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On website, it's all music considered

NPR's new venture aims to fill in gaps in many parts of the country. But some radio stations aren't willing to share.

January 16, 2008|Marc Fisher | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Living in a city without a full-time jazz station, residents here have to rely on CDs and downloads to hear their fill of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But to discover new jazz from singer Madeleine Peyroux or pianist Bruce Barth, it's necessary to reach past broadcast radio to online music services, music blogs and pay satellite radio.

But now comes NPR Music, a sprawling website from National Public Radio on which they can listen to the NPR jazz (or classical or folk or indie rock) shows that don't air on Washington's public stations -- as well as tap into song lists, video and audio of concerts, music-related stories from NPR's news shows and a raft of programs from public stations across the country.

The website, NPRmusic.org, which launched in November to the joy of many listeners and the consternation of some public radio stations, helps fill the gap in the many parts of the country where jazz, classical and other traditional public radio music formats are vanishing as stations increasingly focus on news and talk programming.

The site is meant to break through the limitations that have made radio a primarily local and tightly formatted medium. "As listening to radio flattens, we are looking to use digital platforms to reach audiences with music that crosses genres and geographic boundaries," said Maria Thomas, NPR's senior vice president for digital media.

NPR Music includes programming from the network's own shows as well as from 12 of its member stations, including top music producers such as jazz WBGO in Newark, N.J., acoustic rock WFUV in New York, classical WGUC in Cincinnati and Austin's KUT, which features a mix of rock, blues, jazz and Latin sounds.

But perhaps the best-known and most original public radio music format, the eclecticism of KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica, is nowhere to be found on the NPR site. Nor is the alternative rock of WTMD-FM in Towson, Md., in both cases because station managers believe the new site is undue competition or detracts from NPR's mission.

"NPRmusic.org is the first service NPR has created that competes with NPR stations for listeners' time," says Stephen Yasko, general manager of the Towson station, one of four public stations serving the Baltimore area. "They're reducing the number of hours a listener spends with their local public station. NPR Music is potentially taking membership money away from WTMD." (NPR is funded in large part by membership fees paid by public stations across the country; those stations in turn depend heavily on listener and corporate donations.)

When a show such as "World Cafe," a daily two-hour broadcast of world music from Philadelphia's WXPN, airs on the Towson station, it includes promotional announcements for NPR's music website, so Yasko believes he is "involuntarily promoting something that draws listeners away from my station." For that reason, he is "very strongly considering dropping 'World Cafe.' "

Similarly, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour told trade newspaper the Current that she saw no reason to put her programming on the NPR site because her station has its own brand and reputation to protect.

Those stations that do share programming with the website hope both to stretch their business model -- the NPR site will share revenue from corporate sponsors with participating stations -- and lure new Web listeners back to the stations' own sites and radio stations.

Ironically, NPR Music sounds more like a creative, genre-busting radio station than do many actual public stations. It's a place where radio adds value, with smart critics presenting and telling stories about music, programs that happily smash through the genre limits that make so much of radio too predictable, and online-only shows such as "All Songs Considered," which grew out of listeners' fascination with the music that producers used to fill the spaces between stories on NPR's All Things Considered newsmagazine.

"The public radio listener is not bounded by a particular genre," Thomas said. "It is absolutely an intentional part of our strategy to bust the format and connect to public radio listeners, who are characterized by certain qualities, including curiosity, lifelong learning and joy."

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