Bryant Park Project & Fair Game: My Long-Winded Opinions

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LOTS of people have been emailing me for my thoughts on some recent events in the public radio world, so here are some preliminary ramblings on the subject:

National Public Radio recently canceled The Bryant Park Project, their experiment in attracting younger listeners to public radio. Not long ago, Public Radio International did the same with Fair Game. I was distressed at both cancellations, not least because The Sound came into the public radio fold on the coat-tails of the development of those two shows. I was worried: what if I'm next? Then I remembered that I own my show, and only I could cancel it... but I was still worried about fallout.

So, what went wrong? I'm not really a public radio insider, (though I did go to a public radio conference last year and I do subscribe to The New Yorker), but here's what I can see from my vantage point, and how the changing landscape will affect The Sound.

* Both BPP and Fair Game were extremely expensive. Bryant Park Project had a reported budget of two million dollars. I don't know how much Fair Game cost, but they had a sizable staff. When you're spending a lot of money, the stakes get high very quickly. I'm producing a lot less radio than either of those shows was, but my total budget is around $50K, of which $10K or so comes from stations via PRI. Most of it comes from underwriting and podcast donations. Given that all PRI is spending on my is a little overhead to have someone check in with me once a month and maybe copy some CDs for stations once in a while, the stakes here are low.

* Targeting entertainment at young people is a very dicey proposition. A commenter on Metafilter wrote scathingly that BPP was NPR's Poochie. If the reference means nothing to you, well, maybe you're out of the key demo ;). Poochie was a Homer-voiced skateboarding hip-hop dog added to Itchy & Scratchy on an episode of The Simpsons. He's also the ultimate expression of inauthentic pandering to youth. Frankly, I don't completely agree about BPP, but the allegation illustrates an important principle: when your brand has such a strong fuddy-duddy rep, even a slight whiff in inauthenticity will set your target audience off. You must guard assiduously against pretending to be anything you're not.

* There was no reason to target young people in the first place. This may sound odd coming from a guy who has a show called "The Sound of Young America," but remember: my show's title is a joke :). Getting younger listeners isn't about creating shows for younger listeners any more than getting African-American listeners is about creating shows for African-American listeners. It's about creating great shows that have diverse perspectives and are inclusive. Public radio has done a good job of the former, but a mediocre to lousy job of the latter. It's telling to me that there's a category click-box on the Public Radio Satellite System website for bluegrass, but not one for hip-hop. Public radio's perspective is monolithic, and the correction has to be systemic, it can't be ghetto-ized to a few programs.

* HD Radio isn't anything. Especially in the case of BPP, a big part of the plan for these two shows was the proliferation of outlets created by HD Radio. No one has HD Radio, and there is zero indication that anyone ever will. I say this as a guy whose station carriage is about 30 or 40% HD channels :).

* Stations aren't address duplicative programming. Both BPP and PRI's new morning show, The Takeaway, relied on the idea that stations wanted alternatives to Morning Edition, especially in places where multiple stations were playing the show at the same time. It turns out, they don't. They're happy to squabble over the Morning Edition audience. NPR could have made ME (and their other shows, for that matter) exclusive to one station per market, but they didn't.

* Podcast monetization is just coming around now, but not really for PRI and NPR. Fair Game and especially BPP were designed for a multi-platform future that's in its earliest stages. Despite speculation to the contrary, both were building very strong podcast audiences. That said, both PRI and NPR are organizations that can't afford to alienate stations, and that means they can't really go directly to listeners for money. So the only real option available to them to monetize those online audiences is underwriting, and that's a pretty modest revenue stream right now. So while both shows were relatively good at online stuff, they weren't getting much money out of it. Certainly not millions of dollars. The only long-term solution I can see to this is charging stations less money for shows, but that's a big change that is against my interests, so, uhm, pretend I never said that.

