When is the right time to pull the plug on a radio program? When is a good thing, too much of a good thing? If one show goes away, do we revert to format (DJ and great tunes) or do we plug in another program…locally produced or off the shelf from one of the big distributors. National or local, brand new or long in tooth, the answer lies with square one, adequate concept development. If we apply start-up program criteria to existing programs or those we want to acquire, we end up with the same result – relevancy.
There have been many times in my radio career where sitting across from me in my office is an eager, over-caffeinated producer with the next big idea for the next big thing on radio. We’re all Ira Glass’s or Bill McGlaughlins deep down. Invariably the conversation turns to the broad, waving of the arms, macro-concept, then the need for the drill-down, micro-pilot, perhaps focus group input, a discussion of industry and programming history, any available research, under-performing dayparts at the station (after all, we don’t typically have one hour segments of silence in which to drop a new program – something is being replaced with that new show), ideal program placement, program affinity, niches (ghettos?), necessity, audience perceptions, current trends, platforms and compatibility, new media, counter-programming our competition, production space and support, potential for audience interactivity, money, time, and resources. From the get go, too little time is spent on sustainability.
So, to the eager producer in your office, it sounds like climbing Mt. Everest….a series of no, no, no, not possible. That’s not really true, but the most salient question always must be: “OK, does your good idea have legs for an hour every Sunday evening? Can you keep this up for a year or more?” The answer usually is yes to a year and the rub is year 2. Year 3 is really tough. Year 4, 5, 6, starts to be a major challenge. But, if you have a good year under your belt, you can often begin to predict the sustainability and life-span of a program. Is it worth the effort? We can all think of shows that have been around for 20 years or more, but should they have been? I know, I know, audience churn. There were always new folks discovering Karl Haas for the first time, even towards the end. Folks still call the station and ask for that show. He had an amazing run with Adventures in Good music from 1959 to 2007, but carriage dropped from around 400 stations, over time, to 20. Where’s the next Karl Haas? There are many lessons to learn from what Karl introduced to classical radio and Lenny Bernstein to classical music: passion and expertise coupled with wonderful accessibility. There’s no match for certain personalities, but even that X-factor exists elsewhere, if we were to look.
If we’re grabbing a syndicated program, it behooves us to look at the show, the host, the production values, costs, and shelf-life and ask many of the same questions. Is the program consistently good and does it still super-serve an area we at the station are ill-equipped to match?
Either way, whether creating a new program or buying off the rack, if you’re the PD, you decide. Of course, many don’t realize it but you’re also considering the input from the music director, GM, key staff, perhaps board and community advisory group, a friend in another market (who tried something similar in 1991) etc., etc. Can be daunting.
Too often, whether locally produced or nationally syndicated, I hear amazing work sporadically in our programming. You can hear tired approaches and lackluster delivery from seasoned veterans all across public radio. What was once a bright and shiny idea has often worn thin over time.
Relatively speaking, Public Radio is still in its adolescence and these are the growing pains of an evolving industry and medium. We’re literally seeing the first wave or generation of voices, stars and producers burn out, retire, and fade away. Is the next wave ready? I certainly recommend budgeting for some sandbox programming on your 2nd channel if not on your 1st. We must take some calculated risks and experiment. Let the young, hotshot, caffeinated producer roll the dice from time to time, albeit, with an hour or 3. Start small and work your way up to something weekly and see where it goes.
A producer once asked me if she could do a weekly one hour program on what seemed to be a broad and under-served niche within classical radio. We kicked the idea around for what seemed like months, covering all the topics enumerated above only to settle on doing a 3 part series. She worked diligently over the next several months, got the best interviews imaginable and created something quite amazing with the music. The rhythm and flow of the work was tight and more polished than anything she’d produced previously. We pitched the idea to a distributor and got significant carriage. She won an award. We realized that the better part of valor in that case was to create something truly potent at 3 hours in length and leave the audience impressed and wanting more.
Managing the shelf life of our products starts at the beginning of the creative process and really never ends. Programming is not for the faint of heart!