Public Radio and Podcasting

Posted on October 26, 2005
Filed Under podcasting | 18 Comments

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.

Postscript:

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.

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18 Responses to “Public Radio and Podcasting”

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  1. Brooklyn Bluesman on October 26th, 2005 11:32 pm

    Sounds like old “Chewie’picked the wrong Zeta Bata Tau to mess with. Here’s to the “focused” man with the all-seeing piratecam in his hand. When are you going to sell conversion kits for the “solder-iron impaired” like myself?

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  3. James on October 27th, 2005 8:22 am

    As one of the guys who produces crappy content podcasts, I have noticed one of the big assumptions that the Big Media guys always have. They assume people won’t take to podcasting because there are a lot of crappy ones. I find that hard to believe (obviously or I would have to stop podcasting yesterday) because of all the crap in the Big Media outlets.

    How many times have you flipped through a half dozen radio stations to find something you accept? How many times have you flipped through a hundred or more tv stations before settling on something that you have already seen? There is already tons of slickly produced crap in the old media venues. Slick production does not equal good.

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  5. Fred on October 27th, 2005 8:52 am

    Well stated. Also I listen to EGC at 1.5x on WM since it plays better that way. I listen to a bunch of podcasts that way, again because it plays better for me.

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  7. Dr Bitz on October 27th, 2005 11:08 am

    AMEN

    I completely agree, and specifically thought of your podcast when he went off about having to have expensive and extensive production facitilies. Love your podcast, keep up the good work!

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  9. Andy on October 27th, 2005 11:53 am

    I call this the “anyone can do _that_” effect.

    Every time I hear someone say “well, anyone can do _that_”, I know there’s something brewing. The corollary to it is that as you point out, almost without exception, the people saying this have a dog in the fight.

    As examples that I have watched first-hand, I offer: punk, (white media’s view of) rap, desktop publishing, open-source/GPL, photoshop, blogs and now – podcasting.

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  11. Michael Pereckas on October 27th, 2005 4:30 pm

    I keep remembering something Dan Rutter, the Australian gadget reviewer, wrote back in 2001 about making money. Since his staff consists of him and his facilities consist of his bedroom, the amount of money he brings in is quite worthwhile. If a big organization tried to do the same thing, they’d have an office building, a design team, a marketing team, a legal team, a bunch of managers and executives, and so on, and while they’d bring in a lot more money, with all those expenses it would be a major loss.

    And obviously, there doesn’t need to be revenue in the first place. People who are used to being a part in a big operation for a living seem to have a hard time imagining that something similar to what they do could be an individual’s hobby, but we keep seeing that it indeed can be.

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  13. jeff on October 28th, 2005 12:08 am

    I can’t listen to many podcasts… too little time. So they really have to offer me something good, quickly. Most don’t. Same with a video.

    #1 it shouldn’t suck
    #2 I need to be interested in it
    #3 It shouldn’t seem like every student film I ever saw
    #4 If it sucks after I’ve waited for it to play, watched dumbass kiddie titles and rips off cheesy music, I’ll hold a serious grudge.
    I don’t care what you put on your blog but if you trick me into thinking I should watch it and then it sucks, then your blog is like a billion other worthless piles of shit that I won’t visit ever again.

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  15. EdCone.com on October 28th, 2005 7:25 am

    Production quality and content quality

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  17. Lenslinger on October 28th, 2005 9:43 am

    I’m all for quality content over sky-high production values, but muddled audio, fishbowl focusing and needless camera paning are nothing to be proud of. Is this low-tech approach worthy of all this debate? Hardly, but nor should it be hailed as the vestiges of a new and improved video-realm.

    That said, I LOVED Blair Witch Project…

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  19. PXLated on October 28th, 2005 10:37 am

    I find that if there is a niche podcast that really has content I’m interested in but poor production quality I’ll still listen unless the quality is just insufferable (and some are). But if there are two podcasts in the niche, one poor and one great, I guarantee you I’ll go with the one with better production values.
    Therefore, if the mainstream podcasters enter my niche, they will probably be my choice unless the others step up their production quality.

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  21. Cliff Gerrish on October 28th, 2005 11:40 am

    The thing that Stephen Hill doesn’t seem to understand is that the distribution model of radio is under attack. Before podcasting there were a limited number of frequencies and the owners of those frequencies controlled content. Because of this a “professional” approach to content was created. Average content on commerical/public radio is of a high standard.

