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.