NPR to Non-Old People: Thanks, But No Thanks

NPR has no use for poor, debt-ravaged kids maxing out their credit cards to buy iPhones. At least it doesn't think it does.
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National Public Radio announced last week that it has canceled its Web-radio hybrid, The Bryant Park Project, after less than one year of broadcasting. (Actually, The New York Times announced it. That's where most of the show's staffers discovered last Monday that their jobs will soon be no more.) In the history of Things That Are Stupid, the move falls somewhere between CBS booting Bob Schieffer from the Evening News and The New Yorker asking the reanimated corpse of Jesse Helms to draw its cover illustration.

NPR's dereliction of duty to its employees is obscene, but obscene on a small scale. Having been privileged to spend a few minutes every week with the BPP staffers, I know they'll land on their feet. I'd like to say it's because they're all talented folks with cutting-edge ideas about how the old medium (radio) can interact with the new (the Web), but that's not why. It's because they're mostly young and their bodies can handle the strain of eating one meal a day while they wait for all the Boomers entrenched above them to die off or retire to North Carolina. At any rate, they'll get by.

No, the grandly obscene part is that after spending all of 10 months trying to lure listeners who don't remember what it was like when the boys came home from the Spanish-American War, NPR has decided it's not worth the trouble. They'll just stick to what they know, thank you very much. What they know and whom they know.

According to Arbitron, the portion of Americans who listen to public radio grew from 10.5 percent in fall, 2005, to 11.2 percent in fall, 2006. While all age groups the firm measures experienced growth, the greatest increases occurred among Americans ages 55 and up (the group better known as "old people"). But public radio listeners aren't just old -- they're loaded. They are more likely to drive a luxury car than any other vehicle; more likely than their fellow Americans to invest in real estate and the markets; more likely to listen to oldies than any other music format. They are more likely to buy a high-definition TV than a computer.

In a post-Times story press release, NPR Vice President for News and Information (redundancy, anyone?) Ellen Weis said, "We came to understand that a radio-format show produced almost exclusively for the web was not the best way to grow the online audience." But absent from said press release is any mention of who that audience really is: people under 35. Note the use of the word "people." To call the BPP audience "listeners" would belie a lack of even an Internet for Dummies understanding of what used to be the future of media and is now the present. Bryant Park was aimed at users, not listeners. They used the show's podcast and online streaming features, read and responded to its blog and talked to each other on Twitter (if you don't know, don't ask). It was no new-media utopia. But it was the beginning of something -- and it isn't unreasonable to guess that the young people who care about these modes of communication aren't much use to a cash-strapped public-broadcast network.

No, NPR isn't giving up on the Web. It's just giving up on its younger audience members, the ones who don't have Scrooge McDuck-size moneybins they can dig into come pledge time. But what will the network do in 15 years when all the folks with the deep pockets are getting their content from sources that aren't Morning Edition? By taking food out of the mouths of its babies to give to its elderly, NPR is making a critical mistake. Old people, after all, die a lot faster than babies.

"Public radio listeners are more mature, and therefore less likely to have children living at home," Arbitron's 2007 Public Radio Today report says. That means public radio's largest audience is tuning in without anyone in the house to pass the habit down to. But as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that's Morning Jerry's problem. For now, NPR has no use for poor, debt-ravaged kids maxing out their credit cards to buy iPhones. At least it doesn't think it does. Public radio is nothing if not an exercise in vote-with-your-dollar democracy. So all you second-hand beater-driving, 401K-less non-55-year-olds, listen up. The next time public radio passes the hat, keep your money in your pocket and pass it right on. Don't subsidize programming for the wealthy. Instead, write your local member station and demand content relevant to your community, your lifestyle and the stuff you care about -- the Hold Steady, not the Stones; student loans, not retirement accounts; Stuff White People Like, not stuff white people like. Make their e-mail servers buckle beneath your righteous weight.

And say you want a Twitter feed, too. It'll confuse the hell out of 'em.

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