Sunday, August 30, 2009
Anyone? Anyone at all?
Yeah, didn't think so.
And actually, that could well be a horribly unfair judgment. Having done a little work on both sides of this particular aisle, I know there are lots of young newshounds out there that are quite skilled and capable. Many have little experience because this is a tough business to get work in... competition is perennially fierce in journalism...but are nonetheless have inborn talent. Talent that can refined nicely with a little seasoning.
That said, I don't buy for one second that Jenna has that talent. The reason why is that Jenna is essentially starting out at the top...the Today show...but is given a lousy monthly gig so that even when (not if) she sucks the air out of the room, she's only doing it once per month.
And she will suck, count on that. Everyone does, no matter how talented, when they get started. Even journalists experienced in other media almost always suck big-time for the first several rounds when they start on radio or TV. The good ones get better after a half-dozen tries, and then gradually get better and better until they hit the limit of their talent - whatever that is.
A prime example is Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Despite his long experience with TV, and several years essentially playing the same character on The Daily Show, the first month or two of TCR was riddled with screwups and flat takes. But pretty soon Colbert found a rhythm and, you know, started winning Emmys and Peabody Awards.
If Bush Hager were really talented (not to mention serious about TV journalism) they'd started her on a smaller scale where she could be more free to screw up and learn from it. If she had the talent, I'm sure within a year she'd be ready enough for a monthly segment, certainly.
But the fact that she's getting the brass ring from day one says she's a political appointment meant to suck up to some funder or politico somewhere. And Today viewers are the ones paying for it.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
After the commercial was taped, students featured in the ad signed a release so that their images could be used. For their participation, the students were each given a $10 gift card for Apple iTunes. Typically, a union actor featured as a principal in such an ad could earn $592 a day while an extra can get $323, according to Boston Casting Inc.I went to BU, graduated class of 1998. At the time, tuition, room and board were $30,000 a year, on average. If I'm paying THAT MUCH to go lectures, I sure as wouldn't sell out for a lousy $10 iTunes gift card. My god these kids are dumb. At the very least they should've demanded scale.
Personally I like to think that had I been sitting in that lecture hall, I would've outraged that my likeness would be co-opted by an entity like McDonald's, and even more outraged that my time (for which I was paying BU approximately $25/hr for the experience) was wasted in such a way.
And mind you, BU costs over $50,000 today, so those kids are paying over $40/hr to be in class.
Here's my math: Approximately 7 months of the year is spent in session. Times 22 "business" days per month, times approximately 8 hours per day spent in class or otherwise on schoolwork. That equals1232. Divide that into the annual tuition, room and board costs.
Monday, May 04, 2009
So here's the deal: as reported by the Democrat & Chronicle, the residents of Ashley Drive are pissed because people are speeding down the street. The speed limit is 30 MPH. They want to lower it to 25 MPH because they think that'll make people speed less...but they can't because there's state rules about local communities lowering speed limits below 30 MPH. It can be done, but there's a long and expensive process to do it.
Now granted, it's not just Ashley Drive that wants to lower speed limits; other areas/towns are supposedly wanting to do the same thing...but the D&C story is all about Ashley Drive.
Check out a Google Maps satellite view of the area. Ashley Drive is essentially a small subdivision of housing that branches off of Elmwood Road, a major thoroughfare in Brighton, NY (just south of Rochester proper). There's one way in or out, and I counted the houses in the satellite photo, it's about 120 of them, plus something that looks commercial/office-like...but the office thing isn't off Ashley Drive proper. There's nothing else on that little cluster of streets that I can see; it's presumably all single-family homes (I used to live about a mile away and I'm pretty sure it's all SFH in there).
The upshot here is that if people are speeding down Ashley Drive...it's not random drivers; it's the residents of Ashley Drive that are doing the speeding! So these residents are essentially complaining about themselves. Or perhaps more accurately, they're bitching about their neighbors...an activity that's been in fashion since the Stone Age and isn't going to go away anytime soon. Nor will lowering an already-artificial* "speed limit" from 30 to 25 MPH actually prevent neighbor squabbles. Uh-nuh, not gonna happen.
I could buy it if it were a stealth revenue generator for the Town via speeding tickets. But I'm pretty sure it's not, because it's a no-outlet housing development-ish area with insufficient traffic to justify putting a cop there to nail speeders.
So in other words, we COULD have neighbors actually, you know, going and talking to their neighbors and asking them to please slow down because it's dangerous to everyone. Or if you had to be nasty about it: setting up a video camera to record license plates, walking around the development until you find the offenders (remember, it's only 120 houses, nothing you couldn't cover in an afternoon) and then flyering the neighborhood to shame them into slowing down.
Instead we've got people potentially wasting many thousands of dollars in everyone's tax money and annoying everyone in a vain attempt to punish a minority that won't give a damn about the difference between 25 MPH speed limits and 30 MPH speed limits. In other words, people so selfish and cowardly, that they're hurting everyone...including themselves...to be nasty to their fellow man. In short, you've got...well...stupid people.
And that's my "Proof for why Speed Limits are Proof that People are Stupid".
* Technically it's not "arbitrary"...there is supposed to be the "85 percentile rule", that states that a speed limit should correlate to the speed that 85% of drivers naturally travel at on a given stretch of road. Often speed limits are 5 MPH below the 85 percentile speed anyways, but I challenge any driver on a non-dirt, non-super-curvy or non-super-narrow road to naturally drive at less than 35 or 40 MPH.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
My situation is that if I had to choose between losing my (public radio affiliate) stations and losing my direct podcast fundraising, I’d pick the one that would allow me to continue to pay my rent and I would lose the stations.Ouch.
Well, I'll get the disclosure out of the way, first. I run a public radio station, and maybe a year ago someone (I think my PRI rep) sent me a TSOYA demo CD and asked if I'd run it on WEOS. Well, since I'm 32, and thus in the demo that NPR is, allegedly, so desperate to attract, I figured I'd give it a serious listen and see if it was any good.
