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April 15, 2009, 11:43 a.m.

Jesse Thorn on the future of radio and the benefits of being small

Here’s Part 2 of my interview with Jesse Thorn, the host of public radio’s The Sound of Young America. (Here’s my intro post and Part 1.)

In this part of our conversation, we talk about the state of the radio business — both commercial and public — and its unwillingness to imagine a truly new model for how it could succeed. It’s a problem he sees in many creative professions whose business models are being wrecked by the Internet:

…everyone [in the music industry seems] to be working so hard to try and make it the ’70s again. And all their new ideas were driven towards: How can we get it back to the ’70s? Rather than: What’s the best thing that we can do given reality? They’re trying to figure out, as [Jesse’s friend Merlin Mann] put it, how to get Led Zeppelin to back that limousine full of money from Led Zeppelin III up to their door again.

A lot of the media world is like that right now. It’s people trying to — to the extent that people are being creative, it’s them being creative in an attempt to find creative ways to get back to where they were before, when they were sitting pretty.

I should mention that a healthy part of this conversation centers around Adam Carolla, the radio host who has transformed himself into the world’s most popular podcaster. Carolla is best known to many as a Howard Stern type — a producer of brash, scatological comedy aimed at the most reptilian, walnut-sized part of the 14-year-old male brain. And it’s true that much of his work is less than sophisticated. Actually, a lot less than sophisticated. But I agree with Jesse that Carolla is also a smart, talented guy (as is Stern) who breaks the mold of traditional commercial radio in interesting ways. What I’m saying is don’t let your (justified!) disdain for much of what Carolla’s done color your opinions about what he has to say.

You can listen to it by pressing play in the audio player below, or by downloading the MP3 directly here.

[audio:http://www.niemanlab.org/audio/jessethorn2.mp3]

There’s also a full transcript below. Also, for our more delicate readers: There’s a little swearing in the audio.

Josh: I want to ask you about two posts that you’ve written on your blog over the past few months. One, I think just last night, about Adam Carolla, and one from back in December about public radio programs.

The post last night had a long excerpt from, I guess, Adam Corolla’s first podcast after he was fired from his radio station in Los Angeles, talking about the way that — he had this wonderful metaphor about radio people as beavers who, if they were stuck on the top of the Sears Tower, they’d start looking for wood to build a dam, because that’s all they know how to do. And that he wanted to do something a little bit different.

What made you think that that was — what in Adam’s, in that post connected with you, in terms of his vision for radio, since you seemed to agree with it pretty strongly?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean, there were sort of these two parts of it that really connected for me. One was Adam Carolla was — and if anybody doesn’t know, he was a very, very popular radio host, sort of, that heir apparent to Howard Stern, a really, really smart, funny guy — you know, he was talking specifically about this experience he had in commercial radio, and my limited experience with commercial radio really matched that.

There’s this guy — there’s a guy who blogs about radio, who’s a big consultant in the industry, named Mark Ramsey. And on his blog, he’s always posting stuff — I mean, he’s a sharp tack. But he’s always posting stuff that seems so profoundly self-evident to me. And I think it feels the same way to him. But you can hear in the tone of his posts that, you know, some big radio guy paid him $25,000 or $50,000 to come in for a couple weeks and do a study, and he came out with this conclusion, and they thought it was insane.

You know — I mean, commercial radio people still think people are going to listen to HD Radio. Like, that is like the single most failed thing in history, and they’re still clinging to it as though it has any meaning at all. I mean, they just spent like, you know, they just used $5 million worth of air time — or $50 million worth of air time or some crazy, many million dollars worth of airtime — promoting this technology that obviously no one wants. And, you know, the reason is, there’s really no other industry that is more desperate and pathetic than commercial radio.

Like really, not that there aren’t brilliant people working in the field. I mean, Adam Carolla is a great example. But just, the idea that like, you know, there’s this whole part of the media world that is basically, completely composed of, you know — the only content-generation they do is on these morning shows, and the only thing they do on these morning shows is steal bits from other morning shows or read jokes from the Internet. It’s really amazing, the lack of creativity that goes into this.

And I’m not putting these people down, because they have unfathomably difficult jobs. Being a morning show host: So hard! I couldn’t do it. It’s unfathomably hard. But rather than respond to it by doing a really great job of creating content, they just respond to it by having two people working for them doing it. So it’s this specific-to-commercial-radio issue.

