In the Loop

In the Loop: July 15, 2008 Archive

The rise -- and eventual fall -- of new public radio shows

Posted at 12:40 PM on July 15, 2008 by Jeff Horwich (9 Comments)

As creators of new public radio ourselves -- albeit from a less lofty perch than NPR or PRI -- we certainly take an interest in the rise (and now fall) of others playing in the same arena.

The latest casualty is the Bryant Park Project -- a younger, hipper morning show concept that launched last fall, suffered some staff turmoil, and seems to have had some real trouble getting carried by any actual stations. (I posted my impressions back when it began.)

At the moment, listeners are mourning on the show's blog. Most (all?) of them must have been podcasting or streaming the show, since near as I can tell (NPR's site makes it a little tough) BPP was only carried in Seattle (from 4 to 5 am).

Launching new public radio shows is a harsh business. All while In The Loop has been creeping along our under-the-radar path, two high-profile efforts to nab younger listeners have now been conceived, lived, and died. (The other was Fair Game, a show from WNYC and PRI, which went off the air May 30). Another, called The Takeaway, also produced by WNYC and PRI, has just launched and is presumably setting off along its own uncertain trajectory.

I'll withhold my opinions of the actual shows, since they don't really matter now -- though I will beat my chest for just a moment: All the stuff these shows are being lauded for -- introducing a bold new tone to public radio, reaching out to listeners in new ways, embracing technology and podcasting -- we've been practicing and refining all along, and often doing it better. We just haven't been lucky enough to enjoy the big budgets and media blitz that have graced launches from PRI and NPR. Our only way to share ourselves has been by doing and creating -- the proof is in the product, not in the press releases.

Ah, that felt good. But I'll get off my high-horse and just leave a few strategic observations.

The economy is the easy answer to cite right now for why shows close up shop. And the current economy is certainly no friend to innovation, let me tell you . But it's not the real answer for what happened here (and what challenges still stare down The Takeaway):

* Two out of three new shows chose to compete with Morning Edition -- probably the best way to get your daily news (audio-wise, anyway) no matter what age you are. Why send an untested product up against the biggest behemoth around?

* While I naturally chafe at our own perpetual under-the-radar existence (In The Loop is three years old this summer) these shows rolled out the opposite way, with almost no opportunity to find their feet. They were born in press releases, and had to learn how to make their shows, and try to find their voice, in the glare of the spotlight. In the end, there just wasn't time for that kind of learning curve -- not with a reported $2 million annual budget (for BPP).

* I'm sure all these projects expected podcasting to be a big part of their listening mix. And it probably was/is, ratio-wise, given that radio carriage was tough to come by. But (speaking here more as a podcast listener than a programmer) I strongly believe a daily, hour-long show is a tough recipe for podcast success. An hour-long news show every day is simultaneously 1) too much to keep up with, and 2) of quickly diminishing interest if you fall behind. I podcast a few daily shows (like NPR's Day To Day, which I never hear during the day), and I get to them when I can. But the shows I actually can actually keep up with -- and feel attached to -- are the weeklies. There's nothing inherently wrong with a daily show, of course. But when it comes to podcasting, you're building yourself a hill to climb.

* Both failed enterprises (BPP and Fair Game) made a significant tactical error that I have always tried to steer In The Loop away from: They declared that they were shows for younger -- or future -- listeners. And they did this before anyone even knew what they sounded like. What's the problem with this? First, why throw up a wall for a huge chunk of potential audience right from the start? (I'm struck by the comments on the BPP blog that start: "I'm not a part of your core demographic but...") Second -- what the heck does that even mean? Saying you're going to appeal to young folks throws up all kinds of vague expectations that -- it seems to me -- can only hurt you....

Internally, I think this ambition can be decoded this way: "Something that appeals to people who like the Daily Show" (Fair Game, in fact, overtly used this reference in pitching itself to stations and listeners). But you know what? The Daily Show -- with all its fart jokes, "reach-around" impressions, and fast-and-loose approach to fact and news -- would never fly in the public radio stable. Not to mention that the Daily Show is just really, really good and has more money flowing into it than any public radio show could hope to muster. The Daily Show analogy is just one specific issue that crops up with declaring yourself a public radio gift for younger audiences. It creates all kinds of difficult expectations and comparisons -- and for what? Why not just build an organic sound and formula that works -- and let audiences decide who it's for?

Ah, public radio strategy: A subject close to my heart. I'll say one thing, though: BPP and Fair Game burned brightly while they lasted. NPR and PRI (and WNYC) get major points for chutzpah in my book. They realize the basic rule of how the game is now played: You need to create new content people actually want to listen to, and put it out there for the world to hear. They broke (break) some basic rules, in my opinion, both in roll-out and content. But all these shows seem to realize that the new metric -- even in public radio -- is not how good we feel about ourselves in the morning. It's how audiences respond.

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