I can't lie, I thought it was boring as hell. I forced myself to listen to the entire hour, and couldn't really find anything worth listening to again. At first I thought maybe I'd try and find a second hour, just in case this hour was a dud. But I figured that they'd put the best show out there on the demo, so theoretically the other shows weren't likely to be any better. (shrugs)
Am I being a little harsh? Perhaps, but you could argue I'm just practicing Thorn's own form of "honesty". (evil grin)
In all seriousness, though...reading Thorn's missive about the virtues of going small / Do-It-Yourself / shoestring budgets brought a few things to mind:
FIRST: It's all well and good that Thorn does practically every aspect of the show: host, producer, technical director, marketer, fundraiser, accountant, etc etc etc. But what happens when Thorn can't produce a show? It's not really a question of "if", only "when". At some point he'll be unable to produce the podcast for an extended period...and his entire business model comes apart. And I don't just mean getting old and sick, what if he gets married and has a kid? I don't think he'll have quite the oft-celebrated "studio in his bedroom" access anymore.
Thorn makes no bones about how he's pretty young (27) and this really strikes as an "ignorance of youth" attitude. It's great to have that enthusiasm and time to devote to it...but as one gets older (not much older than 27, either) usually devoting your entire life to a project starts getting unpleasant and, in some cases, physiologically impossible.
These are the sorts of worries that make Program Directors refuse to carry a show. They don't want to take a risk on a show that has an awful lot riding on the current health and life situation of one man.
SECOND: Thorn seems to have a lot of disdain for public radio affiliate stations. I'm sure they appreciate paying him for his disdain, but we'll put that aside for a moment. My point is that if TSOYA had a lot of affiliates, I don't think he'd be nearly so disdainful...because it's not just about the paltry affiliation fees that stations pay. It's about the access you have when you've got a ton of radio listeners to your show...and, lemme tell ya, there are lots of folks that are quite willing to pay you nicely for that access.
By Thorn's own admission, he thinks his show probably has at least 30,000 listeners on WNYC alone (and he's got WHYY in Philadelphia, too, not to mention a half-dozen or so other affiliates) but that his regular podcast audience is perhaps 12,000. I know that it's certainly possible to monetize podcast listeners more than radio listeners, but it strikes me as a little odd that he'd be so dismissive of his radio audience given how much larger it is.
THIRD: I mentioned before that I thought TSOYA was pretty boring. One thing that immediately comes to mind is that since Thorn has to do all the business work involved with producing a show, by definition he's got less time to devote to producing the show. Now obviously one man's opinion of whether a show is boring/interesting is not statistically significant...but as a station manager, my thought process immediately assumes that it's because he's not putting enough time into producing a quality product. Right or wrong, that's going to be a hard image to shake in the minds of many Program Directors.
I should point out that while I'm being mostly critical of Thorn, I'm being that way about specific points in that interview. There's a lot Thorn says that I wholeheartedly agree with. There's stuff that I don't agree with, too...but that doesn't mean it's not probably correct. (no doubt to my ultimate chagrin)
Sunday, April 12, 2009
The Globe gets an owner that won't pimp it out like a cheap whore, and BU gets enormous prestige and a fabulous real-world learning environment for its students. Everyone wins.
Of course, despite the same hit to its endowment that all colleges are feeling, I think that BU could afford to drop the dime and buy the Globe, especially if we're talking $200 million...or even just the oft-quoted but hard-to-substaniate $20 million. However, I agree that if the Globe is losing $85 million a year, then even BU can't afford to float that boat.
Still, drastic changes are necessary at the Globe, no matter who owns it or when. I would argue that despite BU's, ehem, "checkered past" with unions, I'd still trust it to "do right" by journalism than I would The New York Times Co. at this point...or most other owners.
Anyways, I originally wrote down the idea as a comment to a May 2006 blog post at Dan Kennedy's Media Nation. If BU does end up buying the Globe, I will expect a modest finder's fee. 5% would do nicely. :-) Hey, at least it'd be going to an alum! (BU College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 1998)
For what it's worth, I said it again in September 2006, and have been mentioning it off and on...including in an e-mail to BU's Dean of the College of Communication, Tom Fiedler, in December 2008. At the time, it was a side note to Mr. Fiedler's quote in the Daily Free Press about the old COM Tower being taken down. But, interestingly, that was right before I noticed the New England Center for Investigative Reporting...which seems to have been launched on January 16, 2009. Coincidence? I think NOT! :-)
I wish I could've had the foresight in 2006 to see the stock market crash of 2008. Oh well.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Speaking as a station manager of a NPR affiliate station, I'd say John Moe is spot on: while a fundraiser at the national level for NPR is not unprecedented (it happened once in 1983), it would be a giant slap in the face of every one of NPR's affiliates. Not to mention require a change of NPR's charter, a waiver from the FCC, and need approval by NPR's board...the majority of whom are, AFAIK, managers of NPR affiliate stations. So I don't think this idea will have much legs.
But I want to comment on why this is such a bad idea. It's not just because the rules prohibit it. Nor is it strictly because affiliate stations are, proportionally, struggling so much more with their finances than NPR is. I mean, at least NPR has a $200 million endowment to fall back on if things get really hairy...even though I fully recognize how "bad" that would be to do that.
No, the reason why it's so bad is A.I.G.
A.I.G.??? Yes, A.I.G. And I'll explain:
A.I.G.: AIG took our money and promised us that all their ridiculous amounts of growth would be good for everyone and have no downside. Instead, they set things up for the entire system to fail and take everyone down with them. Now the very people that make tons of money and are not answerable to any of the "real people" are demanding that not only should we continue to give them tons of money (bailout) but they want their bonuses, too! Hell, they're still whining about how much they've had to give up to the New York Times, ignoring how millions are being tossed out of their homes and into the street. Mind you, this is from a company that potentially has access to piles of cash from all the filthy rich people working there that could be used if really necessary.