But there’s this broader issue which is that beaver metaphor. And that beaver metaphor was like — wow, that really kicked my butt. One of the amazing things about that post I put up is it reads like it’s an essay but it was actually just Adam Carolla speaking extemporaneously.

And you know, that beaver metaphor is a really intense one, because what it means to me is there are so many people who — radio’s an industry that has been being refined over the past 30 years, since FM radio really became something. There’s been very little creativity outside of, I would say probably, Howard Stern. Or in public radio, there’s been, I think This American Life is a big change since the Morning Edition/All Things Considered train got rolling in the ’70s.

But there’s been very few changes and a lot of refinement. And what you get is just a lot of people who have made their business by looking around and copying everyone else. And trying to build up this skill set that’s based on what everyone else is doing, rather than on thinking of a new thing. And that’s what he was talking about with beavers. You have this world of people who are great at doing this one particular, very narrow thing and now that the ground is shifting underneath them they don’t have any means to respond. And that’s really terrifying for them.

I did this session the other with my buddy Merlin Mann, who’s a super celebrity blogger whose blog you should certainly read at 43folders.com. And he said that one of the things that he was so shocked by in the music industry was that everyone seemed to be working so hard to try and make it the ’70s again. And all their new ideas were driven towards: How can we get it back to the ’70s? Rather than: What’s the best thing that we can do given reality? They’re trying to figure out, as he put it, how to get Led Zeppelin to back that limousine full of money from Led Zeppelin III up to their door again.

A lot of the media world is like that right now. It’s people trying to — to the extent that people are being creative, it’s them being creative in an attempt to find creative ways to get back to where they were before, when they were sitting pretty.

Josh: That’s an exact mirror image of a complaint so many people have about the news industry. That newspapers, for example, want to get back to the period of time when they had a functional monopoly over news gathering and news distribution in a city, and their focus is just trying to reclaim that past glory, not figure out what works now.

Jesse: Yeah, and you know if you’re in newspaper, you’ve got to remember that it was — historically speaking, it wasn’t like there was a really long period of time where every city had one newspaper and that one newspaper got all the classified advertisements. You know what I mean? Things change. That’s only been the case since, like, the ’60s. You know what I mean?

Josh: When you talk about people being creative within the industry, podcasting is certainly — has a much greater potential for letting a million flowers bloom than the limited structure of traditional public radio.

Have you seen any impact from the last few years of podcasting rising in prominence on the way that NPR and PRI and other shows work? Has that feedback loop reached back to its origin yet?

Jesse: Well, obviously public radio has been really aggressive, especially relative to commercial radio, in the podcasting field. I think because we were uniquely set up to take advantage of it, in that our first responsibility is to the public good. I think that because of that responsibility, public radio people quite reasonably decided to do, “Let’s podcast first and figure out how we’re going to pay for it later, because it’s obviously in the public good.” So they had that advantage going in.

The big problem for public radio, specifically, is that NPR is a member organization. PRI and American Public Media are not, but even they still rely on stations for their money. The way that the money has worked in public radio for the last 35 years is that these national organizations like NPR and PRI make or distribute programming, but the stations are the ones who pick the programming that goes on the radio — and also the ones who pool the money and redistribute it up the chain.

Now if you listen to On the Media from WNYC — a really really wonderful show; that’s an NPR show as well: it’s distributed by NPR and produces by WNYC in New York — on their podcast they pitch, they have fundraising pitches for WNYC. And other stations that carry On the Media can’t be crazy about the fact that they’re being bypassed. It’s not that dissimilar from network television.

And there has not been a resolution of this issue, specifically because the big gorilla is NPR. In the commercial television world, for example, ultimately what will happen is the networks are just going to tell the affiliates love it or leave it. Because NPR is a member organization, every time somebody at NPR says or even vaguely implies, “Well, we’re the ones with the really strong brand, we’re should really be the ones collecting the money, that’s just how it’s going to be” — then all of the stations get really upset and have a vote and fire the CEO. So as far as I can tell, everyone at NPR is trying to figure out how to work towards this goal without upsetting the stations. So they just have to kind of do it semi-secretly.

For people like me, I think I may be the future of it. My situation is that if I had to choose between losing my 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.

