Can public radio still take risks?

You either loved Car Talk or you hated it; there was no in between. So the news today that the two brothers, who helped pull public radio away from its “way too serious” approach to broadcasting are quitting , is bound to be met with a mixed reaction.

Count me among the lovers, if only because I share an accent with Tom and Ray Magliozzi. It should be called “N-P-Ahhhh.”

NPR — and this is a public radio tradition — is going to continue to produce the show by recycling old ones. They don’t have much choice; it’s a cash cow for the station that produces it and the people who distribute it.

But let’s face it: it won’t be the same.

This has been an interesting time in public radio of late, and the next few years are going to test whether it’s capable of taking a risk enough to give an outlet to new ways of doing things.

Car Talk is gone, Keillor is retiring, Eichten has retired, and an increasing number of people who basically built public radio are turning things over to the next generation, which has not been well schooled in the art of betting it all on an idea..

But public radio is a lot more popular now than it was when Car Talk started. I know. I’m from the Boston area and I can assure you, nobody listened to WBUR, the station that produced the program, and where it grew for 10 years before it went national.

A few years ago, when the Smithsonian was asking for it, I encoded the very first A Prairie Home Companion show and it lived online for a few hours, until Keillor asked it be removed. It was, to be kind, not very good. But MPR was a new outfit with not much audience and the risk of trying it out wasn’t going to hurt anybody.

You can do a lot of creative things when nobody listens to your radio station because there’s little downside to taking risk. But not anymore. Public radio has never been more popular and taking a risk has never been more dangerous. The early A Prairie Home Companion would have a most difficult time getting on the air — anywhere — today.

Essentially, public radio is where commercial radio was 30 years ago, just before it went on its suicidal path toward irrelevance by playing it safe in order not to alienate an existing audience.

The problem is times do change, people do retire — sometimes they die — and change has to come. Are public radio stations any better at taking chances than the commercial stations were 30 years ago? NPR is dipping into the archive to keep the status quo and to keep current listeners happy.

Eventually, someone’s going to have to come up with a new idea and the audience is going to have to give it a chance.

  • Jim Shapiro

    I love, my spousal unit hates. Reason: “Too much laughing.”

    ( In spite of the fact that I’m a militant agnostic, I do accept prayers 🙂

  • Joe

    For me to reason I love MPR (I am primarily a Current listener but also love to listen to Kerry Miller and all of the PM shows.) is that they offer things that you cannot hear on commercial stations. For example, I am forty four years old and probably listen to more new music now then I did even when I was in my twenties all because of the playlist The Current chooses to put on the air. Are there times when I might not like some of it, yes but I listen because of the personalities and the likelihood that I AM going to hear something new that I connect with. Commercial stations do not take ANY chances anymore because there is not enough profit in it for them. They are not willing to stick with something for the long haul because they just want to get in, get their money and move on to the next one. Building a culture is more important to me then just temporary gains.

  • Jim Shapiro

    If “not very good” was the primary criteria for editing the Prairie Home Companion, the only part that would consistently survive would be the Lake Wobegon monologue.

    But how nice for Garrison that he has his own show so that he can sing along with real musicians.

  • bsimon

    Seems to me that “wait, wait, don’t tell me” and “this American life” were (& perhaps still are) risks.

  • Bob Collins

    Wait Wait started 15 years ago. TAL started 17 years ago. I don’t know what the ratings are but I’m willing to bet the audience in Chicago was MUCH smaller then. And its rank in the market was relatively miniscule.

    So, I’m not sure whether giving them room to grow was much of a risk.

  • I’ve often thought the same thing about public radio. I’ve had a couple of conversations in recent years where I’ve pitched shows to public radio and my overall observation is that execs seem to confuse “lively” with commercial radio.

    It’s certainly possible to be entertaining as well as thoughtful, but that distinction appears to be lost on modern day public radio. Which is too bad, since I’m one of those people who would listen to more of it if it better served my needs.

    If anyone asked me (and it’s doubtful anyone will), the best move MPR or PRI could make would be solicit a bunch of program ideas from new sources. Produce a pilot of a few and see what comes of the process. Public radio certainly needs new voices and the current system seems incapable of producing them.

  • William

    Also from WBEZ- check out, for a (quite controversial) risk taken by an NPR affiliate.

  • I can think of a few attempts MPR has made to develop new shows. Dinner Party Download was on Fridays at the end of ATC for a while – I think it lives on at a different time or ??? Chris Roberts did a local arts show in that same time slot. I like ArtHounds and wish it was podcasted since I never seem to be listening when it is on the radio.

    NPR, MPR & American Public Media all create a lot of good content – the interesting question is: what should be _broadcast_? In a narrow-cast media market (podcasting/streaming) where the consumer can choose their own programming, the broadcast seems dated.

