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 firstname.lastname@example.org – not email@example.com. 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