Monday, July 09, 2012

Car Talk Controversy: The Dearth of New,Good Public Radio Programs

Ira Glass puts the blame for lack of program innovation in public radio on station program directors. The argument, and it is not just Ira’s argument, is that program directors are risk averse. From my experience, the opposite is true. Stations are craving new, good programs to try. In this case “good” means programs that meet the station’s mission, show potential to build audience loyalty in an underperforming time slot, and also pack some on-air fundraising punch.

The simple fact is that producers aren’t delivering programs that come close to meeting all of these needs. They often have the mission piece down, but most new programs are sorely lacking when it comes to audience performance and fundraising support. The reason is public radio’s top-down mentality to program creation.

Here’s a brief history lesson. Public radio’s signature news programs were created at the network level, top down, and took decades to develop into audience powerhouses. With the exception of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, public radio’s top-performing entertainment programs were developed at stations, over years, and then took a good 3 to 5 more years as network programs to become audience powerhouses.

Garrison Keilior, The Magliozzi Brothers, and Ira Glass cut their teeth at local stations where they could make mistakes while figuring out how to make great radio programs. They tried new things. They learned from audience and fundraising feedback.

This American Life (TAL) presents an interesting case study. For its first five years in national distribution, TAL was a lousy audience performer. Quite a bit of the content wasn’t suitable for air before 7p. Stations first struggled with whether to clear the program at all and then where to schedule it. But Ira was also providing his stations with many of the best fundraising spots ever made. And they worked in Morning Edition! That was an incredible incentive for existing outlets to keep the program and even convince others to add it.

Over time, This American Life found its voice and became a strong audience performer for stations. While TAL doesn’t have the sheer numbers drawing power of A Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, none of those programs have the mix of storytelling, journalism, and entertainment that makes This American Life the embodiment of public radio ideals.

Ira worked hard to make TAL a successful radio show. He had a passion for station success, first for WBEZ and then for the stations carrying his program. Solid audience performance in lesser dayparts and a stellar public radio image earned TAL the prime time slots on Saturdays it now enjoys.

Wait Wait also struggled in its first few years and the program was on the verge of losing valuable affiliates. Wait Wait was saved by a frank letter from Producer Doug Berman to stations acknowledging the program’s problems and a heartfelt promise to fix them. It required a host change and eventually recording the show in front of live audiences but that passion for station success helped Wait Wait blossom into an elite audience performer.

The passion for station success is almost always absent in the top-down model of making radio programs. NPR’s Tell Me More is a great example of this and it is one of the newer network offerings. It has the least station-friendly program clock of any major weekday network program. There are too few opportunities for station IDs, local underwriting, and local promotion. There are no pledge drive friendly cutaway opportunities during the program. Its audience loyalty is weak and there seems to be no plan to address that.

The better model is for producers to partner with a station for a few years to develop a radio program that delivers solid audience performance and good fundraising results. This is especially necessary for first-time producers. There’s a big difference between putting together an hour of good audio content and making a great radio program. It is something that is learned, not taught. 

Ira learned those lessons and he continually applied them to TAL without compromising his vision for the program. Helping stations succeed made TAL a success and that helped Ira become the star he is today. Producers who want station airtime would do well to emulate Ira’s path to success rather than blaming station program directors and Car Talk for their inability to get on the air.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you make a solid argument here, John...but there's a glaring issue you haven't touched on: ownership.

No station is going to allow some producer to come in and "cut their teeth" producing a show on their airwaves without demanding one of two things:

1. Excessively high "lease time" fees.

2. Ownership of the content.

The first is a terrible business model. I'm not aware of anyone who's done it successfully in public radio, whereas I'm aware of at least one show (with a major "name" host with a proven track record) that went down in flames trying it.

As for the second, many program producers specifically encourage aspiring producers to "take ownership" of their content and go straight to the web if they need to.

That's directly the opposite of what you suggest. How can this be reconciled?

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Aaron Read said...

How prescient. It appears The Takeaway is dropping its attempt to compete with Morning Edition.

I wonder if this bolsters the argument that pubradio PD's are being too cautious and not embracing quality pubradio programming...or bolsters your argument that producers are not providing it?

(Not that TT isn't quality's VERY high quality...but even high quality programming isn't much help if it's not available at a time that stations need it.)

Either way, I'd consider this a blow to public radio in general. I always felt that competition in the morning drive was a good idea for bettering public radio as a whole. Plus it could, and should, have been a good vehicle for encouraging multiple public radio outlets in the same markets (especially major markets). While I am unaware of a multitude of potential "behind the scenes" factors that could influence this, I always thought WGBH missed a real opportunity on this front to differentiate themselves from WBUR.

9:22 AM  

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