A friend recently made a comment to me that I thought exposed one of the biggest problems in public media. We were talking about TSOYA's run on WNYC, and he said, "What I don't understand is why, when they're building new programming, public radio never, ever starts with talent."
He's exactly correct, of course.
Start with talent, and you get The Daily Show. Start with a "target audience," and you get The 1/2 Hour News Hour. Start with talent, and you get Saturday Night Live. Start with a "target audience," and you get Mad TV.
New programming in public media is largely driven by pre-existing funding, which turns the development process backwards. Instead of having a great idea, or a great host, or a great producer and feeding it resources, we find a need or niche we decide to fill, then look for money, then actually build the creative elements. It's anti-entrepreneurial and rewards sameness
The best case scenario in this kind of system is to develop a show like Day to Day or Weekend America. Day to Day is basically the same as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The tone is about 10% different, but it was created because we knew there was money for a show that was like ATC and ME that ran mid-day. Weekend America is like Weekend All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, with a tone that's maybe 15% different and a bit more focus on "fly-over states."
Television is the same, but given the enormous cost of television production, the problem is much worse. The best shows on public TV (Nova, Sesame Street, The Newshour) were created twenty and thirty years ago. So were public TV's big stars -- like Bob Vila, Jim Lehrer, Big Bird, Bill Moyers. I mean Ken Burns seems recent, and when was The Civil War? 1990?
I blogged last month about why "This American Life" is going to be on Showtime and not PBS. In Ira Glass' words, "Public television is terrible." He points out that if he'd wanted to bring the show to PBS, he'd have had to spend two or three years raising money before they'd even consider airing it. This with one of public media's biggest hits.
And I won't let public radio off the hook, either. The barrier of entry in public radio is exceptionally low -- I mean, I produce a weekly show with one person and a monthly budget of about $300. But consider again the case of TAL -- they went to NPR after Glass had worked there for twenty years, the show had been on for a year, was fully funded, and had won a PEABODY AWARD. Because it was different, NPR demurred. Today, This American Life is the biggest hit on public radio in the past fifteen years, and it weren't for Public Radio International, it wouldn't even be national.
So, what to do?
How about this for a prescription: try some shit.
This is what every other succesful media organization does.
Television networks air dozens of new shows every season, and only keep a few. The whole internet is a boiling vat of talent and ideas, where great things bubble up every day. With digital technology, it's very easy to produce video or audio at quality levels that are acceptable to at the least internet audiences. I'd say public TV stations could teach a group of 10 people how to produce video 52 weekends a year. Put some stuff up on the internet. See what works. Reach out to people who are already doing interesting stuff. Network. Join the conversation.
Much to their credit, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced a big grant last year to help find new talent for public radio. Again to their credit, they did it in a surprisingly entrepreneurial way -- a contest. They asked any group to outline their plan for finding talent, and offered a big check to the groups with the best plans. Recently, the winners were announced.
One of the two winners was PRX, aka The Public Radio Exchange. It's basically a website for distributing public radio content. Amazingly, before they launched, there was no mechanism for this. Now, any station can buy in to their system and get programming from independent producers and other stations around the country which has been peer reviewed and formatted for their automated systems.
PRX's plan for finding talent is, well, another contest. American Idol-style. On the internet.
It's called The Public Radio Talent Quest, and it's open to anyone. They're asking people to submit short tapes of ANYTHING they would want to hear on public radio. A few elimination rounds later, and they'll have given away $70K.
Will it work? Fuck if I know. But at least they're DOING SOMETHING. Seventy thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it's really only one person's salary. Why not give it a shot?
So, Sound of Young America listeners, I say ENTER! And here is my promise: for each round ANY TSOYA listener advances, I will add FIVE DOLLARS to the prize. And that's five dollars AMERICAN.
Do this thing!