Wednesday, December 03, 2008

NPR is Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

(originally published in July 2007)

After this Thursday's taping of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me at Millennium Park, I got word from a reliable source that the unofficial estimate for attendance came close to filling the 11,000 person capacity of Pritzker Pavilion (4000 seats, 7000 lawn). Based on what I saw, I'd agree...the seats were completely filled, and the lawn was pretty least 5000 people out there, maybe 6000.

Think about that for a least 10000 fans showing up for a public radio show that wasn't even being broadcast live at that time. Granted it was a free event, but still. And this is just Wait Wait's fans who live in Chicago; I doubt there were more than a handful of folks like me who came in from out of town to see it.

Normally Wait Wait records at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. It has an official capacity of 3563. They charge $20 a head for attendance. It sells out almost every single week. Assuming a few weeks of "Best Of" shows for vacation, that's a staggering $3.5 million dollar source of gross revenue every year for Chicago Public Radio. Granted, not all of that is profit; renting a hall like Chase is not cheap. But still! They could charge double that and they'd still probably sell out every week; Chicagoans love the show.

Ed.Update Dec.2008: I learned today that WWDTM's auditorium is only about 500 people, although it does usually sell out every week. They also do about 10 road shows a year, and I assume about four shows are repeats for holidays, so figure 38 home shows a year, at $20/head, and that's $380,000/yr gross. Just for home shows.

If they do the usual 60-40% split of proceeds with local stations regarding road shows (where the local affiliate pays to rent the hall) then they're probably making at least $1500 to $3000 for a road show if the hall is in the 1500-2000 seat range. Bigger halls in bigger markets cost more but you can charge more per ticket, figure $2000-$6000 per road show for those. Those numbers might be on the optimistic side, and they're also raw speculation. But they probably add up to another $30-$40,000/yr gross, so let's round that off to about $400,000/yr gross, total.

Knowing what I know of concert production costs...which isn't all THAT much...I would be surprised if they're netting more than 70% of that. Hard to say - when you do a regular gig, a lot of the incident costs like lighting, tech, etc, start getting very cheap. And you don't need much security at a pubradio gig. Depends a lot on what they're paying for hall rental at Chase.

Still, the end result is that - assuming my numbers are correct, and that's a big assumption - WWDTM is not profitable off its ticket sales alone. Not with 11 people on staff.

This strikes me as a powerful argument for having a live audience when doing a public radio talk show. Can imagine leveraging the cult of personality that Christopher Lydon has engendered? Fans of the old The Connection and the newer (but unfortunately on hiatus) Radio Open Source would no doubt pay handsomely for the chance to watch Chris interview some local guest in the flesh. And let's sweeten the pot - let the audience submit questions via Blackberry or text message for screening, and then have a producer with a wireless mic go to the audience member whose question they like, and let 'em ask it live on the air.

I picked Lydon just because his "Lydonistas" are somewhat legendary, but really any good public radio personality in any city has lots of dedicated fans. Start small in 250 - 500 seat theaters and within a year or two you'll sell out the 6000-seat Agganis Arena every week. Best part is, you're engaging your local audience in a very powerful way...and it's a fiscally self-sustaining operation since fans will gladly buy tickets to see the show.

The funniest part is that this isn't a new idea; anyone old enough to remember TV in the 1980's remembers how "Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience" (to name one example) because the interaction between performers and audience made for a better show. Public radio is no exception.

Stop pretending that public radio is better when it's sequestered away from the unwashed masses in the glitzy Russ-Berger studios; get out there and interact with your listeners! :-)

Ed.Update Dec.2008: I still think that it makes a lot of sense to do shows like this in front of a live, paying audience. After this revision I'm not sure if the money quite works out, or at least not as blatantly as it did in my initial analysis. But all you need to do is find one venue that is decently-sized and willing to cut you a deal to bring in warm bodies on an off-night like Thursday, and you could almost certainly make it work.