In the Loop

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.

Comments (9)

Your analysis of the show's failure is spot on. However to believe or predict most of podcast news shows will fail may be pre-mature.

Where I see doomed program is that that does not focus on its subject and does not provide compelling, unique and clearly presented points-of-view. An hour-long show is way too long to focus on any single or limited set of topics. One beauty of podcasts is that it can be of any length. However, many interpret this to mean, "I can babble as long as I like." And they do. And they fail. And they blame podcasting as a medium has failed.

On the other hand, many podcasters understand the grace of a well-focused, short and sweet segment that can be consumed in bite-sized chunks. It's in those five to ten minute periods in the reality of most podcast listeners that can take in the shows. Sixty-minutes, regardless of the subject, is far too imposing. Who has the time?

Additionally, podcasters following the radio model almost exactly aren't going to cut it. Sandwiching content around ads might work for established podcasts who garnered a huge and dedicated following and after months of doing it all for free, hopeful podcast stars aren't going to attract advertisers based on promises. Too many podcasters have simply walked away from contracts leaving advertisers high and dry. Podcasting as a simple substitute for terrestrial radio, as so many have attempted, was doomed just as surely as it began.

The medium of podcasting, though, is here to stay. I don't have much to say to the potential of podcasting as a general news source (other than those provided by traditional news services). Where it will continue to grow is at the business level where companies, especially business-to-business companies, need to talk to customers, partners, investors and others. It's here where I make my money in the production of these videos and mostly in the video format. Most of these podcasts are never seen or distributed to the public which is another beauty of podcasting. It can be so directly aimed that others don't see it. That's a GOOD thing when keeping your product development a secret. When someone asks, "If podcasting is so beneficial, why aren't I seeing more of it?" it may be because you just aren't in the market audience to which the podcaster is sending.

It will take some time before podcasting finds its true potential. In the meantime, many will try and fail because they are simply trying to do things the old way with the new medium.

Dave Burckhard
National Podcasting System

Posted by Dave Burckhard | July 16, 2008 1:23 PM

Maybe the lesson of the failure of the BPP, Fair Game, and others, is that if you can't come up with a sustainable 5 year business plan why bother at all? Given the known difficulties of getting carriage it ought to be a pre-requisite. Shows that go under after only a year or two obviously didn't figure this out.

To give you an example, Rick Steves came to me after the demise of yet another program, Savvy Traveler (which lasted more than a couple of years), and said let's do a travel show. I suggested he do a show, but to work out the financing and budget so that it would be sustainable for the first year with just a few stations, and only a few more in the second year, and so on up to 5 years. I told him if the success of your show depends on unrealistic carriage expectations for sustainability it will probably fail.

He structured the show and the budget with this in mind, so the show survived the first couple of lean years, and, now in it's 4th year has way more top notch carriage than all the shows that have failed since then combined. The fact is new shows need time to develop and lots of time to find stations and listeners. (Time by itself is not enough – it also has to be a great show!)

The last “hit” show to be produced, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, is now 10 years old with the current host, and it took at least 5 years from its inception before it was clear the show was a real hit. Today it rivals Car Talk for audience on stations where it airs back to back with Car Talk. No other show following Car Talk has been able to even come close to that kind of success.

Posted by Jeff | July 16, 2008 9:06 PM

Dave and Jeff -- Thanks for the terrific comments.

On podcasting: I'm beginning to think there are two distinct types of podcast listeners -- and if you're in one group, it's easy to disregard the other. There are those Dave describes, who are after the "short-and-sweet." I would guess these folks do a lot of listening on their computers, or perhaps they have a lifestyle where they walk a lot (with an iPod in their ears).

But then there's another type (and I put myself in this category): These are people who are using podcasts to supplant their radio and CD listening -- especially while exercising or in the car. In these circumstances, a longer podcast (a good one, of course) is just what the doctor ordered. In these circumstances, you don't want to be searching every five minutes for the next thing to listen to. In my view, longer podcasts have a huge potential market as more people start playing them through their car stereos. In this environment, short podcasts can be a real inconvenience. Some long podcasts -- This American Life, RadioLab, This Week in Tech come to mind -- are extraordinarily successful.

---- On Jeff's experiences: Couldn't be more right that the financial vision has to be there along with the editorial vision.

I think a crucial question is when to distribute. At least it's crucial from where I'm sitting! Anything with Rick Steves is probably a no-brainer -- go national from the start, even if it's only a few stations. In our case, we're completing our third year as a very small scale operation, without anyone pulling the trigger on distribution. Looking at BPP and Fair Game, perhaps that conservatism has kept us alive and creating for longer than either, and saved us from a big public flame-out (my bosses would certainly argue this, and I certainly am grateful for my employment). But if something's good, how long do you wait before taking the leap?

On that note, I'll come full-circle: Thank God for podcasts. It may be slow to get exposure without national radio play, but a podcast is de-facto national distribution. Audiences do discover us -- slowly but surely.

Posted by Jeff Horwich | July 17, 2008 9:54 AM

I loved Fair Game and Bryant Park Project, but stopped listening to them because I could never keep up. I only listen to podcasts these days, and my preferred format is either 30 minutes a couple times a week, or an hour long show once a week. Sound Opinions, Wait Wait, Mac Break Weekly, Flak Radio all fit that bill. Hour long shows, every day, just don't fit in my schedule.

