Public radio at the end of its ‘Wits’

American Public Media announced today that the show, “Wits,” is no more.

John Moe, the host, announced the decision in a letter to fans today.

Dear Witizens,

We’re making some changes and with them comes some hard news. After an amazing few years, Wits, the radio show, is coming to an end.

Decisions like this aren’t easy – especially when a show inspires the kind of fan support Wits has enjoyed. You have helped us sell out our live shows season after season; you have downloaded the podcast along with thousands and thousands of other people; you’ve listened to the public radio show, helping it grow steadily across the country. Wits has been a delight, if not the radio megahit we might have wanted.

This summer, the Wits radio show will be retired. We’ll also suspend live shows for the time being; there will be no stage programs in Minnesota or on the road this fall.

But! You haven’t heard the last of us or of Wits.

We’re going to take all we’ve created and developed and loved and learned and we’re going to look at what a Wits 2.0 might become, in the digital world, eventually on stage, and who knows where else. Our hope is to evolve a version of the show that contains all the fun, passion and creativity you love, but at a cost and pace we can sustain better than before. The landscape of media is changing fast and those in it need to be flexible and nimble.

So be sad but don’t despair. I’m sticking around to create new things, along with Wits co-founder and senior producer Larissa Anderson. In fact, even as you hear less of me on your radio, you’ll be able to hear more of me in your headphones as I and many others involved with Wits will be able to focus our time and energy on bringing more great programming to the Infinite Guest podcast network. Our new project Conversation Parade is just one, really fun example.

Thank you, Witizens, for all you’ve done for us. Here we go, off the radio and on to the future.

John Moe

It’s been three years — almost to the day — since it was announced Moe and “Wits” would be a regular show, which led people — especially me — to consider the possibility that Moe — and perhaps some version of Wits — would replace Garrison Keillor, who wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was his audience. I wrote:

Wits is, to put it succinctly, hip. It attracts the children and grandchildren of Keillor’s audience, which still sets the traditional public radio image. But for how much longer? Public radio needs younger listeners for long-term survival.

Since then, of course, Keillor has handed his show to mandolin player Chris Thile, who doesn’t exactly scream Minnesota but is certainly youthful.

These are certainly trying times for public radio, which is having such a difficult time developing new programs, and giving them the chance to find their way the way “A Prairie Home Companion” did many years ago.

That much is clear just by the fact a staple of the weekend lineup still features a show with a host who’s dead.

When it was announced a few years ago that Car Talk would end production, I asked whether public radio can still take risks, and answered by noting that it’s very much up to the radio audience.

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.

In many ways, public radio’s predicament reveals it’s a victim of its own success as well as the changing technology.

Whether it has a significant future — in whatever platform it chooses to distribute itself — is as much a question today as it was three years ago.

There have been some successes — Brains On strikes me as one of them — and plenty of failures.

It’s a tough pill for us old-timers to accept, as Moe seemed to point out in heartfelt tweets this morning.

It’s too early to declare terrestrial radio dead, but there are few left in it who have worked in it most of their adult lives, believing that the “theater of the mind” is still a place where magic can happen.

These feel like days when we’re watching an old pal in cultural hospice.

  • crystals

    I subscribe to the daily political email from MPR – Capitol something or other. The headline story today was Catherine Richert’s piece on who is paying for political journalism (or “journalism”) these days. This is what the email said along with the link: “This is Catharine Richert’s last story for MPR News, and it’s a good reminder why it’s important to support the kind of coverage you find here.”

    So, I should support MPR so it can do stories just like this one by the excellent political journalist that MPR just let go?

    I was already feeling grumpy about that, and now there’s this. I’m not even a huge Wits fan (though I dig John Moe) – I just can’t figure out the method to public radio’s madness.

    • I don’t get the newsletter but this comes as a bit of shock, to be sure.

    • Jeff

      I didn’t get the layoffs either and same with the Wits decision. MPR pitches that it’s all about us members (and please send us all your money!) but I don’t see much transparency about the decisions and direction of the organization. It feels very corporate.

  • MrE85

    It’s deja vu, all over again, as Yogi Berra told us.

    http://www.minnpost.com/braublog/2010/03/mpr-cancels-loop

  • John

    It’s amazing that something that is played on 130 stations and charges admission to see the show live isn’t successful enough to survive (at least, that’s how I interpret the cancellation of the show). What “safer bet” is going to be put in its place?

    I guess I’ll go back to listening to Car Talk reruns? Public Radio (the talk side anyways) needs some new stuff that’s for sure. I thought Wits was pretty good, and I was one of the people rooting for John Moe to take over for Garrison.

