I couldn’t make this post before going to bed last night, and now a lot of the fire I felt has gone out. While fundamentally I disagree with most of what Stephen Hill says, how many times do I feel that we need to defend this hill? This has been a common refrain since the advent of citizen media – in blogs, in podcasts, in vlogs. A group of enthused amateurs enters and is excited to create, in text, audio or video. The people who currently make their living creating such look around, sniff and say “the great unwashed cannot match my mad skillz, who really needs this?” The pattern repeats, and I guarantee it will repeat with whatever the next thing is.
This is why I really give a huge amount of credit to people that would be justified in having that mindset and don’t, like Tony Kahn. Tony is a pro with many years under his belt and could dismiss the efforts of ordinary citizens to get their stories out easily. Instead, he makes it his work to encourage and enable that. Way to go Tony!
I did two years of producing nationally syndicated public radio, and my experience was radically different from Stephen Hill’s. I was doing a scrappy independent production that ran on no money, I was the only employee of the entire thing doing all booking, producing, interviewing, editing, publicity and driving to Fed Ex with the DAT tapes. I never drew a salary and did it entirely for the love of what I was doing. My pay was in self-satisfaction, having the home phone numbers of writers I admire, and bulging boxes of review copy books. Stephen Hill on the other hand presided over a big machine, the Hearts of Space empire of shows, CDs and all that. My public radio experience really and truly was not that different from my podcast experience whereas if he podcasts it will be a radical difference. Bear that in mind as I pick out a few choice bits of his essay and respond.
It’s an arguable point for users in the heady days of realizing you are finally being programmed to, but in the medium to long run I don’t believe that even niche audiences will sit still for extended doses of amateurish, inconsistent, self-indugent programming, no matter how vertically compelling the subject matter. For niche programs to attract new audiences and hold them over time, they will have to bear at least reasonable comparison to the production standards of mainstream media.
Here is the most visible tell in his poker hand, early on. Stuff that man with straw. Hill seems to be under the impression that there is no self-indulgence in public radio. He must not hear the programs I do. I’m a big fan of This American Life, which I love and is brilliant but is the very model of self-indulgence. People do sit still for it. It’s interesting that the only people I ever hear talking about how the public won’t listen to anything but slick programming are people that produce slick programming.
Hearts of Space was (is?) an impeccably produced program, highly professional and sounded great from a production standard. I also was unable to listen to it because it didn’t do a damn thing for me. It was one of those shows that provoked the “fast twitch” reaction if it came on the radio as we reached for the knob to change stations. I am currently subscribed to over 150 different podcast feeds that cover the entire spectrum of production quality. The one thing they have in common is that they meet my needs, and inform or entertain me or otherwise keep my ears pleasantly engaged. The one with the lowest production quality of all of them still fulfills my needs better than the highly produced Hearts of Space. When I read his statement above, it puts me in mind of the auto industry of a decade ago saying “The public will never go for hybrid cars, that’s why we don’t make them.” Sorry Charlie, but you aren’t the ombudsman of public taste. If you were, you shouldn’t be using the public as a sock puppet for your own preferences.
Public radio and television have over 50 years experience with this model. It was born of necessity at KPFA in Berkeley in the 1950s, and was ahead of its time in recognizing the kind of direct producer/audience interaction and shared sense of purpose that the Internet now delivers in spades.
But it also has serious disadvantages: even after 40 years of increasingly organized, skillful appeals for voluntary support, only about 10% of the audience actually pays. How podcasters expect a model that has barely worked in the context of full time professional broadcasting by licensed local monopolies to work for even smaller audiences is beyond me. Only a small fraction of programs and services will ever be able to sustain themselves this way. And if they do, most of them will pay a significant price by having to operate on a subsistence economy.
I did two years of Reality Break nationally, got enough funding via underwriting and grants from the beautiful people at KRVS to pay for the whole thing. However, I never earned a cent from any of it. In fact, in 10 months of getting revenue in via my podcast (there was no real attempt in the first 4 months) I have generated more money with this show than I did in the two years on public radio. That’s not including the odd bits of things that have been generated on the side (in Doc Searls’ terminology “making money because of the podcast, not with it”). On This Week in Tech instead of asking for large donations has people do a subscription of $2/month on an ongoing basis. They have something like 100,000 or more listeners. If 10% of those people signed up, the show would bring in $20K a month. Again, that’s not enough for 7 guys to live off of, but it is significant. There are models that will work and do work, and I hope that plenty of them work better than public radio.
I don’t know why he expects the standard to be the number of people who can support themselves with it. I can tell you, the thought of making my living off of podcasting was not why I got involved. I do it because it enriches my life, and I hope enriches the life of those who listen to me. That’s it. How many people who play the guitar do it to make their living on it? The statement “Only a small fraction of guitar players will ever be able to sustain themselves with music” is true, as is the observation about podcasters. Both fall in that category of insights labeled “true but useless.” So what?
I’m stopping here. I’ve lost interest in this. I don’t agree with Hill that what podcasters need is to become more like public radio. I don’t think it needs to become more like commercial radio. What it needs is to become something less like anything we know and more like something unique and not yet imagined. That’s what I’m banking on.
Here’s another very similar take from a Greensboro blogger who argues that they way the current media incumbents do things is the only thing acceptable. Sorry Chewie, I think there is room for all of it and you are not in the driver’s seat you think you are. You also attempt to stack the deck by referring to “frat-boy-with-camera downloads”. When you stuff the straw man that full, you admit you have a weak argument. My interview with Marjane Satrapi is exactly the kind of stuff you dismiss. Was it worth doing? Fuck yes. Is your point I shouldn’t bother? If so, I reject that. Is your point that fewer people will see it than a network broadcast? If so, no shit sherlock. I don’t know what your point is. I do know that I am richer for having done the video, and a few people have enjoyed it and been enlightened by it. That’s plenty for me and thus I’m delighted that I did it. The fact that you have prejudged the content of citizen media, think you know the subject matter and quality before it has even been produced suggests that you are overreaching on that. I’ll still buy you drinks at Flatiron anyway, but you might want to consider waiting to see what people do before deciding they’ll never do anything of value.