But Radiolab is my favorite show, and they're only a few times a year, and I'm sure they will suffer the same fate soon enough.

Posted by Moe | July 17, 2008 12:12 PM

I'll basically say "ditto" to everything Moe said.

The longer a show, the less frequently it needs to come out for me to listen to it. You're exactly right about the backlog. Plus, since my daily commute is currently short, my available time for podcast listening is precious (and non-existent on the days I bike).

But I also like being able to quickly squeeze in a 4-minute Future Tense or 7-minute Grammar Grater or 10-minute Pandora episode.

(I also

Posted by Erica M | July 17, 2008 1:27 PM

Why specifically was "In The Loop" Canceled? Not a good show? Too Expensive? Was it on the air in St. Paul?

On podcast length - it doesn't really matter. Look at todays iTunes Top Podcasts list. In the top 20 you have everything from The Onion at about 40 seconds to Talk of the Nation at nearly 2 hours.

With a podcast you can start and stop it at will and listen as time permits. Or you can listen to your daily collection of podcasts from the recent folder and they play back to back and you can press skip whenever you want.

One thing that is true about length, is that the average radio listener listens in short increments and this is probably true of many podcast listener. Listening to live streaming audio whether it is from a radio or not is usually lifestyle driven, that is, it is not by appointment.

If you want to match the length of your podcast to the average duration of each occasion of listening you would make your podcast no longer than about 15 minutes. This is what is so great about podcasting. You can listen to an hour show over the course of a week in short increments.

On radio, you simply miss half the show, or the middle of show, when you get out of the car to get a loaf of bread. Or you miss it altogether because you do not typically listen to the radio when that show happens to be scheduled.

Posted by Jeff Hansen | July 17, 2008 9:00 PM

I agree with Jeff Hansen about podcast length. I do, however, feel all of you are missing a key factor about podcasting that, in my mind, will limit it from becoming truly ubiquitous. Subscribing to a podcast is not passive enough. I'm an active podcaster, however, I do find myself turning on traditional radio, or web radio streams to let others surprise me and tell me about the world. I want to be lazy sometimes and not have to choose. And as media becomes more and more volumnous, the need for a filter to help separate the wheat from the chaff will be become more and more desirable along with delivering it in the most effortless way possible. Look at what Peter Gabriel is doing with his, "The Filter" Keeping up with podcasts can sometimes feel like a chore. How is podcasting growing? I believe it has been stagnant and is still hovering around 11% of the people who use the internet know of podcasting. That's not a very big pool of people. Like the approach to renewable energy sources where Wind Power and Solar will only be part of the equation - podcast will serve that role. Unless it becomes completely passive and as easy as just turning on.
Also, the there are issues with relying on podcasts to help a new show expand and grow. Don't get me wrong; a podcast is essential in helping a show find it's voice and it's audience. But it's not a supplemen or enough to get you finacial backing. Once again the potential audience that accesses podcasting is marginal. Then you can only track downloads. So the data is iffy. What does the number of total downloads actually mean to a sponsor? Having access to a terristrial station still guarantees a larger audience and you get data like AQH and share and TSL. None of that exists in podcasting, yet. (Maybe that will change with PPM?) I realize that podcasts can offer a very zeroed in demographic. But I really think there's not enough data behind podcasts to help finanically support a new program. Podcasting is only piece of the puzzle.

Posted by Todd | July 18, 2008 2:39 PM

This is an awesome thread. Not sure how much more I have to add. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks there's a place for longer (and less frequent) podcasts. And I couldn't agree more with Todd about the boost that terrestrial radio can still give -- I think it's what we experienced in the fall when we were finally on every week. More people had chance encounters with us on the radio, and our podcast numbers went bonkers.

I should address Jeff Hansen's question about what the hell happened to us. The short answer is that we weren't canceled. The fall season (which was broadcast to the MPR listening area, as is everything we do) was considered a great success internally (by most people), but the budget was not secured to continue the show in that form right now. I'd be wise not to share too many details. But suffice it to say we didn't out-and-out win the internal battle for hearts and minds. There is not good consensus among MPR management about what is considered "news" and whether we should be bothering with programs -- especially somewhat expensive investments like ours -- that don't fit the traditional mold. Our show was hard to place in an easy box, and unfortunately a certain amount of traditional thinking still abounds. Not everyone "got" the show the way audiences did, though they do support the general notion that we should be doing some new things for new listeners -- which is why Sanden and I are still here, getting on the air in ways the external audience will like, and the internal audience will at least tolerate.

Posted by Jeff Horwich | July 22, 2008 11:23 AM

very insightful- I listened to Fair Game a lot, even though I was one year outside the target demo. I think the key is finding programs that are not The Daily Show but are fun(new angles on stories, new voices) and funny at times(don't act as if they are the grandson of Edward R. Murrow all the time).
I think NPR needs to change ME and ATC rather than trying to create one show for 18-44 and maintaining another show for 45 up.
And the names of these shows- Bryant Park Project sounds like the name for a funky accordian band.
At least Fair Game meant it's name- anything and anyone was.

Posted by Craig Kenworthy | July 24, 2008 2:01 PM

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