In the long-term, how will it shake out? It’s tough to tell. My feeling is that probably stations are just going to end up paying less for the content. And people who produce it are going to see it sort of the way that I see it, which is added value as a way to connect to people. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great that I get money from these stations, but it’s also really cool that there’s a commercial for my content that’s an hour long once a week on some of the biggest radio stations in the country.

Josh: That’s an interesting way to look at it there. That actually leads nicely into your post back in December. I think one of the difficulties that the news industry is facing and that public radio is facing is the shift from being a mass medium where you have one program that is blasted out to everyone who listens to your radio station at one particular time — so you feel like you have to appeal to a mass audience — or there’s one newspaper and what’s in that newspaper has to appeal to the mythical middle 60 percent of your community, to something that can be more targeted, where there are lots of people who don’t care about rappers and comedians and they can just not listen to your show.

You mentioned in this post back in December the recent failures or disappointments of a variety of efforts by public radio to try and expand into niche audiences — young people, or minorities for News & Notes, or other groups who aren’t listening to public radio in large numbers — and the failure thus far.

What do you attribute that to? Is there a solution? You mentioned at the end of this post that you were thinking about the implications of these difficulties for The Sound of Young America and you’ll be back later to expand this post and that didn’t quite happen.

Jesse: Then I went on Christmas vacation. It’s sort of like this: Public radio has just kicked the — am I allowed to swear?

Josh: Uh…sure.

Jesse: Kicked the s**t out of the demographic that it serves. Public radio has, over the past 30 years, has gone from a nothing to basically everyone who is old, white, and highly educated listening to it. You know, the median age for public radio is 53 or something like that. So, if you’re middle-aged or above, and highly educated, and white, you almost certainly listen to public radio. They have knocked that out of the park.

So then they started thinking: Well, if we want to continue to grow our audience — and that has happened through research that was dedicated to building that audience, which was anathema to public radio 30 years ago, but over the course of the last 30 years has become more and more accepted, to the point where audience building is seen as really viable and they sort of doubled down on that demographic.

So, once that demographic was saturated, they’re like: Oh, crap — we have to continue to grow our audience in order to continue to, you know, grow our industry. And they said, well, here are the people we can target better. It’s college-educated — they said the essential part of the public-radio demographic is people who are highly educated. And the people who are highly educated who aren’t listening to public radio are younger college-educated people and college-educated people of color.

So they made all these different shows for those demographics, three or four years ago. Day to Day on NPR was targeted towards younger people, News & Notes on NPR was targeted towards people of color, especially African Americans. The Bryant Park Project was for, you know, the kind of — seriously, I just went to this conference, the young demographic is under 52 in public radio. I swear to God, they put it up on the board: “Younger listeners.” And it was 35 to 52.

Josh: I guess I’m still an infant — we’re still infants under that category.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly — God, I’m 27. But it makes you feel young and vibrant. So Bryant Park Project was a NPR morning show that was targeted toward listeners who were younger and especially on stations in places where there are two stations that carry Morning Edition at exactly the same time. You know, San Francisco for example, or here in Los Angeles — KPCC and KCRW both carry Morning Edition and All Things Considered and they both carry them at exactly the same time, which of course has no public benefit.

So, anyway, they did all these projects, and they kind of did them the way they do their other programs for the most part. I mean, they did a lot of neat stuff — like Bryant Park Project, for example, was very focused on its podcast. NPR has been piloting shows through podcasting, which I think is a good idea. Bryant Park Project had a great website. Fair Game, which was the PRI afternoon show that was sort of All Things Considered meets The Daily Show, or whatever — they did a lot of online stuff and everything.

But ultimately, what they found was that not that many stations were picking up these shows. And you know — Bryant Park Project was spending $1 or $2 million a year, because public radio’s really expensive to produce the way they do it. If you are making three-minute blocks of programming, the people who are making that three-minute thing work for two weeks on that three minutes, and they have to get paid $1,000. And even if you’re public media and you can just woefully underpay people, you still have to pay them $500. And if you’re spending $500 on every 3 minutes, the money piles up real quick.

And what they found was the stations didn’t wanna take any risks, so they didn’t wanna pick them up, and they weren’t getting any money from anywhere else, because they didn’t have any audience, because they weren’t getting the station carriage that they wanted. And all these shows as far as I can tell, sort of plan their budgets based on getting picked up by all the stations — which is, you know, how All Things Considered plans its budget.

