress have been agitating against public broadcasting for decades, because they consider it leftist propaganda. Only because the system retains support in some of the reddest markets (which are rural and thinly populated and dependent on news and information) federal subsidies of the system have not been "zeroed out" yet. The Trump era would have been that time, but all parties are a bit distracted at the moment to wage this particular battle of the culture wars.

So, as to my prediction, I'd be very nervous if I were a small station trying to fund local content. I'd be nervous if I were a small station merely relaying national content—because why do I exist? It is somewhat alarming that their existence hinges on status quo throughout the system in a very much non-status quo world. And if podcasting actually proves itself to be a going business, without prostituting itself to the marketplace, I'd see NPR as someday ceasing to be a discrete network but a scaled-down producer and distributor of mainly news content.

The rich will get richer. The poor will get poorer. Sad.

Will public radio ever go extinct? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

Quora: Can Public Radio Survive the Web, Podcasting and Republicans? | Opinion