In the Loop

Huffington Post-er: NPR abandons young people. What-EVER.

Posted at 10:30 AM on July 22, 2008 by Jeff Horwich (6 Comments)

Blogger Daniel Holloway has an unusual read on NPR's decision to cancel The Bryant Park Project:

The grandly obscene part is that after spending all of 10 months trying to lure listeners...NPR has decided it's not worth the trouble. They'll just stick to what they know, thank you very much. What they know and whom they know.

Holloway (who did movie reviews on the BPP) seems to be letting his personal affection for it guide his analysis.

Were NPR truly giving up, in a global sense, any interest in listeners under 35, it would be as stupid as he suggests. But I find that hard to swallow:

* The show had an annual budget of (insert Dr. Evil voice here) $2 million dollars. In the world of commercial TV, of course, that's peanuts. But for a new show in public radio, that's an big ol' pile of money -- especially for a studio-based show that involved a lot of host interviews and little original reporting. By comparison, our show -- with all its live audience bells and whistles, live band, and a full production staff -- was prepared to proceed with a budget about half that size (which was still deemed too big to fund at the moment). With a budget like that the BPP was rolled out as an all-or-nothing proposition. When stations weren't signing on, there was no money coming in to support a budget of that size.

* While it had a rabid ban base, it's just not clear BPP was really very good. At present, it's sitting with a 3.5 star rating on iTunes. Amazingly, that's worse than Fair Game -- which I thought was a weaker program. I'll be honest: I'm right in their demographic, and I believe in the philosophy behind what they were doing -- and I just didn't especially like it. The show often tried too hard to sound like my new best friend, presuming that young people (especially the subset of young people who might be in the orbit of public radio to begin with) somehow speak a language of made-up-words like "ridonculous," harbor a deep cynicism about the world, and would rather skim along the top of the news than actually engage with it. (What's our iTunes rating, you ask? Five stars -- though given that we're not NPR, our exposure has been limited. I'd gladly take a dent in that to pile up a few more reviews ;-)

* Time slot: They show's planners also failed to consider that Morning Edition (its main competition) has already made a pretty successful turn toward a younger sound. Booting Bob Edwards was tough -- but doggone it if it didn't work in the end.

* BPP had ridiculous (or is it "ridonculous?") staff turnover, deeply undercutting the drive to develop a consistent new sound. By the time the show was canceled, both original hosts were gone (one resigned months before, the other on maternity leave). Hard for listeners to get attached to such a changing cast of characters -- not to mention a trying management hassle for the NPR bosses -- which no doubt contributed to their waning enthusiasm for the whole thing.

* The name. As my wife said the other day, "what the hell does that mean?" As a show title, "Bryant Park Project" was a real gamble: It says nothing (at least to someone who doesn't live in New York City) about the show's content, attitude, approach, philosphy, tone...nothing. I thought from the beginning it was an odd choice. (If I recall, it was the internal working title for the effort -- but they kept it on with the official launch.)

* Maybe most important: Holloway seems to narrowly presume that no one else is working on these things and that NPR is somehow all there is to public radio. Because NPR cancels one program hardly means the end of public radio efforts to attract new audiences. In fact, younger listeners who miss BPP have lots of places to turn (let's see: Sound of Young America, The, In The Loop, anybody? The Public Radio Talent Quest is trying to spawn some new programs).

Some of these will be good, some not so good. But canceling the Bryant Park Project (for a whole host of rational reasons) hardly adds up to public radio giving up on anyone under 35. All BPP did is prove that it ain't gonna be easy.

Comments (6)

Maybe NPR should turn to everyone's favorite 'opiate of the people': TELEVISION!

They could produce a series of reality TV shows geared at unveiling the nation's nascent crop of would-be radio starlets:

"America's Next Top Public Radio Commentator"

"So You Think You Can Speak?"

"Project ProTools"

Obviously, Ira Glass would host everything.

The possibilities are boundless...

