Thursday, April 16, 2009

Go Away Kid, Yer Botherin' Me...

So Jesse Thorn, host of The Sound of Young America, has some uncomfortable truths and he's not afraid to say them pretty bluntly. The "hot tape" in those transcripts? Check this out:
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.

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)


Jesse Thorn said...

Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Aaron, and thanks for your response. You are, of course, perfectly within your rights to think and say that my show is boring :).

Something I want to mention: the interview was conducted with a target audience in mind: folks who were considering moving from large journalism organizations (newspapers, especially) to solo work, or considering that transition. I was certainly surprised that it's bounced out of that world, though I do believe the things I said.

I wanted to clarify two points.

First, I think there's plenty of sustainable media that has one person at its center. Most of the radio industry is personality driven -- the Stern show, Limbaugh, Dr. Laura -- all of these are nowhere without a central figure. Car Talk, too, for that matter. If either of those guys is sick, or has to go out of the country, or anything else, there's no show.

There are no guest hosts on Oprah, and Nate Silver and Jason Kottke are the center of their websites. It's not rare.

My contract requires me to produce 26 new episodes a year. That's how many (the amazing and wonderful) Ira Glass & Co. produce, with their staff of many. I produce many more new shows each year.

If I was running a news show, I might be a bit more worried about this kind of thing, but I'm not. Most of my content is evergreen, and just like Fresh Air or any other similar show, I can and do use reruns. Also - I am married and my marriage and job get along just fine.

I'm sorry if the interview read as "disdainful" of stations. That's certainly not the case. I have really strong relationships with my affiliates. I value tremendously the input I get from stations like WNYC and KUSP. I value the audience that stations give me as well -- the hundred thousand or so people who listen on the radio obviously dwarf the ten or fifteen who listen on the podcast. But my relationship with the podcast listeners is stronger and more reciprocal. It's what pays my bills, and that's the facts. I don't see a reason why I'd have to choose between radio and podcast (as Ira Glass pointed out yesterday in the WaPo, they're different audiences), but if I did, right now, my income would dictate: internet.

Would my position be different if I was on lots and lots of stations? Maybe so, but the fact is that I'm not. I'm on a fair number of stations, and am very grateful for that, but that doesn't pay my bills. My point is not to say "to heck with stations," but instead to say that it's possible to create public media without being independently wealthy and without gathering two million dollars in advance. Or relying on the very difficult process of getting 100 out of 250 independent station PDs to agree on something.

Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful comments. And I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to listen to the show, even if you found it boring. I consider you taking the time to be a great compliment.

Aaron Read said...

I'll need to sit down and think more to craft a proper response, and at the moment I've got to run and prep for a live concert WEOS is putting on tonight. But I'll say this: the issues you cite with personality-driven shows, like Car Talk and This American Life...where the show revolves around one or two bad enough.

With your show, because there's almost literally no staff, if something happens to you the entire operation screams to a halt pretty fast. If Ira Glass got hit by a bus tomorrow and was in a coma for a least there's producers and engineers to upload some evergreens, round up some indie producers to do a "get well soon, Ira!" show, and maintain relationships with affiliate stations and underwriters.

The hyper-reliance on just ONE PERSON is a point I really wanted to harp on, if you will, as something that makes Program Directors rilly rilly reluctant to pick up a show.

This next point REALLY needs more time to be fleshed out, but here's the macro-level question: in your analysis of the finances, have you accounted for the promotional value of radio stations airing the show and thus (presumably) helping drive the podcast audience?

I know station affiliate fees don't pay much, but one can't completely discount the promotional value of being on the air. That's the point was I alluding to about shows that have solid national audiences/affiliate coverage.

Aaron Read said...

And I should make explicit something that was implied: just because I thought TSOYA was boring, doesn't mean it was a bad show.

I think it's arguably a bad sign that if I'm in the target demo and it rather completely failed to "speak" to me. But like I said, one person does not a statistically significant sample make! :-)