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)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I Must Promise To Use this Power Only for Good

Off and on, I've been trying to find the blog post where I first suggested that Boston University ought to buy the Boston Globe, and turn it into a giant mentorship/curriculum. Let the pros stay and do their jobs, but they're all required to take on one or two journalism students as mentors for the semester...maybe for a year (or longer if the student desires).

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.