    It’s going to be interesting to watch what’s coming next. I listen to terrestrial radio a lot, and I listen to MPR (the current or news, mood depending) almost exclusively when I’m in range of a tower (often via my phone when I’m not). I hope management over there has a plan, because right now, from the outside, it doesn’t really look like they do.

    • Tim

      Yes, at least from the outside looking in, Wits seemed like it was pretty popular. There were a couple of times where I wanted to see it live, but couldn’t because tickets had already sold out.

      • John

        Admittedly, I only listened maybe 3-4 times. Largely because, for me, what I listen to on the radio is dictated by what’s on when I turn it on. It was rarely on when I tuned in, so I listened to Wait, Wait or Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion, because they had the time slots where I was most likely to be listening.

        I liked what I heard, but radio is a passive entertainment device for me. I don’t normally seek out shows to sit and listen to (if I know that someone I really like is going to be on as a guest, I try to make sure to be present.)

        I wanted to see it live as well, but was never able to pull everything together to make it happen (ticket availability being only one of the issues I faced – babysitter availability being another.)

  • Kassie

    My guess it was cancelled because it wasn’t very good. I had gone to a number of live performances when it first started. The bands are great. The comedians are great. The way it got mixed into a show was not compelling at all. And then the jokes/sketches seemed to be the same each week. To me, it felt like it was forcing these really talented artists into the prescribed sketches/jokes. It got to the point that as soon as I heard it on the radio, I’d switch the station (much like with Prairie Home Companion.)

    • MrE85

      Like Kassie, I liked the idea of “Wits” much more than I liked the actual show.

    • Joe

      I agree. Wits is the only show that would make me change the channel away from MPR.

      As for new shows, I did like the Dinner Party Download.

    • Aleh Bobr

      Same here, after couple of shows I had to change the channel ASAP.

  • chris

    Terrestrial radio is going to be around for a long time. Diverting money away from producing great radio is a mistake. The great content produced for the radio can certainly be used for podcasts and streaming services. I don’t think MPR should spend money on podcasts that are not also used for regular radio content.

  • Noelle

    I never really listened to Wits, for no reason in particular other than I had never heard it nor did I know when I could tune in to hear it. However, I do listen to lots of NPR podcasts (and a couple of the new MPR podcasts as well), and the NPR-affiliated podcasts are always at the top of the podcast charts – This American Life, Radio Lab, Wait Wait, Ted Radio Hour, Invisibilia, etc – all in the top 20. This American Life is so popular it even has a separate app you can pay for to listen to all the archived shows.

    At least from the way I personally consume public radio, I get the impression that radio shows are moving the direction of broadcast television, where people aren’t necessarily tuning in when they air, but will catch it when they’re able to later via podcast (or Hulu/On Demand/DVR in the case of TV shows). The popularity of podcasts is growing by leaps and bounds right now.

  • Veronica

    I loved Wits. I went to a taping earlier this year and haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time. I listened to the podcast weekly.

    I was a sustaining member who pulled my membership at the beginning of this year after Barb got fired. Yes, I know she wasn’t the most popular DJ. I don’t care. She was real and kind and not young and childless. I have NO desire to give MPR a penny for any time, and yes, I have considered on more than one occasion to pay for underwriting spots.

    I was a huge fan of Jeff Horwich’s In The Loop. Someone killed that off way before it’s time, too. I learned so much about the world around me while that show was on.

    I can’t stand the incessant book talk daytimes on MPR news. I get that reading is important, but there are more important things to talk about. At least limit the book talk a little more, ok?

    I listen to the radio (like, real radio) about 12 hours a day. Maybe I’m an oddball there. I don’t care. I’m a upper middle class mom of 2 in my mid-30s who is not happy about any of the programming decisions. Good luck with the generation after mine, too–my daughter still hasn’t forgiven The Current for firing Barb.

    • // She was real and kind and not young and childless.

      That’s an interesting turn of the phrase.

      • Veronica

        Part of the joy music brings is how it connects us with other humans. For me and other parents I know, there is so much joy in sharing our love of music with our own kids, and seeing them immerse themselves in music in a way I never thought possible. Experiencing music is different when there are moppets in tow; a 3 day festival with tent camping is doable, maybe, but unlikely. Rock the Garden? Totally something that can be done with kids. There’s no irony, no pretense, no attitude when it comes to being a mom who loves all kinds and forms of music who is trying to help her school-age kids develop complex musical tastes.

        Does that make sense?