    I’m a long-time MPR listener but I listen to more APM content via podcast than I do by broadcast these days.

  • Shannon

    On PRX and PRI there are some shows that might be considered more of a risk. RadioLab, the fantastic work of YouthRadio and the Moth Radio Hour probably fit into that category. Krys Boyd on KERA (Dallas, TX)’s show “Think” is my best prediction for the next Fresh Aire or Diane Rehm Show whenever either of those talented hosts choose to retire. I bet if we look around the country at the small shows or fantastic podcasts being produced, an interested party could find a few shows worthy of wide syndication. Maybe even a Car Show for the next generation.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Count your blessings, MPR listeners.

    My extremely prosperous, yet somehow still 3rd rate NPR affiliate out of San Diego broadcasts the audio portion of PBS’ Newshour for the evening news.

    ( The local TV channels have REALLY HOT meteorologists though.)

  • Patrick Dewane

    The Current and Being were two successful risks. The Kevin Kling residency is entrepreneurial, so is Wits. Complacency is prologue for a eulogy.

  • Holstoz

    The bottom line for MPR appears to be cost not risk. What else can explain the appearance of the BBC in the afternoon programing? One hour only each day of TALK of the Nation and the Friday Science show is cut from 2 to one hours.

    Obviously, MPR can no longer afford want to take risks. They don’t even think in terms of risks. It’s all about the bottom line and hang what the listeners want.


  • James

    There are some risks being taken, but in a different venue. I’m currently a fan of an American Public media show that I hope is starting to get some traction.

    The show is called “The Dinner Party” (a show to help you WIN your next dinner part since they are competitive events). It started as “The Dinner Party Download”, a 20 minute podcast, and that’s how I still listen to it. In the last year they’ve been able to expand the show to an hour and get fascinating guests.

    Another show along the same lines, from NPR, is “How To Do Everything”. It’s done by people who work behind the scenes at Wait, Wait.

    You you are looking for new ideas, it’s much easier to find them in lower cost venues like podcasts where the up front investment is lower and the talent can take the time to find their style.

    PS: In their last fund raising drive, the hosts of “Dinner Party” suggested a donation equivalent to the cost of a bottle of wine you’d bring to a dinner party.

    PPS: I have yet to actually WIN a dinner party.

  • Jim!!!

    I’m very disappointed with the Science Friday change. Educational programs like Science Friday are unique to public radio. News can be found everywhere and anywhere. I’ll probably eventually divert some of my dollars to podcasts of unique programs like SciFri.

  • Bob Collins

    // They don’t even think in terms of risks. It’s all about the bottom line and hang what the listeners want. Why do we have to have more and more BBC news and less and less programing?

    One person’s risk is another person’s outrage and you actually provide a fine example. International news is not our, ummm, strong suit in the country. It’s risky to bring it to “prime time” where — at the moment — it has absolutely no exposure.

    Now, you may not agree with it and that’s certainly a discussion worth having, but the reaction is a good example of why the best course of action to keep current listeners happy is to do nothing.

    That’s the point. And that’s why Car Talk will continue to be on the radio long after its two stars have passed on.

    But what’s the NEXT generation of groundbreaking programs and the creativity behind it. And, by the way, by creativity, I don’t mean doing the same thing other people have done. I mean something COMPLETELY different.

  • Bob Collins

    // I’ll probably eventually divert some of my dollars to podcasts of unique programs like SciFri.

    Bingo. You just made my point.

  • JSK

    I’m one of the ones that will continue to support MPR at the same level and ride along to see what comes next.

    Personally, I think that they should just end Car Talk once Tom and Ray are gone. If people want to listen to the old shows, they’re all archived as podcasts, no?

    I may be in the minority, but I tend to skip any rebroadcasts of the weekend non-news programming (aside from Splendid Table). The rest are too topical to warrant another listen. Yes, even Car Talk.

  • Jeff

    Don’t insurance rates drop for everybody when a state adopts a mandatory helmet law? If so, their desire for “freedom” to not wear a helmet costs me real dollars.

  • Marc Anderson

    There is a delicate dynamic at play in all forms of patronage as it pertains to creativity and innovation. Some of the forms it takes in the U.S may be cultural but it appears that in all societies there is a balance between the push toward innovation and the need for stasis. In the case of public radio, we can appreciate the difficulty of creating and delivering “new” programming while trying to maintain a now massive infrastructure to deliver it. No one wants employees of NPR or MPR to loose their jobs. Few of us think that employees of those organizations are over paid. And, once you start thinking of what to program based on those considerations first, the tail is wagging the dog. The same problem pops up everywhere, religious institutions, schools, record companies and Target. And, ironically, success exacerbates the problem. You get a “Car Talk” or “A Prairie Home Companion” and then you have to build an infrastructure to support it. Not to deny that greed and other forms of selfish interest are also factors but the “problem” of public radio is the problem of creativity and commerce. What is popular is never at the cutting edge. Innovation is by definition at the edge of acceptability. It’s beyond the imagination of most of us which is why we need it so bad and are at the same time so reluctant to support it. Whether public radio lives to be an agent of change and innovation, who knows? And, in a way, who cares? What we can count on is that creativity will live and find expression.

