This is a repost of a contribution that I wrote for the NPR Digital Think In Blog:

To understand NPR and it’s member stations, you have to understand the ecosystem they live in. The unique opportunities and challenges that NPR faces are very much embedded in this space which includes the NPR Foundation, the NPR board, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), underwriters, independent producers, Public Radio International, American Public Media, and others. It’s a complex environment that is difficult to parse, which makes innovation challenging.

At the NPR Digital Think In, we’re trying to pull apart how the elements of the ecosystem work together as part of the process of envisioning the future. To this end, we’ve brought in an talented illustrator and creative director named Kevin White to help us understand the ecosystem better through images. The drawings below came out of a three step process that started with Kinsey Wilson and Vivian Schiller giving me an overview of the key relationships. I translated this information into a technical diagram to show the flows of money and programming content through the system. From there, Kevin came in to convert my technical diagram into a digestible illustration.

Here’s the technical drawing that we worked off of:

NPR ecosystem

From here Kevin created two illustrations, one that was focused on the flow of programming content through the ecosystem, and one that was focused on how money moves through the system. The former shows how NPR produces seven main programming offerings and combines those with another 26 programs which it makes available for distribution to NPR member stations and their affiliates. It also shows how some of the member stations direct their own content back into the NPR system. Finally, it includes other content producers who add their content to the NPR member station mix.

NPR Final

The second illustration shows how money flows through the NPR system. Part of what we were trying to convey is the connection between finance and control. In this case, NPR is guided by a board whose majority is made of member station representatives (10 member station representatives, five citizens, and the CEO). Coincidentally, member stations provide the lion’s share of NPR funding, 46%.

NPR Model 1

The financial relationships that are in place create both constraints and opportunities for NPR and member stations. Perhaps the most obvious issue arises with the increase of digitally distributed content. Traditionally, NPR member stations displace content to solicit support. In a digital context, however, this is no longer feasible. Thus innovation, with respect to digital distribution, requires significant systemic change to preserve a revenue model that will sustain member stations. Obviously, until this can be achieved the member station representatives will not be motivated to bring NPR content towards a future of digital distribution. Thus the importance of understanding the complex relationships within the ecosystem.

We sincerely hope these illustrations help untangle the complexity and provide an opening for innovation.

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