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Shelf Life

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!

Onward!

7 Responses to Shelf Life

  1. Robert Ready July 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    And, lord save us from bad micromanagers–and the network domination of Talk Producers.

    First, trust yourself, your colleagues and the unique tastes and sensibility of your *local* audience. Second, use as little satellite bloc programming as possible. Third, consign 95% of the conventional focus group “wisdom”–modal music, tentpoles, core values gobbledeegook–to the nearest bonfire.

    -Robert Ready,
    Vermont
    (20+ year major-market veteran).

  2. Jack Allen July 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Guts! We can’t forget our own gut feelings and instincts. Right on, Robert.

    Not sure I can wholly disagree with the rest, either. Good stewardship requires that we consider whatever data, analysis, research etc., is out there, but what we take away is always up to us in serving our local audience. Thanks for the comment.

  3. marty ronish July 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    Great thoughts, Jack. As a producer who pitches ideas to program directors and arts orgs, I can attest to the pain in the process. I have a head full of ideas — some brilliant, some terrible, not all of them sustainable — but there’s no way to know unless you try. It’s only air! What can it hurt to give a producer some air time and let the audience decide? I like to think my productions are improving and evolving over time, but that can only happen when program directors will take a chance on them. Our profession could certainly do with some fresh ideas!

  4. Jack Allen July 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Thanks, Marty.

    The process can be so daunting, PD’s can become risk averse, though by listening to much of public radio one might not be able to tell. PD’s have not had good criteria with which to vet programs and have ended up throwing things on the air, as if trying the doneness of pasta. Or, they’ll leave a program on for 25 years, just because it’s always been there.

    Our “air” is all we have, really, and much of it (mid-days, overnights and weekends) has often been viewed as expendable, or certainly far less important. More often than not, over the years at least, station’s have been programmed willy-nilly and even dead air occurs without much consequence. I’ve heard it! Yes, I too have used the old adage, “It’s only radio, no one dies,” when we make a mistake. 🙂

    Anyway, you’re one of the smart, talented ones, Marty! The “America’s Music Festivals” series is a perfect example of seasonally refreshed regional material handled adroitly by an expert producer with a veteran voice. We air it in PDX precisely because of its quality, appeal and because we can’t even begin to capture this array of live performances as you have. Thank you!

    Yes to sandboxes and playing. A guy named Garrison was once given some air in which to play and did so over multiple years before launching a nationally distributed version of his experiment. If a “Garrison” in our community or on our staff were to pitch an idea to us today, would be willing or able to take him up on the offer? We must take risks that are calculated on what we know and cognizant of our competition, which is not just the other public station(s) in our market.

    The rub with “letting the listeners decide” is how are we gathering listener feedback? Anecdotally, only? Arbitron data has shown in some cases that we have virtually no audience for some long-time shows, yet we “think” we have audience, as we still receive a few supportive emails or calls saying it is valuable. If that program remains on the schedule, we must then justify it some other way. Some use a mission as their rationale. Then we must evaluate true public service…

    If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a radio show airs and no one is listening, is it still radio…let alone good public service?

    CPB has invested in aiding stations in the conversion to HD and second channel content delivery. I think we owe it to our government and our communities to use these 2nd channels to develop new and innovative programs.

    The economy and real financial pressure (and the vanishing classical music format) has caused us in public radio to become more professional and disciplined in running our stations, which is not to say we shouldn’t try new things on our main channels. Our first 44 years in public radio taught us a lot (hopefully) where programming was largely experimental, reliant on a tip jar for our funding. So, it’s not like we’ve never taken risks.

    Until we find the answer as to why less than 10% who listen actually give to our stations, the onus on PD’s is to continue to analyze and think deeply about localism and professionalism. Historically, to be local means to sound somewhat amateurish. To be professional, means grabbing a nationally produced show. We can have it all if we want it!

  5. JEFF SKIBBE July 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    My station was one of those 20 hold-outs who continued to value “Adventures in Good Music” when the Haas family sadly withdrew the broadcast rights. We also embraced “Exploring Music” as an exciting new take on music education. Indeed, we let Bill McGlaghlin know how we felt with an award. We aired both shows back to back and could not have been more content with the new series followed by the classic. Many of those 380 other stations who dropped AIGM did so for reasons such as greater committment to news/talk programming, or new management did not like the show. Countless shows have been axed (or died aborning) because they don’t appeal personally to upper-management. I am probably guilty of that myself.

    However, let me boldy suggest that “Adventures in Good Music” is as classic as TV’s “I Love Lucy.” While AIGM is gone, “I Love Lucy” continues to air somewhere on TV each week, and it continues to be treasured and enjoyed. I hope new outlets become available for a future revival of AIGM, and that someday the Haas family and WCLV will reopen the vault to that classical radio treasure trove.

  6. Jack Allen July 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Well said, Jeff!

    Here in Portland, we’d consider AIGM for our 2nd channel if the Haas family re-considered distribution. Like cable TV’s utilization of classics like “I Love Lucy,” we’ll probably see the same phenomenon in public radio with our ground-breaking heritage shows being recycled for new audiences – especially as the media landscape and content platforms evolve.

  7. marty ronish July 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to make such a reasoned and thoughtful response, Jack. And thanks for the comments on America’s Music Festivals. The series is a simple reflection of the freshness and energy of what’s happening at these amazing festivals. If radio can capture the good of what’s happening in the classical music world, then we’ve succeeded.

    (As an interesting aside, I just read a gloomy report about American orchestras, and it makes me sad that orchestras keep themselves off the air over $$$. Radio could help keep them in business if they’d only let us.)

    The potential for bad judgment is high on both sides — producer and program director. When I was at a station, I rejected From the Top because I thought it had poor production values. Most other stations disagreed with me. Word has it that NPR turned down Garrison Keillor, and I know firsthand that they initally they turned down From the Top, too. And I’ve produced shows that make me cringe in retrospect.

    Radio is such an incredibly powerful medium. It has the power to do so much good, and it’s the number 1 source of media support for the entire classical music infrastructure. Quite a responsibility.

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