    Average content in podcasting is not very good. But commercial/public radio isn’t competing with “average” podcasts, they’re competing with the best podcasts. And the best podcasts could fill up more than 24 hours in an individual’s day.

    My letter to Stephen Hill and Steve Gillmor can be found here:

    http://wordpress.echovar.com/?p=8

    They asked that it be entered into the public dialogue.

    I think the key for Pubcasting is that as Podcasting searches for an appropriate business model — Pubcasting needs to follow the same path to ensure its future viability.

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  23. bw on October 28th, 2005 12:33 pm

    hey man

    the thing is you and hill are both right!

    glad to hear you are making it work.. and making so much great audio!!

    you are an inspiration

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  25. Paul on October 28th, 2005 1:07 pm

    Wow, holy shit! Bang, right on the head, I’d say. That’s intellectual speak for job well done ol’ boy…well anyway… I have always liked your take on the idea because it is different from most everyone I hear talking about this. Everyone is out to look for the next big thing that millions of people will be tuning into. The beautiful thing about this whole citizen media concept is not the millions that won’t be tuning in, but the hundreds (thousands?) who will be listening to what one person says…little groups of people in conversation or enjoyment… good stuff…wow, what a time to be alive (and I thought seeing another Batman come out was big!)

    keep it up

    Paul

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  27. Tilted Edge on October 29th, 2005 1:08 am

    I just listened to a bunch of hearts of space promos at their odeo channel. Each show has a different theme with music that is different from the previous shows.
    I thought the Japanese theme show sounded like it would be interesting.

    One thing they don’t play is music by spoiled white brats who were picked on as children and want to get back at the world by screaming into a microphone and playing guitar with so much distorion that it covers up the fact that they can’t play. There is enough guitar, drums and bass garage bands int he world and I would be perfectly happy to never hear another one in my life.

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  29. mikel.org | Michael Boyle's weblog on October 29th, 2005 7:55 am

    Dave Slusher, aka

    Evil Genius, deconstructs the ‘public will never go for amateur stuff’ argument that broadcasters (even public or community broadcasters) always trot out in response to citizen-originating media. The post responds to a guest piece by Stephen Hill in …

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  31. johnk on October 31st, 2005 4:40 am

    Public radio is dead. A lot of it sucks. Here in LA, we have a bunch of public stations. One is full of record company AR people, and it’s kind of bland (in a pleasant indie-rock nu-soul way). Another sounds like the Republican NPR (or very WASPy snob Democrat). The third is the Pacifica station, and it’s fun, especially when it sounds like a podcast. A few years back, a self-described anarchist got in there to clean stuff up (and he did a pretty good job), and opened up several hours to “amateur” activist folks (many of whom had great taste in music), and they tore it up. It’s gotten a little boring since, but I’m sure someone likes it.

    What I learned there is that it only takes around five shows for someone to sound reasonably good. If you get a dozen motivated people together, you’ll find the talent. The activist/amateur shows spun out a few folks who are now regulars on the air. They made some interesting programming, putting a lot of “first and only ____ show in Southern California” shows on.

    I also learned that it’s tough to do a group program that sounds compelling. Not everyone is cut out for radio. It’s hard to find your audience in a tough timeslot, and it’s hard to do something different and get people to pay for it.

    One other thing they did was smart. They also opened the doors to people going out into the city using mini-discs to record lectures and events, and pulled stuff off the internet, and selected the best from the cornucopia. This produced so many hours of compelling radio, it was obvious people are, pretty soon, going to produce so much great programming that Hi-Fi musicologists like Hill better watch out for their beloved timeslots.

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  33. johnk on October 31st, 2005 5:02 am

    An addendum.

    The typical KPFA subscriber is probably a 60 year old white guy with a college education and an income of over $70,000 per year. That’s roughly the same as a reader of The Economist, but on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s an elite group, and it sounds like it.

    I get the impression that public radio is mostly for old folks. When they really push for the foot-in-the-grave demographic, they do better and better. My theory is simple: the audience for public radio is people who were around 30 in 1975, started listening to NPR, and never stopped. It sounds like it.

    NPR is the fucking Classic Rock Radio of the educated middle class. Rock on dudes! Pour another glass of syrah for your homies.

    Even the youthful shows, like This American Life, which I like, sounds like it’s done mostly by 28 year old middle-class college grads who don’t like hip hop or metal.

    No wonder the youth of today are saying “fuck” on podcasts.

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