  • Kassie

    I’m glad someone mentioned Wits above. Wits is very unique and a great show. Right now, it is still feels very Minnesotan, but that is because the guests tend to mention Minnesotan things, like Prince and Jesse Ventura. It is clearly still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but I could see it evolving into very solid, nationwide program. It is funny and musical. Great stuff.

    The funniest thing on public radio is the Marketplace Tech Report. Again, a John Moe show. Tech reporting can be so boring, but they find a way to make it interesting, relevant and funny. I’d say there is a risk there to make tech reporting funny and it has worked well.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Kassie – “The funniest thing on public radio is the Marketplace Tech Report.” Yeah, they can be pretty good.

    Personally, I think the funniest thing on public radio is the news. ( Accept for Eleanor Beardsley. She’s the main reason that I don’t carry a loaded gun in my glove compartment.)

    But I’m a graduate of the “You Can Laugh Or You Can Cry” Institute of Emotional Expression, so I understand if you prefer shows produced by Moe.

  • Bob Collins

    I love my job the most when I read comments like Marc Anderson’s, and I feel I’ve learned something. I feel honored when people take the time to write. I don’t tell you all that anywhere near often enough.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Is that the world class, world famous, world music percussionist Marc Anderson?

    OK, pal. You gotta pick. Really good musician, or really intelligent and articulate. Not both. Show off.

  • MikeB

    That they are running reruns instead of new programming is an admission that NPR does has not thought enough about the next generation of programming.

    Agreed on Dinner Party. Heard it up in northern MN over Memorial Day and was impressed that some affiliates are trying something different.

    As organizations grow they become risk averse. As mentioned by Bob and others, few of the current big shows would survive today’s standards of “new” programming. NPR/MPR/PRI and other execs should not confuse momentum with brilliance. Here’s hoping new creative shows get the needed time to find their place.

  • Vjacobsen

    Hmm. I was one of the In The Loop fans; MPR gave them about one-fourth of a chance, if that. Way to go….or not.

  • listener

    Given the repetative nature of the weekend schedule on 91.1 there seems to be plenty of room to try new programs. Also, given the number of bloggers, photographers and other non-radio producing staff, there seems to be money to do it. There are also a lot of good programs out there that MPR could broadcast, Studio 360 and To the Best of Our Knowledge are two examples, that I listen to on podcast that I would rather listen to on the weekend schedule. Public radio should be about creating great programming, not programming that attracts the most listeners.

  • Bob Collins

    // bloggers, photographers and other non-radio producing staff,

    You’re suggesting getting rid of bloggers, photographers and non-radio producing staff?

  • listener

    Not necessarily but when it comes to making decisions about spending resources creating risk taking programing, and when pledge week goals aren’t met, I wonder if sometimes these things distract from the bread and butter of being a radio station and creating radio programing. I don’t know the stats, but I assume the vast majority of people who consume MPR programing do so through a radio.

  • Bob Collins

    When we started the regional news site — I started it — there was a siZeable contingent of radio people who said “we’re a radio station,” we should just do radio.

    That’s a recipe for death in 2012 and MPR actually took a risk by committing actual resources to online. Radio is a medium; it’s not the content.

    Wits is a good example. It’s not really a radio show and it involves social networking as it experiments with different ways of engaging the audience.

    Of course, I also wrote a year or so ago that radio stations should go back to signing off at midnight rather than incur expenses of programming for a very small audience. That went over big.

  • listener

    For every person who tweets before a Wits show, how many hear it broadcast on the radio?

  • Audrey F.

    MPR’s KNOW programming has deteriorated unbelievably since the retirement(s) of Bill Kling and Gary Eichten; I mourned when Eichten left, but never expected that he would be replaced by such innocuousness. Even Keri Miller, of whom I have been a huge fan, has become skippable. I never thought I’d be saying this, but days go by without my tuning in. And The BBC News Hour in place of Talk Of The Nation??? Hello-o-o? I feel I’m about to save some money; I’ll be cancelling my admittedly paltry sustaining-membership in the foreseeable future. This stuff just isn’t worth it.

    But hey, y’know something? I can honestly say that re: Car Talk, I am “In-between”. I can take those two or leave ’em. I’m entertained (moderately) if they’re on and I’m listening; Miss ’em, no big deal.

  • James G

    This is a great comment thread. I hope I can bring a little something to it.

