Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Car Talk Controversy: The Intersection of Idealism and Income

There’s an interesting debate at Current.org over Ira Glass’ assertion that stations should drop Car Talk when it goes to full-time repeats. Ira’s stance is that air time is too valuable to waste on repeats and should instead be used for experimentation and innovation.

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.


Anonymous John Hingsbergen said...

Very good points, John. Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I especially like the idea of Ira making his show available to stations for free.

I know we could use those funds at our station for innovative program development.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that Ira is, and not without reason, having an instinctive reaction to the hyper-conservatism endemic among most public radio program directors. And I don't mind political conservatism, I mean that PD's are notoriously risk-averse. No PD likes change. Or something different. And with good reason! No matter what choice they make with their program lineup, SOMEONE will hate it. And vocally so.

It's hard for the layman to look at the decision keep Car Talk going "on life support" and not come to the conclusion that public radio is self-destructively hidebound. And I'm sure Ira is having flashbacks to the problems he had...and he did have them...getting stations to pick up This American Life back in the day. So ultimately Ira is using a very public argument for what really should be a private discussion (for lack of a better way to phrase it). Not that Ira shouldn't be pushing this discussion into the public realm, but more that PD's aren't going to make informed decisions based on public discussions alone. The way to make informed decisions is through research and details...boring things that don't play well in the public discussion.

Concordantly, I suspect what's going on here is that Ira's not just railing against Car Talk, but against the prototypical underperforming lineup that so many stations stick with primarily because they're afraid of taking a chance on anything else and they think nothing's going to perform well in that slot in the first place, so they might as well stick with the small-but-vocal audience they have for those underperforming shows.

10:54 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

From my experience, the opposite is true. Station PDs are craving solid new programs and producers aren't delivering them. I'm writing a follow-up piece on this very topic. Hopefully done by Monday.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be curious to see what these PD's are considering "solid." I hear from producers every day that they can't seem to get any clearance because no station wants to drop anything on their schedule to make room.

Even high-end shows with major-league production and journalism values like The Takeaway have had a lot of trouble getting clearance at decent timeslots or on something besides an HD2 channel.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a radical idea: take the priorities of listeners into account. Listeners clearly love "Car Talk" and look forward to it each week. Whether it's live or archived makes little difference to listeners. Worse yet, removing "Car Talk" would disappoint the single largest NPR audience draw, in effect telling the listeners to buzz off.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Tiffanni Thorn said...

I agree with Eric. The station definitely needs Car Talk.

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6:42 AM  

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