NPR: NPR took our money (affiliate fees) and promised us that all their ridiculous amounts of growth (multiple foreign bureaus, NPR West facility, new NPR HQ building, Day to Day, Bryant Park Project, News & Notes, etc) would be good for all affiliate stations and was necessary to do. And we had to do it because the consequences were too big a downside to risk not doing it. (Sounds suspiciously like "too big to fail" to me) Now the very hosts that make a lot of money (I've heard that ATC host Robert Siegel makes over $300,000 annually. I don't know what Block and Stamberg make but I'll bet it's well over six figures.) and aren't answerable to us affiliate stations...we don't dare not carry the shows Stamberg (WESAT) and Block (ATC) are on, they're too popular with listeners...are demanding that not only should we continue to pay the expensive affiliate fees, but now we should have to give up our fundraising dollars to NPR as well?!?! Hell, they're still whining about how they had to cut Day 2 Day and News & Notes when many affiliate stations are facing 10, 20 or 50% cuts in their budget due to state legislature and parent college cutbacks. Mind you, this is from a company that technically has a $200 million dollar endowment from Joan Kroc to fall back on if really necessary.
See what I mean? It's not a perfect analogy by any means; many of my interpretations are very debatable. Hell even I don't agree with many of them. But I think that on a visceral level, that's what people are thinking...and thus the parallels are very strong.
And it rather drastically implies that Stamberg and Block (and God knows who else) just don't "get it"...that there's still a lot of populist anger out there. And they really need to understand that just because they work for NPR doesn't mean they're immune from becoming the broadcast equivalent of Leona Helmsley, who famously said "only the little people pay taxes." I don't begrudge any NPR host their salary (frankly, I think they all earn it and then some) but you can't deny that it smacks of imperialism when a host who makes five or six (or 10 or 20) times as much as most affiliate stations' employees is demanding they give up the goose that lays the golden eggs.
I'm well aware that the funding model that exists between NPR national and NPR affiliates does not work terribly well, and is likely in need of an overhaul. And maybe this starts a long-overdue dialogue on the subject. But talk about the wrong way to approach it! Yeesh. This guarantees that every affiliate is automatically going to be highly on the defensive.
UPDATE 04/02/09: I've also been posting related thoughts at John Sutton's RadioSutton blog, see here and here.
ATC = All Things Considered. WESAT = Weekend Edition, Saturday
Disclaimer: all opinions are my own, they do not necessarily reflect those of WEOS, Hobart & William Smith Colleges or affiliated persons.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Unfortunately, the first solution he cites is Vocalo, the experimental radio project run by WBEZ in Chicago. The same Vocalo that ChicagoBusiness.com wrote an article about on Feb.16th regarding how a lot of WBEZ donors are furious at how WBEZ routed their donations to fund Vocalo despite major cuts at WBEZ, overall low ratings at Vocalo, and analysis that Vocalo is failing badly at appealing to a non-white audience. (only 29% of its listeners are non-white according to ChicagoBusiness)
Bad timing there, Bruce. Doesn't mean you're not right, and I know that Vocalo has been badly hampered by delays in its long-planned signal upgrade that will let it cover more of the target market...but I'd still hustle up a quick re-write to downplay Vocalo as a shining example of how public radio needs to break out of it's "lily white" reputation.
Monday, February 16, 2009
On the other hand, execution is important. Fair Game with Faith Salie passed the "Two-Fold Test" brilliantly: it was The Daily Show for public radio. You say that, and immediately people start wondering exactly how that idea would work, so they ask questions. Bingo, you're golden. Unfortunately, I don't think Fair Game ever came close to matching TDS at having rapier-sharp wit while still being incredibly funny. To be fair, it's tough to match some of the best comedy writers in the country...but I think Fair Game also tried too hard to be "a public radio show" in that there wasn't a live audience, and they mixed in too much music and banter to fill up an hour.
Still, I'm willing to wager that a major reason Fair Game got greenlit and got at least some affiliates was precisely because it passed the "Two-Fold Test" so well. That's important, because another crucial aspect here, in part because pubradio is more generous in "giving time", is that there's precious little room on most stations' broadcast schedules for any new programming...so your show needs to succeed at the "Two-Fold Test" if you're ever going to convince a Program Director to give you a shot. If you can't explain your show in one sentence and immediately pique his/her interest, you're doomed.
And yes, that might just mean that your show concept simply isn't going to work.
Below is the blog post in its entirety. If you want the comments, too, check out the permalink.
QUALITY FOLLOWS POPULARITY
The common notion about entertainment is that the better the quality, the bigger the audience. There's some truth to that. But what I find more interesting is that it works the other way too: You need popularity before you have the luxury of developing quality.
There are plenty of examples of popularity creating quality. The first season of The Simpsons, for example, was awful in terms of quality. The writing and animation were primitive. The voice actors hadn't found their groove yet. But because it was so different - an adult cartoon with an edge - it gained an immediate huge audience, mostly from curiosity and buzz. This audience allowed them to stay on the air, develop their show through practice, and hire highly talented writers. Within a few seasons The Simpsons became arguably one of the best TV shows ever aired.
The TV show Friends had a similar path. The first few episodes were awful in terms of writing and acting. But because the actors had charisma, and the concept of young, single friends was appealing, the ratings were immediately high and the cast and creators had time and money to develop it into a phenomenon. Quality followed popularity.
Dilbert was a bit like that too. The first few years of Dilbert were so poorly drawn and written it seems a miracle it found a home in any newspapers at all. But there was something different about it, and people saw just enough potential that I was given the luxury of years to learn how to draw (better) and learn how to write for my audience.
You can see this phenomenon work the other way too. Lately I've been watching on Hulu.com a cancelled TV series called Firefly. The show is part science fiction, part western, part action, part comedy. That makes it nearly impossible to explain, and evidently harder to market. When it originally aired on TV, I never saw a commercial for it or a mention of it. Yet in my opinion it was one of the best TV shows aired, and that was its first season right out of the gate. Quality wasn't enough to find a mass audience. It needed the curiosity factor, or some other appeal to get an audience.