* Neither show was that great. Both shows had a lot going for them. Faith Salie is really funny and has a killer voice. Mike Pesca is my #1 superstar choice for the future of public radio. There was some great writing on Fair Game. BPP got some amazing guests (Sigur Ros, anyone?). But at the end of that first year, neither show was exceptional or remarkable or amazing. That isn't surprising -- doing something new is unbelievably hard -- but if either of these shows were This American Life, they wouldn't have gotten cancelled. This American Life almost died several times, too, but when a show wins a Peabody its first year out, you kind of gotta give it some slack. Both shows had promise, but neither show made such a compelling case that they couldn't be cancelled.

Given all of that, though, I want to be clear: neither of these shows were failures. There were problems with both, but I think now is the key moment for public radio. Does the funding of these shows generate a rush of new ideas and entrepreneurship, or does the cancellation of these shows drop the curtain on new audiences? Was this just a cover, a way to say, "well, we tried that, and it didn't work," or is it the dawn of a new era, where public radio creates more than one new show every ten years?

Anyway, here's some good news: I'm still here, and I'm not going anywhere. You guys who support this show have shown me that while I love public radio and want to continue to be a part of it, and am often optimistic about my part in it, there is a future for this operation no matter what. I don't need any gatekeepers permission to do this show -- you are the gatekeepers, and you seem very resolute in your support. So: thank you.

Comments

Re:

I was listening via podcast, I wasn't always sure if I'd heard a particular show, even when I'd heard most of the content. fire degree | degree

i cannot understand why this

i cannot understand why this was cancelled. This is such a shame to see. I was looking forward to this. church sound systems

Re:

I was worried: what if I'm next? Then I remembered that I own my show, and only I could cancel it... but I was still worried about fallout.
earn degree | prior learning | Education degree

I never listened to BPP, but I always felt one of the real problems with Fair Game, which I liked a lot, was that ultimately it was a weekly show masquerading as a daily. There would be a lot of repetition throughout that week, and since I was listening via podcast, I wasn't always sure if I'd heard a particular show, even when I'd heard most of the content.

Excellent commentary. That's all.

I listen to BPP on Sirius radio and via podcast when I can't tune in. I like Morning Edition, but BPP seems a little more human. Some of the best parts are the unscripted parts. I would love to see some of the old BPP staff take the podcast independent. Call me foolish, but I'd even pay to listen.

Glad to see this post, Jesse as the future of TSOYA was exactly what popped into my mind when I heard about BPP. Mike Pesca was hilarious over the last few months, even though he betrayed a few personal details (like liking My Chemical Romance for fuck's sake) that I'd much rather not have heard. I enjoyed BPP because it was perfect background listening, and they handled the NPR/humor paradox much better than ME/ATC. Which admittedly isn't saying a lot, but Mike, Rachel and Alison actually got me to laugh out loud, as opposed to cringe wheneve ME or ATC attempted humor. Some parts felt a little bit contrived or forced, but it certainly wasn't to a 'Poochie' level of pandering. I'm disappointed that they chose to cancel the show instead of (financially) streamline it - they could've made it a weekly program or at least cut it down to an hour and possibly made other efficiency adjustments, while continuing to use it as an 'experiment' for new media. But that's a moot point anyways.Given that my local station (KUT in Austin) is even less relevant to younger listeners than your typical NPR station (check out John Aielli's program at kut.org starting at 9 am CST weekdays to sample this hell). I'm 33, an independent musician and poor, partially employed teacher, and listening to KUT makes me feel like an alienated teenager.Hopefully we'll see a better adjustment in NPR's programming. They've done well staying ahead of the podcasting curve, making much of their content (except of course their flagship programs) syndicated, but they still need to better tune their content to the relatively younger ears of twenty- and thirty-somethings like you and me.

By the way, Jesse your replies in that mefi thread were spot on. Way to moderate the seething of people that never even heard the show, but chose to be resentful of the (admittedly less than awesome) copy on the BPP's main page.