        • Joe

          Just a weird dichotomy to set up. Only old people with kids can be real and kind? If I am young and childless then by definition I must be fake and mean? What about if I am young and have a child. Then maybe I am just real but not kind.

          • Jerry

            I read it as two separate thoughts missing a comma instead of as a dichotomy. “She was real and kind and [someone I could identify with].”

          • I don’t believe she’s saying that at all. And also, let’s drop it since that’s a thread-hijacker.

  • Rob Roberts

    Wow, really sad news. I was a really big fan and I didn’t know it was on the rocks. I was prepared to listen and attend to these shows for years. I thought Wits was top-notch quality and a major player for this mixing of culture, humor, sketches, and music. It was a great nexus of local comedic talent, but now I have to go back to consuming whatever they import from WNYC I guess…(?) I’m going to follow John to his podcasts. Bad bad bad call. They should have stood behind this one.

  • Scott Rohr

    I can’t join the chorus of those who bemoan the loss of Wits; it just wasn’t that good. Sure, I had a great time at a live taping of the show, but I found it awkward at best on the radio. If anything, its noble attempts over three years prove how tough really good radio is to produce. Prairie Home, This American Life, etc, may be great shows, but it’s not realistic to expect that every show is going to be that iconic. We seem to think that any radio show that doesn’t make it is a huge loss, but we certainly don’t do that with TV or movies. If anything MPR/APM/NPR need to try dozens more pilots to see what might engage, and feel free to yank things off the air when they don’t work. Eventually we’ll get some programming that works, and find things to replace Car Talk repeats. My only fear is that MPR’s corporate approach has very little interest or ability in the kind of creative risk that Netflix and other streaming services have taken to find a successful formula. And when you have an audience that mostly bemoans Garrison’s unwillingness to work until he’s dead, you can’t really blame MPR all that much for its safe approach.

    • Jerry

      Not to mention an audience that gets upset when a news quiz show with a cast of comedians has Kim Kardashian as a guest.

      • I’ve written and talked extensively about what was really behind that. Nice to know that’s time I’ll never get back in my life and nobody paid attention. Easier to just frame just that way.

        • Jerry

          Honestly, I skipped most of the conversation on that post and I am basing my comment on Wait Wait’s response in their show, which was to make a lot of fart jokes.

  • Melodee Monicken

    Bring back American Routes. WITS was hapless, not hip. MPR should make programming decisions based on the merit of the show, not on whether it’s produced by American Public Media.

  • Max

    I was never a fan. I never found the skits or the host John Moe at all funny. The guests were consistently funny, but they would be funny on anything.

  • Tim

    I slightly disagree with the notion that it’s difficult to experiment on public radio. Yes, it’s harder to experiment with new shows, but podcasting frees up a lot of time and imagination. Just guessing, but I suspect that Wits 2.0 will be podcast only, which is fine for me because I only listen to the Wits podcast anyway. (I hate the music and fast-forward through it. [Except I like the house band.])

  • Something to think about.

    • chris

      Only post opinions if they are positive? I think people who want to use social media to promote things willfully forget the power is two sided and not risk free.

      I wasn’t a huge fan of Wits but I gave it a chance and was happy that MPR was trying new things. It needs to keep doing that. But I really question some of the judgement going on there. Who could listen to Nikki Tundel’s stories and not want to keep her around forever? Similarly, I’m guessing the amount of money spent on “MPR NEWSQ” marketing could have paid for Dale Connelly’s salary for at least one more year.

    • Kassie

      The other side of the coin is that people who are supporting Wits are being negative toward MPR.

      “I think MPR made the right decision in cancelling Wits because I didn’t like it” is just as positive as “I love Wits and cancelling it is a terrible decision by MPR.” It just depends on which side of the issue you are on.

      I have to change the station when certain shows are on because I don’t like them. I’d be happy if they were all cancelled, then I can listen without interruption. I should be able to express that opinion openly as much as the other members who are sad. I support the decision by MPR in this case, but for some reason people think only the supports of Wits should be able to have a voice.

    • Jerry

      It’s wrong to have opinions and express them? Huh.

      Now if you are expressing them to John Moe, you are jerk, which is why people should maybe be more careful with #s and @s. It’s probably better to say “I think Wits sucked” then to say “I think @wits sucked”

    • Joe

      I think it’s very different saying that to John Moe’s face versus just expressing it on NewsCut. Since Bob was lamenting it’s cancellation, I would just say I’m not disappointed. I don’t think it makes me some crazy pessimistic out to hurt other people to say Wits wasn’t that good and public radio can do better.