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NPR grapples with the prospect of a post-radio future

Local stations are wary of NPR's embrace of podcasts and other new ways to deliver its news programs.

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If you like National Public Radio's "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," you can hear it via podcast or satellite radio. But unless you're near a radio or a live online stream, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are off-limits.

Public radio stations make millions from pledge drives that intersperse the two hit news shows, and NPR hasn't wanted to undercut local stations' fundraising by giving fans another way to hear the programs. But that could change, as NPR considers whether to fully embrace "new media" technology at the risk of bypassing some public-radio stations.

"The fear in its raw form is that NPR will market itself directly to consumers and … and completely eclipse their local stations," says media consultant Michael Marcotte, a former San Diego public-radio news director.

The debate within NPR became public last week after the network's board fired CEO Ken Stern. Mr. Stern, who'd been in charge for 18 months, had pushed NPR to offer its news through mediums other than terrestrial radio.

News reports blamed the firing on Stern's embrace of technology initiatives, but NPR officials deny that. A larger factor, says Mr. Marcotte, may have been Stern's inability to persuade member stations to trust his plans for delivering programming via technology other than old-fashioned radio.

Whatever the reason for his removal, the venerable news network with hundreds of member stations is facing challenges. While NPR's listener base has jumped this decade to some 30 million people a week, people are listening to radio overall less than in the past. It's unclear how people will listen to NPR in five or 10 years and whether it can carve out a place amid iPods, cellphones, and whatever hot new gadget awaits.


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