    Here in Denver, there is one hour a week (and another hour of rebroadcast) dedicated to something different. They call it Spotlight, and it is where they slot the more recent Radiolab episode (even if it’s already been on the RL podcast for months), or some other one hour show. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. Not when they switch over to BBC programing at 9PM on weeknights, 8PM on Saturdays, and 7PM on Sundays. 7PM! Sunday nights were made for getting experimental, and instead, we have cheap and easy. In a “major” radio market.

    It seems that the issue is convincing program directors to take even the smallest risk is difficult. There are plenty of shows out there that could be had on the cheap, but finding a way to break into a programming lineup is near impossible. PDs seem to look for reasons not to bring a show into the schedule, even for a bit.

    Take a look at Bullseye (formerly The Sound of Young America). It has been produced as a regular public radio show for years, and still barely cracks any lineups. It pulls most of it’s money from being a podcast (following the public radio model of asking for donations), and it’s audience is the next generation of public radio listeners. He still tries to get it on radio stations, even though most PDs won’t give it a chance. What would a 7PM slot on Sunday cost my local radio station? Barely anything.

    There are plenty of interesting shows out there, some short form, some longer stuff. 99% Invisible is a great example. And all of this stuff can be had from PRX super cheap. The biggest fear I can see is that a show might actually get popular, and then a station might have to pay a little more for it. What a wonderful problem to have.

    I would respectfully argue with what Marc Anderson said, “Not to deny that greed and other forms of selfish interest are also factors but the “problem” of public radio is the problem of creativity and commerce. What is popular is never at the cutting edge.” I would point directly to Radiolab. It sounds weird, is a little cutting edge, and still popular where it is broadcast. By public radio standards, it’s fairly out there. They do stick with storytelling, which is the norm for public radio, so that helps them ride that edge of creative and mainstream.

    Where is the fear of the new really coming from? Is it money? Is it laziness? Is it that we don’t have enough WBEZ’s out there willing to spend time and effort on interesting things like Love and Radio (which won a Third Coast award for an amazing episode last year, and still barely anyone has heard of it)?

    There is a lot of good content out there. While public radio has been turning it’s collective backs on new shows and new talent, great content hasn’t stopped being produced. And even NPR is trying things on the cheap. Ask Me Another is an example of a lower risk, cheaper attempt to add programming, even if it isn’t “new” in the bolder sense of the word.

    This has been a long comment, so sorry about that. I would love your thoughts on it.

  • wjcstp

    I understand the dilemma, but as a long-time member of MPR it’s frustrating that we have one of (maybe the) biggest public radio services in the country and we rarely get new programming. I have enjoyed the Wits repeats, but that’s only show weekends. I have listened to RadioLab and the Moth when they were on experimentally, but that was short-lived.

    The Current has been doing a pretty good job of using Sundays as a time for special-interest shows, the news service should try the same thing. We don’t really need a 3rd repeat of Car Talk, or another repeat of Weekend Edition. The audience isn’t well-served by sporadically dropping in experiments, it would be much more effective (i’d be much more likely to tune in) if it was something like “6-8pm Sundays, always a new or experimental radio show, vote on what you like”.

    My listening in the last few years has heavily shifted to podcast listening not just because of the time-shift ability, but because that’s where so much great experimental stuff is going on. Why someone hasn’t offered Paul F. Tompkins (for example) a monthly nationally syndicated hour-long show is beyond me.

  • Steve

    NPR is clearly out of ideas.

    This is exemplified by the fact that they’re going to try to hide the fact that Click and Clack have retired by not announcing that the shows they will be running are repeats and even giving out the phone number. This verges upon a fraud upon the listening public, all in the interest of keeping the pledge dollars coming in.

    I’m with public radio host Harry Shearer (Le Show, not heard in your area) when I say “Please give.”

  • Steve

    @Jim Shapiro: You’re giving our local audio dog trainer in San Diego much too much credit. “Third rate” is generous by a couple of orders of magnitude.

    Announcers with decided speech impediments (lisps and a tendency to talk through their nose), sloppy automation, and bottom of the barrel programming tell me that the management doesn’t even bother listening to the station.

  • The audience doesn’t have to give anyone a chance. Their attention is fickle, and will change. If Super Company, outside of Public Radio comes along and gives our customers (be that our audience, sponsors, or funders) what they want better, faster, and cheaper than we do (even if it is an app. or a podcast. or an ad network, or a responsive design web site, or “bad radio”) then we loose our audience and they become the Super Company’s customers. Simple as that.

  • Lisa

    MPR needs to follow your advice esp on the weekends. I can understand repeating Prairie Home twice over the weekends, but THREE times? C’mon. Add The Moth, Living on Earth, Bullseye, or the TED hour, for Pete’s sake.