Earlier this year, Governor Christie indicated his desire to transfer operation and ownership of NJN, the state’s public broadcasting network, from the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, a state agency, to a nonprofit organization derived from the NJN foundation. CWA, the union representing most NJN employees, has vehemently opposed this plan, which would see many of its members laid off. The legislature has created a task force to study the issues surrounding NJN and make its recommendations by October 15. Therefore it is timely that yesterday, New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report on the past, present and future of NJN and public media in New Jersey that I co-authored with Princeton Professor Paul Starr and Micah Joselow, a current Princeton student. This post will address the first part of that report, which examines the lack of a strong, New Jersey-based public radio news network and explores the possibilities for expanding public radio in New Jersey.
Blue Jersey readers: Do you listen to the radio on a regular basis? What about public radio? If so, which stations? If there was a public radio “foil” for New Jersey 101.5, would you listen to it?
NJN was created in the early 1970s, during the Golden Age of Network Television. It was built to be and it remains a 20th century television broadcaster equipped with 1970s and 1980s technology. NJN continues to operate under the “news by appointment” model epitomized by its nightly newscast. The network’s inability to quickly adapt to the digital age has seen its private contributions decline over the last five years. It should be clear to supporters and opponents of privatization alike that NJN must undergo radical change if it is to succeed in the future.
NJN’s biggest failure has been its inability to establish a strong, New Jersey-oriented public radio network. Public radio has defied the trend of declining audience that predominates in almost all other traditional news media. Newspaper circulation has dropped over the past decade, particularly in the past few years, and network news viewership has been falling for more than a quarter century. NPR’s audience, by contrast, has risen steadily since its creation in 1970. Few organizations in news media have a brighter future. NPR’s noncommercial business model has helped innoculate it from the drop in advertising prices driven by the essentially unlimited supply of advertising space on the internet. Unlike many other “old media” outlets, NPR has adapted to new technology and consumption habits.
Today, NJN owns 9 stations and has a construction permit for a tenth, but most are located in sparsely populated parts of the state and none has a particularly strong signal. Consequently, they are of little use to commuters, who represent a large share of the radio audience.
Furthermore, because it creates very little original content for radio, NJN does not take advantage of what little radio coverage it has throughout the state. The format of NPR’s shows allows member stations to integrate a significant amount of local news throughout the day, but NJN lets most of these opportunities fall by the wayside. The network runs local hourly newscasts only half of the day on most days, and these newscasts are generally of poor quality and of the rip and read variety. NJN does run its nightly newscast on the radio, but only during the evening, when relatively few people are listening.
It is no wonder, then, that public radio listeners in New Jersey listen—and give their money—to out-of-state stations like WNYC and WHYY. Whether it will be privately or publicly run, NJN must quickly work to expand both its radio network and programming. If it can’t do this, it should sell its licenses to a broadcaster who will do a better job.