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Unemployed Radio Hosts Inquire About Prospects

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Unemployed Radio Hosts Inquire About Prospects

Media

Unemployed Radio Hosts Inquire About Prospects

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. You know, this recession is rearing its ugly head in a lot of unlikely places. No one here at NPR thought that we, too, would be affected. 64 people, including me, we're going to be laid off. Our media correspondent, David Folkenflik, luckily is not among them, but he's reporting on this story. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, now, you've been reporting a lot on the downsizing in general in the media world. So, what's it like out there?

FOLKENFLIK: It's pretty wrenching. You know, it's horrible on a day like yesterday, when it comes so close to home. But I've got to tell you, as a journalist and as somebody who cares about the news business, it's a terrible story to track, and it's terrible to see its effects on both journalists and newsrooms across the country and on the people who are served, for whom - they rely on news organizations to be watchdogs.

You look at news organizations, you know, NBCUni, which owns NBC News and MSNBC, you know, they announced five percent cuts earlier this year. But each round of cuts from most news organizations has been preceded by a number of earlier ones, but there have been much starker examples.

Earlier this fall, the Newark Star-Ledger's owners said that they would close the newspaper if they didn't get enough people willing to take buyouts. They bought out over 40 percent of their newsroom - a single day - gone. It's just astonishing to see things like this happen.

Newspapers like the Miami Herald, the Rocky Mountain News are being shopped around by their owners desperate for cash to help pay down debt and help keep the bottom line strong. And they're unlikely to find it, both in this climate and in terms of how free credit is going through our financial markets. It's a very, very tough time in the media industry. A lot of mistakes have been made that led to this, but a lot of it is just being caught up in this particular economic turmoil.

BRAND: Well, yeah, and so now, we see it in broadcast. We see it at NPR. We see several journalists losing their jobs. And yet, people are still hiring, and NPR is still hiring online. So, is there some kind of hope there that a lot of these great journalists will migrate just to a different medium?

FOLKENFLIK: You've hit on something really important, which is that there is growth these days, but it's targeted. Even newspapers that are buying people out are trying to expand their digital offerings, as they know - and they're not wrong - that is only an area that is going to grow for attention. The problem is, they haven't figured out a way to make it pay off.

BRAND: Well, David, I think a lot of our listeners are wondering, well, what is the future of public radio? And is it a sustainable medium? Will there be public radio stations and networks like NPR in 10 years?

FOLKENFLIK: I would argue yes, but I've got to tell you that I talked to a lot of people, and there's a lot of debate about how that will play out. You know, will it be something like a national public media, where distinctions between online and on-air are blurred. I think NPR executives, if you talk to them and, in fact, many member station managers would say, look, we have to be able to provide people the news information they want, where they want, when they want, and how they want.

But the legacy radio stations certainly make up the vast bulk of our audiences. You're talking about, you know, something like 26.4 million listeners a week to NPR News shows and programming. That's an enormous audience.

The ironic thing for NPR right now is that our audiences appear to be at record levels. This past spring, which is the most recent for which we actually have ratings estimates, registered the largest audience levels in NPR's history. This fall, given the intense interest in the presidential campaign, is expected to exceed any fall ratings' previous records.

When you see this stuff happening at network news programs - the cutbacks - when you see them happening particularly in newspapers, they are losing audience in many ways. There's a sort of a dissonance going on here for public radio. The question is, are they going to be able to sustain? In recent years, there's been a real spurt in corporate underwriting that has helped to underwrite the incredible growth in NPR's journalistic reach.

In reality, I think right now, you know, is this cyclical or is this structural? I think there's a little bit of both, and NPR's going to have to figure out a way to subsidize what it does even as there is an erosion in this, both underwriters and foundations and other sources of revenues, for what we do on the air.

BRAND: NPR's David Folkenflik covering the media business and all the strange conundrums therein. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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