Car Talk Controversy: The Intersection of Idealism and Income
NPR Programming VP Eric Nuzum takes issue with Ira, responding that Car Talk actually fuels innovation because it generates large audiences and significant revenues for stations and will likely do so in repeats. Nuzum argues that those listeners and that money are irreplaceable at this time.
The topic has generated hundreds of comments and interesting threads from industry professionals and listeners.
It is a classic “mission versus money” debate. And as with most debates within public radio today, it’s starting from the wrong place. This is not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and issue.
At the heart of the matter is the difference between understanding listeners and understanding audiences.
The listener is an individual who hears the content. Ira understands listeners quite well. He creates compelling stories and, by far, the most compelling on-air fundraising bits in all of public radio. He’s helped stations make millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, through his ability to connect with listeners.
Audiences, on the other hand, are groups of listeners whose behavior helps us understand what listeners like about our programs and stations. Understanding audience behavior is central to programming a station effectively and raising the necessary money to keep the programming on the air.
It is impossible for a public radio station to succeed without understanding both listeners and audiences. Ira knows listeners but his understanding of Saturday audiences is all wrong.
First, Ira suggests that Car Talk needs to move to make room for new innovative shows in prime Saturday time. That’s not at all necessary. There are plenty of prime hours on Saturday afternoons for new programs to make a mark. Most stations lose audience from 1p to 5p on Saturdays even though lots of public radio listeners are using the radio then. For many stations the potential audience on Saturday afternoons is as great as it is during weekdays from 10a-4p.
The problem is that most of the weekend programs available to stations are mediocre audience performers as best. They drive listeners away more than they bring them in. Stations are not lacking for available times to try new, good programs. They are lacking new, good programs.
Second, Ira says “…we don’t need Car Talk to shore up audience numbers on Saturday mornings. Thanks to Doug Berman, there’s another public radio blockbuster that’s building audience and loyalty on Saturday mornings right now — Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!”
Ira’s logic is that it is better to have one successful program on Saturday mornings instead of two.
Had he done a little fact checking he would have seen data that shows considerably stronger overall performance on Saturdays, not just Saturday mornings, when Weekend Edition, Car Talk, and Wait Wait air consecutively.
And make no mistake about it, Car Talk will remain successful in repeats, at least in the short run. Even if Car Talk’s ability to pull in listeners drops by 15% or 20%, it will still be a stronger audience draw than This American Life. It is also likely to generate more income for stations in repeats than This American Life will generate with new programs in the next few years. That’s how powerful the program is.
Eric Nuzum was exactly right in his response. Stations absolutely need Car Talk on Saturday mornings. In fact, stations need to be running Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me twice each weekend. Those programs draw listeners to the station and make weekend listening stronger for all programs.
In the real world of public radio economics stations need programs that generate surplus revenues to help pay for innovation, overhead, and the “mission” related activities that require subsidy. These days that also includes local programming and digital offerings. Car Talk is among only a handful of programs that generate such revenue. Public radio needs more Car Talk’s, not fewer.
The argument that stations should walk away from Car Talk and all of its value in the name of “mission” is ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as suggesting that This American Life should give its program to stations for free so they would have more money to invest in innovation.
The intersection of Idealism and Income is not a four-way crossroads where stations must choose one direction. It’s a three-way intersection where two important paths to public radio success merge into one.