Ira Glass and the future of public radio

Ira Glass, typically, is showing a brewing reality in the world of public radio: It’s going to be really difficult to come up with a new generation of public radio programming as the baby boomer generation loosens its grip.

Glass, the host of This American Life, is hardly the struggling public radio wannabee; he has one of the most popular shows on radio, but he’s looking for a new way to distribute it to radio stations now that he’s ending his relationship with Public Radio International, the Minneapolis-based distributor of public radio programs.

“It’s easy to start a show or podcast, there are all sorts of people to work with,” Glass tells the New York Times today. “And also its weakness: Few of the distributors have money to invest in new shows. If you’re making a show, you have to come up with that yourself, usually.”

In the new era of podcasting and direct-to-listener technology, the “old ways” are still where the audience and the revenue is.

Three other organizations, including the parent of MPR, are lining up to get Glass’ business, the Times reports.

While online and mobile listening are growing rapidly, particularly among younger listeners, “there’s still a lot of listening going on in radio,” said David Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, whose other offerings include “Marketplace” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Distributors, he said, do not just provide technical support, they also work with stations to raise the visibility of a show in local markets: bringing in program hosts, creating content related to local issues and helping with live events.

“Distributors are no longer as critical as they once were — the technology of distribution in the digital world has become child’s play,” said Jim Russell, an independent program consultant, via email. “But the imprimatur that comes with distribution is still trusted by many program directors who are the gatekeepers of the airwaves. It’s like the old Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.”

The distributors are working to make that even more so.

Glass will have no problem either going it alone or finding a new distributor. But Russell is right, there are still “gatekeepers of the airwaves” who, understandably, cater to the audience that already exists, not the one that someday might support of more fledgling program.

That distributors are beating a path to Glass’ door underscores the reality that there are nowhere near enough popular national shows from a new generation to excite the public radio audience.

  • Inella

    Jim would know since he also used to work for American Public Media – if his name sounds familiar, it is because he used to be with Marketplace. I worked with him when that program was acquired from the University of Southern California.

  • Veronica

    Bob, everything I’ve been reading says that WBUR bought PRI a couple of years ago.

  • Jeff

    Ahh, it’s nothing that another hour of Car Talk repeats can’t fix.

  • DavidG

    Are the program directors for whom distributorship imprimatur is important Boomers or younger? If it’s Boomers, wouldn’t some of that change as they retire, and are replaced by a generation that is moving to podcasts?

    Also, wouldn’t there be an opening for distributors to provide similar forms of support for content in the form of podcasts? Again, a shift that might accelerate as Boomers at the head of these distributorships retire.

    • It’s a chicken and egg situation. Programs on radio generate revenue for the radio stations by virtue of their sizeable audience. Podcasts, although they might be growing in popularity, do not. At least not yet.

      The toughest situation radio program directors face is finding new shows in an era where they no longer have the luxury to wait for them to develop an audience.

      In the old days of public radio, stations could wait because, well, nobody listened to public radio.

      There’s an argument that the current distribution model discourages the production of new innovative shows. I tend not to subscribe to it. I think what discourages the production of new, innovative shows is the people who contribute the money like the old ones.

      In the podcast sphere, it’s a little different. The younger audience has grown up in an environment where they get content for free. So the program producer really has a problem going in.

      • Guest

        “I think what discourages the production of new, innovative shows is the people who contribute the money like the old ones.”
        Car Talk