I don't think they really gave either show enough time. Nothing can be an instant hit in public radio. Were Fresh Air, Morning Edition, or Car Talk a major hit right out of the box? Uh, no. It takes a long time to build an audience in that medium, especially since it relies so much on stations all across the country syndicating it. If they would've thought more long-term with it (and perhaps been a little cheaper to produce), maybe it could've picked up some steam.And that's why TSOYA will be fine in the long run...the stations will eventually come around if you can survive long enough.(Also, Faith Salie wasn't that good of an interviewer. Should've spent more time thinking up good questions and not trying to riff with the guest so much)

I completely agree that BPP was not exactly the greatest show on NPR... I've heard bits and pieces of the show in various NPR podcasts (Story of the Day, Most Emailed Stories) and unless Mike Pesca was highly involved I felt like the BPP was not so much pandering to a younger audience but pandering to a very low-brow crowd of morning radio show fans. What I mean by that is exactly what you and Jordan talk about on JJGo which is, a parody of a bunch of people who do a morning radio show -- lame jokes, overall loudness... I'm actually surprised there weren't more sound effects and prank phone calls. If NPR was aiming toward a younger audience I think they completely missed the mark with BPP. Young people that are listening to NPR like it because it's different than mainstream radio. They appreciate NPR for what it is. I started listening to NPR when I was 18 or 19 and the reason I liked it was because it was intelligent, interesting programing that wasn't at all boring. Perhaps Mike Pesca just needs his own show? Do you think that Brian "Back in Business" Lane could hook up with him to make a podcast? They are my two favorites of your favorites, Jesse.

Oh yeah, and I love the news stories that came out with shows like BPP: "young people just don't care about the news, we've got to make it fun!" Wow, way to talk down to your intended audience.

This is really smart stuff, Jesse. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this!

As a former CBC broadcaster, I am always baffled when the really really smart people at the top decide to abandon those listeners and donors (or, in Canada's case, taxpayers) who built the network that put them in their high paying jobs, and chase listeners who have exactly zero interest in the programs public radio is most adept at producing.I don't see companies who manufacture single malt scotch chasing the 18 - 24 demographic. They understand that some things in this world are - and ought to be - acquired tastes. I like to think of it as a reward for getting older. But public broadcasters insist on mixing the M&Ms in with the broccoli, and wind up with something nobody wants to taste.

I have to disagree with people like Leanne and "d". I'm 23 years old and a devoted follower of the BPP, and I never felt as if that show was NPR's way of talking down to me or dumbing the news down for a younger audience. On the contrary, in my opinion the hosts were incredibly smart and genuinely engaging. I particularly appreciated the BPP's interviews, which tended to be longer and more probing than Morning Edition's and often covered topics that other shows didn't. Sure, a little humor never hurt (some of us do like to laugh at ourselves sometimes, if you can imagine that!), but it's absurd to shrug the BPP off as a lowbrow morning show just because there were laugh-out-loud moments. It's not as if this was the kind of program that dwelt on inane topics like Lindsay Lohan's mom or what happened on Dancing With the Stars last night, it was a show that covered interesting and relevant topics like technology, politics, business, music and literature, and the media. Let's not forget that.I don't think that my appreciation for the BPP makes me an anomoly in my demographic, I just think that the show wasn't given enough time to build a substantial audience. None of my friends had ever heard of it before I clued them in, and I wouldn't have even known about the show myself if i hadn't stumbled upon the website during a work-related search. I think that if given a few more months and perhaps some more aggressive PR the BPP could have found the listener base it needed to survive. I guess we'll never know.In conclusion, I may be 23 and fresh out of college but I am not naïve. The biggest problem with programming for a younger audience, I realize, is that we haven't yet developed deep wallets. I'm not saying this as a condemnation of NPR - I understand the difficulties of running a nonprofit on a tight budget - but the reality is that NPR has to look out for its bottom line, which means programming for the audiences that are most apt to donate. Anyone care to disagree?

Jesse - Your comments are right on. Thanks for putting it out there.