Entertainment gets a chance to find an audience only if the concept is so simple it can be understood in a few words. Examples:
Friends: It's about some young, single friends
The Simpsons: cartoon about a dysfunctional family
Dilbert: Comic about a nerd and his dog
Garfield: About a cat
When you find an exception to the simplicity rule, it often proves the point. For example, Seinfeld was famously "about nothing." That should have been a recipe for failure, and indeed it had poor ratings for the first few dozen shows. I forget the details, but somehow it ran below the radar at the network because it was financed or produced in a different division than usual. That difference allowed it to stay on the air and develop quality, and an audience, while other shows with low ratings came and went.
So here is the key learning. If you are planning to create some business or other form of entertainment, you will need quality at some point to succeed. But what is more important than quality in the beginning is some intangible element that makes your project inherently interesting before anyone has even sampled it. That initial audience will give you the luxury of time to create quality.
I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality:
1. You must be able to describe it in a few words.
2. When people hear about it, they ask questions.
I saw this at work with my restaurant. We recently started what we call after hours dancing. (See how easily explained it is?) And as soon as we started talking about the idea, everyone had lots of questions. Was it live music or a DJ? What kind of music? What time does it end? Is there a cover charge? And so on. Rarely did anyone say, "That's nice. Good luck with it." Something about the idea makes people curious. And sure enough, it has been a solid success with no advertising, just word of mouth. And this immediate audience has allowed us to improve on it every week. Quality followed popularity.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Instead, this was a guide for dealing with common...and I mean very common...mistakes that a lot of public radio producers make on a regular basis. Things like:
- The three things every station's program director looks for when evaluating a show.
- Why station breaks are important, and how to structure them.
- How to market your show to different stations.
- Having the proper mindset for national vs. local
- ...and more!
Anyways, I finally got around to cleaning up the article, tightening the prose a little, and sending it over to Transom.org. Hopefully they'll post it. But until then, here's the article in complete form. Enjoy!
NOW AND THEN, a producer will ask me the eternal question:
“How can I get more stations to air my show?”
I’ve asked that question of several stations’ Program Directors, myself, and now that I run a public radio station, it’s a question I have to ask of myself when judging a given show that wants to be added to our lineup on WEOS.
What's the answer? Well, there is no one answer. And there is no magic formula for success. There’s always bribery, I suppose, but that’s illegal (technically known as “payola”) so I wouldn’t recommend it. On the legal side of things, the best I can offer is a guideline based on both what I have heard, and what I myself use as criteria.
For the purposes of this essay, I'm going to assume that your show's actual content is interesting, compelling, and relevant. If your show doesn't have those qualities, nothing in this essay will help. But lots of shows have those qualities and still can't get on the air. Even shows that would help fill a niche that a station, or stations, should want to fill. In such cases, hopefully my essay will help.
Here are the three most common things I hear from Program Directors in what they're looking for when evaluating a show:
- That the show has been on the air for at least 3 to 5 years. Preferably twice that.
- That the show is already on several affiliate stations. Carriage in at least one or two Top 10 markets is an unspoken requirement, although most PD’s prefer to see at least half the Top 10 markets carrying your show.
- That the show has a proven track record of garnering audience…and, by extension, fundraising donations…for the stations that air it.
Notice a theme? They’re all Catch 22’s! It’s very hard to stay on the air for more than a year or two without a lot of affiliates to begin with; affiliates that won’t touch you until you’ve been around for longer than that. It’s also damned hard to get into a Top 10 market’s station unless you’ve already got lots of affiliates to “prove your worthiness”. And how can you possibly demonstrate that you’ll get a particular station more audience unless you’re already a show carried across the station with universal appeal?
Why such impossible goals?
Well, it may seem unfair to the show producer, but to the program director it makes a lot of sense. First off, every PD out there is constantly getting offers from upstart show producers begging them to air their show. They need a system to quickly weed out any show that won't make the grade for any reason.
Second, most PD’s are incredibly risk-averse people. The slightest change to their lineup can cause howls of outrage from listeners, which can damage ratings, hurt fundraising, and lose underwriters. Yikes! Your show needs a huge potential reward to counterbalance those potential risks.
Start with the Fundamentals: Four Main Rules
With these Catch-22’s in mind, here are the four main rules to guide your efforts. Bear in mind that there is no way “around” these Catch-22’s, just ideas you can use to better keep your show going as you work you way past them.
- First and Foremost: Understand that Your Show is a BUSINESS. Plan to spend money on this. It used to cost over $100,000 to successfully launch a show and run it for one year. Today it can be done for a fraction of that, but that's still hundreds, if not a few thousand, dollars. It can be done cheaper, but it will reflect in the quality of the product; PD's don't want cheap. They want shows that demonstrate earning potential. You'll need to find a sponsor or two, and ideally a grant from a sympathetic foundation.
- Start Small: College & Community Radio. Volunteer for lousy airshifts and for grunt work around the station to work your way up. You'll have fewer listeners, but it's better than none, and you're likely to have a lot of freedom to fine-tune your show. Start in April or May, volunteer to take shifts in the summertime when there's no students and airshifts to fill.
- Act Big: Style, Website & Promotion. Not only is it written into the NPR Charter that their sound must be of the highest quality, but with today's cheap computers and digital recorders, you've got no excuse! Don't cut corners, don't settle for "good" – your show should sound "GREAT!" Anything less is giving PD's an excuse to ignore you. Also, your website is your first impression to most PD's, so it should look sharp and work perfectly. If you're not a professional web developer, pay to have one build your site. Get a professional URL like www.yourshowname.com (buy the .net and .org as well). Your e-mail should be email@example.com – not firstname.lastname@example.org. Get a dedicated phone line for show business. Have a podcast and a show archive. Make sure it's very easy to hear the most recent shows. Have a collection of your five best episodes. Have a page devoted to what stations the show is on / where it can be heard. Have a bio page. If, and only if, you have the time to maintain and moderate it, have a blog where your listeners can interact with you and with each other.
