In the digital era, public radio’s music stations need to stop seeing each other as rivals, and start thinking of each other as potential partners.
That’s Roger Lamay’s view, and one he wants other music stations to share. During a talk at a public radio conference in 2013, Lamay, managing director at Philadelphia’s WXPN (and chair of NPR’s board of directors), challenged his fellow station managers to put together lists of their ten biggest competitors. Lamay hoped that the stations would realize what he already had: rarely, if ever, did music discovery stations compete directly with their counterparts elsewhere.
“There’s been a sense that, with the rise of digital platforms, the music stations to a certain extent were going to be on their own. We either needed to work with each other or have a hard time competing at all,” Lamay said. “The notion that we all do the same thing and are each other’s competition is a remnant from the broadcast days. It might not ever have been true.”
This idea — that public radio stations are competing with the digital music and video platforms, not each other — in 2015 helped birth VuHaus, a digital music video service that aggregates live music performances and interviews from public radio stations and collects them all under a single destination site and brand. The site, which lets users browse videos by city, extends public radio’s mission to showcase local acts to a product built with digital distribution in mind. This, it hopes, will both help stations generate new revenue and expand the reach of public music radio beyond its core audience to new, younger listeners.
“These stations are all inviting dozens of bands in every month, so there was a clear opportunity in creating a consumer-facing service where people can find local, emerging artists that aren’t getting airplay outside of public radio,” said Erik Langner, VuHaus’ president. “Commercial radio has abandoned this emerging artists space.”
VuHaus launched with six partners — New York City’s WFUV, Los Angeles’s KCRW, Austin’s KUTX, Kansas City’s KTBG The Bridge, Philadelphia’s WXPN, and Seattle’s KEXP — but has since expanded to 14 stations, each of which is able to curate the content from its respective city. The most recent addition is Houston Public Media, which signed on in November. Six other stations are in the process of uploading their content to the site. While VuHaus has been focused so far on rock, it plans to expand its ambitions to a more diverse range of genres, including Latin, jazz, and hip-hop.
VuHaus is managed by the Public Media Company, a nonprofit set up in 2001 to protect and expand the infrastructure of public media via spectrum acquisitions and other projects. The organization broadened its mission in 2014 with the creation of ChannelX, a “digital news exchange” service that lets broadcasters, filmmakers, and audio producers license their work to public media companies looking for content. ChannelX is designed to help public media companies cut costs by giving them a centralized way to share production capacity. It’s also become a revenue generator for stations such Kansas City’s KCPT and Ohio’s WOSU, which have offered their work on ChannelX.
This spirt of collaboration is also the backbone of VuHaus, which is built with the notion that public media companies benefit by centralizing some of their efforts and output. This is true in particular on the sales side. Public Media Company sells underwriting deals on behalf of the stations whose content appears on VuHaus, creating a national sales and marketing network that can pull in deals that individual stations couldn’t get on their own. In November, for example, VuHaus sold in a $75,000 underwriting deal to New York-based charity FJC.
The idea, said Lamay, is to mimic the model that public radio has created with NPR and public television has created with PBS, albeit with a focus on the needs of music discovery stations. “NPR’s capacity is really in news and the spoken word, and it’s very active on the cultural side, but not organized around music,” said Lamay.
Langner said that bundling all of the stations’ assets under a single brand will also make it easier to explore opportunities to get VuHaus content onto set-top box platforms like Roku and Apple TV, though he didn’t say whether such deals were in the works. “Having this kind of national advocate and voice trying to open up these kind of opportunities is really important,” he said.
The effort is still in its early days, however. WXPN’s Lamay said that the “question of scale” was still a pressing one for the VuHaus effort, though he was confident that the issue would be solved as more stations signed on. Likewise, the VuHaus brand itself is still relatively unknown, a challenge that will take a more robust marketing effort to fix. Langner said that it takes time to build a new brand from scratch, and stations “realized that doing so was a long-term commitment” that couldn’t be done overnight.
In the meantime, a encouraging sign of the effort is that it has made some stations more willing to work together in other ways. A handful of stations, for example, pooled resources to hire an attorney to help them work through some questions related to music rights, one of the most pressing issues station managers face. “We were all on our own on this in the past,” said Lamay. “This kind of collaboration has had people talking together who have never talked to each other at all before.”