Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Marc Steiner, NPR and Ratings

Guest-post from Jeff Maynes:

At the beginning of the month, Baltimore's public radio station, WYPR, lost its hallmark program, the Marc Steiner Show. Steiner play a critical role in saving public radio in Baltimore through his fund raising campaign to purchase WJHU a few years back. His show focused on issues important to both the nation and the city of Baltimore. In particular, his program shed critical light on the plight of the disadvantaged in inner city Baltimore. His show routinely displayed earnest engagement with the issues, sophisticated thinking and sensitivity. Baltimore is poorer today than it was just a week ago. Despite my respect for Steiner and his show, however, this post is not merely a eulogy for his program.

To say that WYPR lost the Marc Steiner Show is not accurate. WYPR chose to terminate his program, citing declining ratings for the show. Steiner himself disputed this account, citing boardroom politics. Let us suppose that WYPR is telling the truth, and that ratings were the primary reason driving this decision. To what extent should public radio listen to ratings?

The danger of ratings is obvious. By focusing on the mere popularity of content, and its ability to “sell,” public media loses sight of its priorities. The point of public financing for public radio is that the only standards which apply are those of journalistic integrity and a respect for the truth. One does not need to sell the truth, nor sacrifice depth merely to secure advertising dollars. If corporate sponsorship of public media becomes tied to ratings (as a consequence of the station making programming decisions based on ratings), the difference between sponsoring public media and advertising becomes blurry indeed.

In his response to WYPR's decision Steiner referred to one of the key issues for funding for public media – whether to focus on individual memberships or corporate funding. He painted a boardroom dispute over which direction to take the station on this question, with Steiner championing memberships in opposition to WYPR's board. The advantage of memberships is that the editorial influence of the financial contributors is kept minimal. The argument in favor of sponsorship is presumably a practical one, it is a more predictable and reliable way to fund a major radio operation (particularly one, as in WYPR's case, that is expanding).

In order to make a focus on memberships feasible, does a station have to pay greater attention to ratings? If a station goes after memberships as the cornerstone of their financial backing, are they forced to look for programs which will increase their membership base? Does the decision to minimize the role of ratings force public media to rely more heavily on corporate sponsors? Is this trade-off worth the advantages of minimizing corporate sponsorship? What role ought ratings play in public radio?