- Talk is Cheap: Get Something Produced! It's easy to make a show proposal. It's much harder to actually produce a quality show every day/week for a year. PD's respect the latter, and not the former, so focus on actually producing something. I mentioned a podcast – this is the godsend to the new and struggling show. If you've got 100,000 subscribers, every PD will, at the least, give some serious thought to you.
You're Not Selling Out – You're Buying In
Again, your show is a business. That means you are a salesman, the product is your show, and the buyers are Program Directors. The fundamentals of salesmanship work just as well here. You need to research your buyer, network your way into personal connection, meet on terms where the buyer wants to buy, and then sell the product.
Lots of producers mail CD's with info packets to stations. This just doesn't work. There's no personal connection. Ditto for cold calling; the buyer's not in a place where he/she wants to buy.
Obviously a personal connection, like family, friends or colleagues, is ideal. But you can't count on that, so I recommend professional gatherings: public meetings of a station advisory board, a station-hosted/funded dinner or similar social gathering, or – most ideal – a professional conference like PRPD (Public Radio Program Directors: www.prpd.org). In all cases, remember, to sell your show, you don't "sell the show"…you have a conversation. You build a personal connection. If you think the PD has a bit of a teaching instinct in them, talk to them about what's the best way to run a radio station. Give them a chance to brag a little.
Another obvious tactic is to volunteer at the station, perhaps answering the phones during pledge week. It's a good learning experience, and you'll meet some good people to know. But this tactic is a little TOO obvious; don't push it too hard because every PD knows it and looks for it.
Budgeting for Success
I mentioned budget a moment ago. It used to be completely impossible to do a quality public radio show in your spare time. Today, it's still impossible, but it's easy to think that you can. Granted, the first few weeks or months, you probably can do it. But after that, you'll find you need at least a few dozen hours a week to find stories, book guests, prep interviews, conduct interviews, edit the interviews, and assemble a completed show. And that doesn't include time to manage your finances, solicit sponsors, write grants, and market the show to potential affiliates!
The obvious answer is to use the show to make money, but as you might imagine, this isn't easy. It is, however, essential…and not just for your sanity. One major gauge a PD will use in evaluating your show is whether or not you're making money off it. Or at least earning enough to support yourself. The logic is that a show that has earnings is a show that has demonstrable value, and that value will apply to any station that airs it.
There are two tracks you can take here:
- You get the ball rolling with a few months' worth of shows, and then approach a local station about hiring you to produce the show for them. This means you get a "home station" with facilities to produce the show in. Presumably, it also means a steady paycheck with benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it means you have someone to handle your show's finances (sponsors, grants, etc) while you worry about producing the show. The downside is that the station now owns the show, not you. That means you might have a lot of control over it, but not the final say. In fact, you'll want to be very careful in structuring a contract lest you find your show "taken away" from you and yourself replaced!
- You maintain total ownership. This means it's entirely up to you to produce the show, market the show and manage the show. You'll have to do all the work to solicit sponsors, and all the work to apply for (and manage) any grants you can get, and all the work trying to convince stations to carry your show! The upside is that you get final say on what goes into your show, what direction it takes, and how it's managed. You also enjoy all the profits, assuming there are some. The downside is that all the risk is on you, and you have much less stability.
No matter what route you take, it doesn't hurt to be knowledgeable about how to raise funds. Here's a couple of quick tips to get started:
- Grants.gov: Don't rely on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; they primarily fund existing programs. Instead, go to www.grants.gov – it's a very comprehensive listing of all the potential grant-givers out there. Be prepared to do a lot of research and fill out a lot of paperwork.
- Colleges/Universities: Lots of colleges like public radio projects, especially if they have a program/curriculum that naturally relates to your show. Be careful, though: don't pull an end-run around any radio station the college may own!
- Local Businesses: The ideal is a national company whose headquarters is local to you. Consider that many underwriters are looking for a "halo effect" by associating with public radio, so target industries with lots of money and a need for better public relations. Chemical companies, financial institutions, etc.
Plan for your show to take at least two, probably five, years before you have enough affiliates and listeners to be self-perpetuating. Budget accordingly, including a salary for yourself and – quite possibly – additional staff. The US Small Business Association (www.sba.gov) can be a very helpful tool to manage your growth. And invest in a good accountant – the rules for independent non-profits can be very complex. You don't want to waste tons of time fiddling with accounting that you need to put into making a better show.
All in all, remember that your successful show is ultimately a successful business – you'll want to treat it as such.
Square Pegs and Round Holes: Methods to the Producing Madness
So far I’ve outlined things you can do to get affiliates that are outside of the show itself. Now I’ll delve more into ways you can tailor your show to better improve your chances of convincing PD’s that you’re worth it.
As a producer, you no doubt have strong feelings about the content of your show. How it should sound. What tone you want to set. What details are important, nay – critical! These "little things" are what will make your show stand out. What'll make it irresistible! What will achieve the nirvana of the "driveway moment?"
To answer those questions, I have three words for you: GET OVER YOURSELF!
While having a strong "voice" is important, don't get so wrapped up in the details that you overlook some core values that any PD is going to be looking for in your show. Instead, recognize the "big things" that set the "ground rules" for your details. First and foremost is learning to think like a national show producer.
National vs. Local – Having the Proper Mindset
This is trickier than it sounds, but there are only two kinds of shows out there: a show for just one station, and a show for thousands of stations.
By this, I mean that when it’s just one station, you can espouse that "localism" that everybody says is the salvation of radio. You can mention local names, places, and foods. You can local points of interest or politics or people or businesses, upcoming events, local or regional news items, etc. And, of course, it's no problem to mention things like the call letters of your station, or its broadcast frequency, or to talk about what show is coming up next. It's all good, because it's all part of the "local service" of that one station.
But if you air on just ONE other station, somewhere else in the country? Guess what: you can't talk about ANY of that! If you're in Boston, talking about Boston issues…your sole other affiliate in Wichita is going to be high pissed. Because Wichitonians don't give a damn about Boston issues; they care about issues that matter to them! When you’re a national show, you have to stay national, while making the national local for everyone in the country. Not an easy task!