So they all got cancelled. Everybody’s out of a job. It’s horrible. NPR fired a lot of people. I should say laid off a lot of people. They laid off 10 percent or something, and they just announced at the conference that I was just at that they’re laying off more. It’s a messed up situation.

Now the difference between them and me is my gross budget is — for this past year was like $85,000 a year. And I didn’t get any grants — I’m looking into that, I’d like to get some grants — but I didn’t get any grants. I basically just supported myself by hook or crook. You know, I don’t even have a studio — I do my show in my apartment. And like that is so much more sustainable.

And so the question — I was having a conversation with a lady from WBUR in Boston at this IMA conference. And one of the things is: If you’re asking yourself the question, can we do the same things we did before in the new economic reality? Maybe the answer is no. It’s very possible that it’s no. So then the question is, what are the things that we can do? And for me, the reason my show is formatted the way that it is is because I can just do this. I don’t need to hire people to do it. I can do it.

I can generate an hour of great content every week with this format — content that I’m really proud of. And I couldn’t generate an hour of Morning Edition every week — there’s no way. I couldn’t even generate five minutes of Morning Edition every week. And does that mean Morning Edition is better than me? Well maybe it is — I mean, Morning Edition’s pretty good. But I think my show’s really good too. So, you know, ultimately the question is, you have to figure out what you can do. Are you, are you creating something big or are you creating something small? If you’re creating something big, do you — can you figure out how to make a base for it that really works? You know what I mean?

Josh: Yeah. It’s interesting — I get a lot of reporters and journalists talking to me about where are the jobs going to be now that newspapers are busy killing off all their staff? And I tell them: Well, there’s possibly you could start a blog covering a particular neighborhood, and maybe you can get advertising — there are ways out there that are being tried that seem to have some success on that very small scale. And the response they typically have is: But I don’t want to do all that. I don’t want to run a business, I don’t want to sell advertising, I don’t want to do that. I want to be a journalist, and that’s what I see as my skill. And I imagine that’s a similar sort of question for — I bet a lot of the people who were happy to work at News & Notes or The Bryant Park Project or whatever else, they love public radio and they probably love their jobs, but they may not want to be a sole proprietor in the way you’re able to be.

Jesse: You know, I interviewed Steve Albini about a year ago in Chicago. He’s a famous rock and roll producer, in case anyone is not familiar with him. And a brilliant rock and roll producer who’s well known for his very, very strong positions against major recording labels and so on and so forth — very DIY, king of the DIY ethic.

And I asked Steve Albini how he saw the future of the music industry. And he said, “Music or the music industry?” And I said, either one, both. And he said, “Well, the future of music is fantastic, because most people make music because (a) they enjoy it and (b) they want to share it with people. And it’s easier than ever to have the equipment to make enjoyable music. And (b) it’s spectacularly easy to share it with people and express yourself that way. So the future of music is fantastic. The future of the music industry is — I don’t know, maybe it’s f**ked.” But, ultimately, it’s sort of like saying — he compared it to tennis. Lots and lots of people play tennis, and the reason they play tennis isn’t because they think they’re going to become Bjorn Borg, you know what I mean? Which would be a really — if you could really become Bjorn Borg by playing tennis, that would be awesome.

Josh: Even if just for a weekend, sure.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. But you know, the reason people play tennis is because playing tennis is fun. They like playing tennis. They get whatever they want out of playing tennis. They don’t get whatever they want out of playing tennis for money. But some people do play tennis for money, and they do great at it. So I think that is sort of like — that might be part of the future that we’re looking at: Most people who are blogging or doing these different things are doing it because they like it. And maybe they’ll make some money at it, and that’s great. And maybe they’re driven to make money at it, and they’ll make more. But generally speaking, it’s a matter of people doing it because they like it. I knew that I wanted to do it enough that I would be working full time. So I worked full time for a long time for free, because I really loved to do it and just figured out where I could bring in money. And that’s kind of the future of it.

I’m sorry, it’s s**tty news if you’re making $80,000 a year sitting at the metro desk or whatever. But the era of free money is over. It’s bad news, but you’ve just got to — it’s going to become like anything else, you can do it if you love it, and you can do it for money, but you know, nobody has handed out hundred dollar bills.

POSTED     April 15, 2009, 11:43 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     The Sound of Young America
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