Posted by Alex Franzen | July 22, 2008 12:31 PM

I think the comments on the BPP's blog (and those sent privately to NPR's management) contradict your point of view. People who listened to the BPP on Sirius, as I did, did not go out of their way to rate the show on iTunes so that rating is flawed. Since I regularly watch, listen and read articles from other news sources, I did not mind the skimming. Revealing radio presenters' personalities was refreshing and appropriate (the Today folks pretend like they're are friends too.) The BPP was worth keeping on the air for at least a year or longer. NPR didn't even try to tweak much with the format before deciding to pull the plug. Because local stations took a pass on airing the BPP, my friends and colleagues don't even know what they missed out on. ---From a disappointed 32 year old who has plenty of other stations to listen to on satellite radio.

Posted by ms rubicon | July 22, 2008 10:33 PM

does anyone seriously think the National Pentagon Radio aka NPR gives a damn about the young people?!!

Posted by john | July 23, 2008 12:10 PM

I think focusing the discussion on the age of listeners was, and is, a red herring. Yes, part of the purpose of the show was to reach a younger audience. Yes, NPR and its various public radio brethren could stand to reach a younger audience to remain sustainable in future decades and because younger people deserve to have their ideas honored alongside Boomer ideas.

But BPP's major achievement was not engagement with a younger demo -- it was engagement, period. Consider this was a "show" that basically never aired anywhere, outside of a few HD Radio secondary channels and Sirius. It never really had earnest support from NPR, outside of the (too big for its own good) budget. Yet they captured a sizable audience and got great levels of interaction going with the show, staff, listeners, etc.

This was an unprecedented new media success at NPR. Never mind the Gen X vs. Boomer talk (in which I've participated, at times). Engagement, community, participation are the currency of new media and they did very well for a first effort.

I agree with you that the show was, as a colleague of mine often says, "too clever by half." It wasn't the right "feel" for my tastes. Morning Edition is too bland much of the time, but BPP was way too chummy and "cool" for me. But it didn't have to please ME, it simply had to find a community. And it did.

Here's the real problem for NPR: in killing BPP they killed a show that was, in radio terms, faltering from the start and never got anywhere. It was an abject radio failure (using radio metrics). So it shouldn't matter.

But it does matter.

Because all those in the BPP community (or "audience," if you prefer) that engaged with an NPR program for the first time in a long time (or ever); for those that found it a refreshing new take on a daily news program -- they have now been told, "thanks for trying and liking this thing we made (by mistake). Now we're getting rid of it because your participation, your love, doesn't matter."

That's a stinging rebuke these people will remember, regardless of their age. And the next time the letters N, P and R come up in conversation, they won't have anything nice to say.

Posted by John Proffitt | July 23, 2008 8:14 PM

I have to agree with John Proffitt about NPR's attitude. I would disagree that BPP failed because of the radio metric. When you look at what the "interim CEO" says, the show was never intended for radio success (how could it when it was facing ME?). So it is particularly lame for him in the next breath to accuse BPP of failing to reach broadcast stations. In fact, it's just an excuse because... not sure why. Why cancel a young program for the internet age, that was a big web success, when your goal is to be successful on internet? It only makes sense if someone got cold feet, or more likely, if the supporters of the show got canned (which is the case).

Posted by Marc Naimark | July 24, 2008 9:25 AM

A telling tidbit: Mr. Holloway asks for more of "the Hold Steady, not the Stones." On today's home page, you'll find a 7 minute interview with...the Hold Steady. Which is to say, if NPR is abandoning younger audiences, then what does Mr. Holloway makes of the NPR Music site, for example, which has terrific and substantive coverage of the indie rock scene every day.

Bryant Park was was a Web play that inexplicably had an expensive radio program attached. If NPR wanted an internet audience, why produce 2 hours of radio every day? Nine tenths of the staff was devoted to the radio show/podcast, which had an audience five times smaller than, say, All Songs Considered, NPR's WEEKLY Web-only music show.

Posted by JP | July 24, 2008 5:25 PM

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