The biggest influence here is your show's topics. When it's just one station, you have the liberty of making your show’s topics about things that interest that station’s local interests. When you’re national, your show has to be about things that everyone in the whole country might be interested in hearing about. This is not necessarily bad, not even necessarily limiting, but it is something you have to be aware of and plan for.
And don't forget local community standards! You have to make sure that your show meets not just the local standard of interest for every local community across the country…it has to meet the local standard of decency, too. This is important in today’s obscenity- and indecency-crazed media landscape. Programming that wouldn’t cause New Yorkers to bat an eye might cause locals in some areas to storm the local affiliate with torches and pitchforks!
You MUST be time-neutral.
Your first station may air your show on Saturdays at 8pm. What if the next station airs it on Fridays at 12 midnight? Or the following Tuesday at 11am? If you record on Friday, and talk about a concert coming up on Saturday, it sounds really bad for the station that airs you on Sunday.
This is not difficult to deal with, but you must be aware of it. So each of your episodes has to have a "freshness date"; a limit to how timely the content can be.
Granted, you can often control…sometimes to a fairly strict degree…how long your affiliates have to air an episode after you release it. But don’t be too strict or affiliates won’t air you at all. A good rule of thumb is that you have to allow stations air an episode at least three days after you release it. The full week is preferable.
The bottom line is that making references to events occurring at specific dates and times is risky in general – don’t do it unless it’s already occurred or is happening at least a few weeks in the future.
This concept also extends to specific times during the day. For example, don’t say things like “It’s twenty-two minutes after five’o’clock.” Instead, you have to say instead like “It’s twenty-two minutes past the hour.” Don't say "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" if you can avoid it…and remember to remind your interview guests to not say it, either.
Manage your brand identity.
I was rather flippant about the "little details" in the beginning of this section, but they can and do matter in a certain way. They form the icing on the cake…if the cake is really good, then icing makes it perfect. If the cake is a cow pie, no amount of icing is going to cover that nasty taste!
First off, you'll want to have a distinct “sound"…so distinct that someone can tune to your show in the middle of a sentence and, within a few seconds, be pretty sure that they’re listening to your show. This can be any one of several things:
- A consistent accent, cadence or style of speech by your host.
- A set theme music to begin & end the show. Plus variations of it to play during/into breaks.
- Pay a musician friend to record something original for you that you own all the rights to. You really, really don't want to deal with trying to get the rights to someone else's music for your show's theme.
- A consistent "format". For example, Free Speech Radio News always begins exactly the same way. They have distinctive and consistent theme music, and within the first 20 seconds they always say "It's Free Speech Radio News for Monday, January 6th. From KPFK in Los Angeles, I'm Aura Bogado. Today in the news…" Obviously they update the date, call letters, city and host as needed, but the format always remains the same.
- Consistent elements within the show. Every Friday, Marketplace has a roundup on the week's news with the same financial analyst. On Point frequently has Jack Beatty and he always fills the same role of "Senior News Analyst". This American Life always has several "Acts" that the show is broken into. Car Talk always has "The Puzzler" and ends every show with the list of goofy staff names. And the mother of all consistent show elements: Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me always has "Who's Carl This Time", "Not My Job", "Listener Limerick Challenge" and "Lightning Fill in the Blank", among others. These structures provide a framework that breeds familiarity and comfort with your listening audience.
Break transitions should be elegant, not rushed.
Have good transitions in and out of your breaks. It's surprising how many shows do this badly, despite the potential for the ultimate disaster: listener tune-out. Think about it, you're telling your listeners that they're going to be forced to listen to something they don't want to (a break, probably with underwriting spots) and hope they stick around. Guess what, lots of times they don't…not even for a lousy 60 seconds. Why? Because shows don't give them enough reason to stick around!
A good break starts roughly 30 seconds before the actual cutaway. It has a gentle transition out of whatever the actual conversation is, and then it has a bit of a forward promo to tease the listener with what's coming up after the break. As in: give them an incentive to stay! Also, there's usually an action item of some kind...for more info about tonight's topic, go to our website www.myamazingshow.com or something like that...and then a clean end with 0.5 to 1.0 seconds of silence for the cutaway.
After the break, it’s the same thing in reverse: a bit of silence for the cutaway, then say what the show is, who you are, who your guest is, what today's topic is, and any action item for listeners to get involved (adjust as needed for live or delayed shows).
Endings – the icing on the icing of the cake.
Similarly, have a good, smooth wrap-up at the end. It's astounding how many shows do this badly. They don't leave enough time at the end for everything they subsequently try and shove in way too much information. It sounds incredibly rushed – even incoherent – and leaves the listener feeling disoriented, like a car driving at highway speeds suddenly slamming on the brakes.
Naturally, the exact way to do an ending is going to depend on your show…but if you time most “good” shows, you’ll notice that the entire wrap-up lasts about 60 to 90 seconds. That includes:
- Getting the guest to stop talking gracefully.
- Back-announcing: thanking the guests and giving their names, job titles and – if they’re musicians or authors, the titles of their latest album or book.
- Forward-promoting the next episode’s topic, sometimes with a short actuality/quote.
- Credits / “Our staff includes…”
- Any underwriting spots.
- Final goodbye: “I’m Joe Schmo, thanks for listening to My Amazing Radio Show, we’ll see you tomorrow/next week.”
- 3 to 5 seconds (at least) of the theme music playing in the clear as the show ends.
A lot of that total time depends on how much time you need to get a guest to stop talking, ideally without it sounding like you’re cutting them off. That can be difficult with some folks, like politicians who…as a rule…will keep talking pretty much until you make them stop. But besides politicians, if you budget for at least 10 to 20, or even 10 to 30 seconds to let a guest finish a thought, you’ll be in good shape to gracefully step in and start the process of ending the episode.
On that same note, here's a hint: don't ever say to a guest "We've only got 10 seconds left, but you get the last word!" No guest ever knows how to sum anything up in 10 seconds, and it almost always sounds lame or ends up with the host cutting off the guest mid-sentence.
