Starting next week, when Bob Edwards, the longtime host of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," returns to the radio, he will be heard not over the air on the FM band, but on the $10-a-month XM Satellite Radio service.
Edwards, whose new show will be a one-hour interview program, is the centerpiece of a new channel that the satellite company calls XM Public Radio, which is public only in the sense that its programs are produced by public radio outlets such as Public Radio International and WBUR in Boston.
But for most of the public radio establishment, including local stations such as Washington's WAMU and WETA, Edwards's new gig is a harsh reminder that the future of public radio is very much in flux. If listeners prove willing to pay for satellite radio, much as viewers decided a generation ago to shell out for cable TV, then NPR and other programming providers will be sorely tempted to follow the money and sell their content to XM or its competitor, Sirius.
That's why local public stations are lobbying hard for NPR not to make its top-shelf programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," available to the satellite services. (NPR provides two channels of programming to Sirius, including shows such as "Talk of the Nation," "Car Talk" and "Day to Day" -- a midday newsmagazine not aired in Washington.)
While satellite radio moves ever closer to the threshold of mass acceptance -- XM has topped 2 million subscribers and its units are being installed in millions of new cars -- public radio also is gaining audience. But satellite radio, which charges listeners a monthly fee and also sells commercials on some of its 100-plus channels, has easier access to money to buy programming. Public radio is still struggling to find a secure financial model, begging listeners for donations and government for grants while trying to grab a bigger piece of the advertising pie without admitting that it is engaged in the same form of commerce as for-profit broadcasters.
Those who produce public radio programming are intrigued by the chance to win new audiences for their news, talk and music shows. But those who run local public radio stations fear that satellite will strip away their audience, funding and reason to be, leaving them in the pickle that PBS found itself in after Discovery and other cable channels offered a wider variety of documentary and serious TV programming.
The crisis wouldn't be so severe if public radio stations had stayed close to their local roots, but over the past 15 years, many stations have cut way back on local programming, choosing instead to fill their schedules with national programs from NPR and other sources.
Will satellite's success push public stations back toward local programming? Some in public radio say yes, but others point to public TV and note that that has not happened there.