How much time you need to get the guest to stop talking should be balanced against however much back-announce (names, job titles, etc) you can / want to put in there. Less guest talking means more back-announce and vice versa.
As for credits…well, I’m not a huge fan of employee credits. I'm not against showing the love for your peeps, mind you. It’s because these days, a show’s staff is so huge you can’t possibly get them all in. My suggestion is that if you can’t do it all within 15 seconds…and without sounding rushed…then don’t do any credits at all. If people really wanna know who works on your show, they’ll go to the website. And if you really feel like you need to reward your employees, then pay them more. J
What about underwriting? Well, Marketplace has arguably the most sophisticated method of weaving underwriting in so that it’s neither obnoxious, nor is it at the end where a listener has already “tuned out” (either figuratively or literally). But it’s not easy to achieve Marketplace’s extensive production values, so I’d just put it in somewhere near the credits if it’s only 10 – 20 seconds worth. If you have more underwriting than that (and that’s a good thing) then consider structuring the ending of the main show so that it comes 10-30 seconds early and then put in 10-30 seconds of underwriting to fill out the remainder of the clock. Most NPR shows follow this model, with Frank Tavares’ distinctively neutral voice doing all the national underwriting spots.
Techie Stuff…That's Not Too Techie
I haven't addressed the technical aspects of producing a show, because those are addressed in the companion article to this one. But I will touch on a few things:
Make it easy for stations to get your show!
If nothing else, have a podcast of your show in a broadcast-quality MP3 or MP2 audio file. 128kbps mono / 256kbps stereo, 44.1kHz sampling rate, 16 bits. Pay a few bucks and get a good, reliable podcast service…don't go cheap here, if your show isn't available when stations need it – they will drop you like a hot potato if you miss just one show.
Personally, I would recommend you also distribute via the Public Radio Exchange (www.prx.org) as it implies professionalism and is commonly used in the public radio world. Similarly, if you can afford, distribute through the ContentDepot satellite system…it makes life for PD's much easier, and that's a good thing! (www.prss.org)
Timing is Everything!
In today's age of computer-based audio editing (e.g. Protools, Adobe Audition, Audacity, etc) there is no excuse for not have precise timing in your show. Your show must always be the exact same length (I strongly recommend either 59:00 or 29:00 minutes, exactly) and your breaks should also be an exact length (either 30, 60 or 90 seconds). While technically not required, I also recommend you set your breaks to be a fixed times every week. (see the standard NPR clocks for shows like Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered or Living on Earth) "Floating breaks", that are a fixed length but can occur at varying times every week, are generally a pain in a Program Director's ass. Remember, you're trying to be as PD-friendly as possible!
When it comes to timing your segments and show, be as anal as possible. More than likely an unattended computer is going to be playing your show, and computers have little ability to correct for something being too long or too short…even being a half-second off can sound really bad if the computer cuts you off mid-word.
Make it easy for stations to automate your show!
A byproduct of the ContentDepot system that virtually all NPR affiliates use to get their programming is that it's very easy for a station to automate a feed. You can use this to your advantage, even if you don't distribute via ContentDepot.
Think of your entire show as sequential segments. Each segment is a specific length of time, that when taken as a whole, will add to either 59:00 or 29:00 in length. Depending on the "clock" you decide to emulate, he breakdown will be something like this:
- 00:00 – 01:00 (01:00) Program Billboard
- 01:00 – 06:00 (05:00) Newscast Hole
- 06:00 – 06:30 (00:30) Newscast Break
- 06:30 – 18:00 (12:30) Program A
- 19:00 – 20:00 (01:00) Break 1
- 20:00 – 38:30 (18:30) Program B
- 38:30 – 40:00 (01:30) Break 2
- 40:00 – 59:00 (19:00) Program C
So that's eight total segments. Accordingly, in your audio editing software, you'll want to create a total of NINE audio files. The eight individual segments, plus one file that is the entire show.
This way you have a very automation-friendly version of the show; stations that choose to automate will just load the Program Billboard, plus A, B and C. They'll substitute their own audio files (with promos, underwriting, and various other announcements) for the Break segments, and their files will be timed to match the length.
You also have the whole-show-in-one-file version, which is much friendlier to non- or lightly-automated stations that may not have a robust automation system. Or they may just have a live DJ playing the file manually.
Newscast "hole" – Programming or No Programming?
A constant dilemma is whether or not to put "real" programming in the newscast break. A lot of NPR stations will probably just ignore it and broadcast the top of the hour newscast from NPR. So you may just want a simple instrumental music clip (no vocals) that runs for exactly five minutes. But not every station will be an NPR station, so those stations will air a lame music bed every time they broadcast your show!
This is a personal question more than anything else. If you have the time and inclination to produce "disposable" content every week…a commentary or simple newscast of your own….then it's better than just doing music. But be prepared for a lot of stations to not air that part.
Audio File Formats
This one's easy: emulate ContentDepot by using the PRX MP2 encoder, part of the "Member Tools" available for free download here:
It's free, dirt-simple, and spits out a pristine MP2 audio file that's exactly what every NPR station can use. Fortunately, most automation systems at non-NPR stations can also play MP2's, or easily convert them into a format they can handle.
Why MP2's instead of MP3's, AAC or WAV's or some other format? MP2's are far more resistant than MP3's or AAC to cascading algorithms, which means the final product tends to sound better on the air. WAV's sound great, but the filesize is prohibitively large. MP2 might be an older technology, but NPR has demonstrated that it's still the best balance of options.
Don't Operate in a Vacuum – Get Feedback from Stations!
Since there's no shortage of people telling you how you do your show…whether you want them to or not…you'd think getting feedback from affiliates is easy. But for some reason, it's not. In fact, it's like pulling teeth.
Don't wait for stations to tell you what they don't like about your show; usually they won't. Instead, they'll just drop you from their lineup with no warning. And there's little chance of ever getting back, so be proactive! Follow these steps:
- First and foremost: listen to your show. Listen to different affiliates (via webcast) each week so you can hear how they're making use of your breaks, what underwriting they run near it, how they're promoting it, and how it sounds with their audio processing. Also, it helps make sure they're airing it when you think they are.
- Subscribe to these listservs (Google them to get instructions on how) and make sure you post something relevant now and then so people know you're there. If you try something different (new break structure, new audio processing, new equipment) make sure to mention it and ask for feedback.
- DUBnet, for announcements/feedback on satellite impairments.
- PUBtech, public radio engineers. VERY useful community to be a part of. When there's a technical problem with a show, it's often discussed here.
- NFCB, Nat'l Federation of Community Broadcasters (if you're a member).
- AskCBI/College Broadcasters, Inc (if you have college affiliates).
- PUBradio, public radio managers. Not quite as useful as PUBtech, but still very handy.
- Radio-Info.com's local/regional discussion boards (not technically a listserv, but it's the same idea)
- If you have a local affiliate station, ask to volunteer there in some fashion…ideally in a way that lets you interact with the production/operations staff. That way you have a direct connection to the people who are broadcasting your show.
- Ask your affiliates what automation, if any, they use to broadcast you. Learn more about how those systems work from the manufacturer. Download demos, read support forums, etc.
Even with these steps, you often will have to ask repeatedly for feedback from affiliates. But at least this way, if they feel they have a problem, they'll have an avenue for letting you know long before it gets to the "drop the show" point. Plus, you're putting yourself in their shoes, which hopefully will help you recognize problems before the affiliate does!
National Affiliation with NPR, PRI, APM, etc
The goal for most shows is to get "picked up" by National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI), or American Public Media (APM)…the three big public radio content clearinghouses. Being a member of these organizations can mean a lot of things, but for the purposes of this essay, I'll advise you to just ignore them at the start. Very, very few shows will be considered for national distribution by NPR, PRI or APM until they've been on the air for at least three to five years…often twice that. So worry more about getting a few affiliates and perfecting your show before you worry about getting picked up by NPR!
As I said at the beginning, you can follow all these rules and still get nowhere with some, even many, stations. Many Program Directors use very different criteria that I propose, and there is no "guaranteed" path to success for a show. My hope is that you'll find these tips a good starting point to guide you as you improve your show in general, and as your show gets better, you're more likely to pick up affiliates. Good luck!
"Driveway Moment" - If you don't know what this means, you don't know public radio. Go Google it, Jane, you ignorant slut.
NPR Clocks - Not sure where to get these? Ask your local NPR affiliate station if they can print you a copy. They're freely available on the private site www.nprstations.org
Monday, January 19, 2009
If the service pubcasting provided "was indeed so valuable that we, the American people, could not do without it," writes libertarian blogger J.J. Jackson, "they would not need to beg their government benefactors for a single dime. "God I'm tired of hearing this same, tired, bullcrap argument from the right.
First, if "the American people" didn't want their tax dollars...a tiny percentage of them, I might add...going to fund public broadcasting, then they wouldn't scream and howl every time the right tries to slash funding for NPR and PBS. And the right tries it every other year (at least) and always gets the same results. What was that saying about insanity being defined as doing the same thing every time and expecting a different result?
Second, and more pertinent to Jackson's hypocrisy, is that the vast majority of NPR and PBS affiliate stations are non-commercial licenses. That means they cannot, by FCC law, sell advertising. They're restricted to what's called "underwriting", which is basically advertising but with very, very strict limitations on what can be said. Limitations that make it all but impossible to attract the most common advertisers you see on commercial radio and TV: car dealers, beer ads, etc. The advertisers willing to pay serious money for ad time.
If Jackson were really a libertarian, he'd be clamoring for the FCC to remove the underwriting restrictions from non-commercial radio and TV licenses....thus opening them up to the more lucrative advertisers, and allowing them to become more fiscally self-sustaining. Instead, he just doesn't like what NPR/PBS have to say, so he cloaks his indignation in a self-righteous spiel about wasted taxpayer money.
Of course, I personally would aghast if the FCC lifted those restrictions. One of the biggest reasons I like listening to, and working in, public radio is that there actually is almost a full hour of content for every hour...unlike commercial radio where there's 20 minutes (at least) of ads from every hour.
Friday, January 16, 2009
- Krugman is largely right. If you don't put the smackdown on administrations for pulling this crap, future ones will only get worse. A lot of people forgot that Reagan was mighty bad on the civil rights front, because Bush the Elder was even worse, and then we forgot Clinton was hands-down the worst President for civil rights since Jim Crow...only because Dubya was ten times worse than all of them put together. Sometimes you gotta shove the king under the guillotine to remind the royalty that there's a line they can't cross.
- Krugman may be right, but the inability to forgive and forget...mostly forget...is a big reason why war-torn countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa are so notoriously war-torn. Those are the same people who, as Mark Bowden so aptly put it in Black Hawk Down, they cry that they must have peace, they absolutely need peace...and then when informed that having peace means giving up some power to rival clans, will turn around and say "Give power to those dogs?!? I'd rather die!"
As a person who considers himself fairly intelligent and capable of heavy thinking...it bothers the crap out of me that Americans' stupidity might be the biggest reason why the country continues being generally better than most other countries. (recent economic issues notwithstanding) Certainly after eight years of being shoved aside by conservatives, I - as a liberal/libertarian - am not ready to just forgive and forget.
In fact, I often feel that we need eight years of hardcore liberalism (or at least serious progressiveness) just to drag everything in government back towards the center. As in, that's an indicator of just how far-right everything became under Bush. I have no idea if it really works that way...but I won't lie that I find "healing the country" bipartisanship verrrrrry hard to swallow after the last eight years.
Friday, January 09, 2009
Originally I was thinking that the outside doesn't quite look like what I remembered from the show...only after I got home did I learn that there's a separate building, M7, a few blocks away. And without knowing its precise address, I'd never find it...the area is very industrial and very nondescript. I drove right past M5's turnoff twice before I spotted it.
Still, here's the proof! :-) Check out these pics: