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May 24 2011

14:00

“Expanding the palette of public radio”: Marc Maron’s WTF moves from podcast to program

Last month, we posted an interview Josh did with The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn. During their conversation, Thorn mentioned that he was working on trying to bring his friend Marc Maron‘s interview show WTF to public radio sometime in the “late spring of this year.”

Well: It is done. Last week, WTF was picked up by PRX (FTW!), thus making it available for distribution to stations around the country. And a number have already signed on: WTF has been licensed so far by New York’s WNYC, Chicago’s WBEZ, and, as of yesterday, Austin’s KUT — with more, Thorn told me, on the way.

WTF both is and isn’t standard public radio fare. On one hand, it’s two people sitting behind microphones, one interviewing the other, a form as old as the medium. On the other, it’s far less formal and more sprawling than what you’d get from a Terry Gross or a Diane Rehm. Maron interviews comedians in each episode — Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. — in loose conversations that can extend well beyond an hour. The format and Maron’s abilities have led to surprisingly open and revealing interviews. As Ira Glass told The New York Times, “People say stuff to him that you can’t imagine them saying to anyone else. And they offer it. They want to give it to him. Because he is so bare, he calls it forward.”

As part of the shift to a public radio format, podcast episodes had to be compacted and reshuffled to fit into one-hour time slots. There was also some bleeping necessary; WTF suggests “sensitive listeners should be advised.” Glass, who championed the show’s move to radio, insisted on keeping the name intact, acronym moralists be damned. (Check out Glass’ promos for the show below. You can hear all 10 episodes, pulled from the best of WTF’s archives, at PRX’s website.)

Thorn said he hopes that WTF can be part of a move to broaden the kind of content — and the kind of show formats — on the public airwaves. “I think the type of interview that Marc does is something that’s new to public radio,” he says. His interview style signals a shift not because it’s profane or vulgar — “which I think is what, sometimes, program directors assume about it” — but because it is raw and real in a way “that you don’t hear almost anywhere in broadcasting — outside of, to some extent, your semi-exploitative television interviews” (Oprah, Barbara Walters, etc.).

That emotional, human-to-human connection can be a rarity within a platform whose definition of professionalism is often bound up in the interviewer’s ability to express both empathy and detachment at once. (Paging Jay Rosen.) “I don’t think it’s something that has existed in public media in the context of an interview show — and especially on a public radio show,” Thorn says. He likens Maron’s interviewing style to that of…Howard Stern, since, say what you will about the shock jock, “one thing that he’s capable of doing brilliantly is finding emotional revelations in his guests. And he does that by being so honest about himself that the guest can’t help but be honest about themselves.”

That authentic element, Thorn notes — the closeness, the rawness — is part of what has made shows like This American Life and Radiolab into successes, particularly with younger listeners. And when Glass made his push to promote WTF into a show, furthering that trend was part of the idea:

It’s high time we on public radio harvest the very best of the podcasts out there and bring them to our audience. This is a great, easy, audience-friendly way to do that.

It’s about, essentially, “expanding the palette of public radio,” Thorn says: about providing listeners with new ways to understand the intimacy of the spoken word. “I think that Marc recording the show in his garage, with his books, feeds that strength of audio as a format,” Thorn says. “It’s like having something whispered in your ear. It’s automatically very intimate.”

August 02 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of membership, part 2

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

New news organizations have embraced the membership model (see part 1 of The Newsonomics of membership), but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. They can hone that wheel, for the digital-only and digital-first age. One of the best places to gain insight is in public radio, which has been plying the membership trade for more than 40 years now — learning the dos and don’ts and sharing some best practices internally.

As city sites begin to build on what MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and GlobalPost have started, they can certainly apply some of those lessons. I made an initial, unscientific foray into NPR membership, to feel the ground and see what’s shaking. I think at this point, pending much deeper study, we can see both some metrics and some lessons that have useful applications.

The Metrics

As I noted in my first membership post, there are at least three key metrics for new websites to master as they move forward:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • What’s the median gift?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?

NPR station experience helps inform those metrics.

Percentage of listeners who become members: There is no single number to cite, but most reports come in at somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, though it’s clear that counting methodology is not consistent across the nation. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, is part of a group of eight like-sized stations which collectively pool their membership data. Those eight sign up 5.8 percent of listeners, Holly Gaete, KUT’s director of membership, told me. “Listeners” are those who listen for at least five minutes per week. KUT currently counts 17,338 contributors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says it gets about 10 percent of its public TV viewers to become members, but has no similar data for the radio; that’s one of the nuances of counting, as a number of dual-license stations (public TV and public radio under one umbrella) complicate any apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few people make the point that it’s long-time listeners — those who’ve listened for two years or more — that make up the best universe of potential public radio members. That notion (akin to MinnPost’s Joel Kramer’s notion that frequent visitors offer greater potential than infrequent ones) makes sense, but is apparently not something widely measured in public radio.

What brings them in?: KUT’s Gaete makes the point that membership directors use diverse tools to gain members. Here’s her breakdown:

Radio pitches (those twice-yearly pledge drives): 37 percent
Mail: 36 percent
Web: 18 percent
Telesales: 5 percent
Other: 4 percent

Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager, differentiates between those who make “intellectual” decisions to give — responding to mail, for instance — from those who make an “emotional” decision, often responding to an on-air appeal. The intellectual decision-makers’ average gift is higher, and they renew at a higher rate. KUT’s overall renewal rate is 58 percent.

The sweet spot of giving: Again, counting standards differ, but it’s the $50-$150 range that draws a majority of gifts. The buck-a-week or 10-bucks-a-month pitch seems to have resonance with donors, with some making the point that “that’s cheaper than the daily newspaper.”

What’s the trend line?: Interestingly, the recession’s not done a great deal of damage to membership, at least not as much as we’ve seen circulation fall at dailies. Some stations report membership mildly down, but giving flat or up a tad. Others report membership even up a little, but giving down. Stations’ recent membership performance may indicate a couple of things: Long-term relationships may help weather bad economic periods, and listeners understand the increasing role of public radio in filling the news vacuum.

How important is membership giving?: KQED’s Scott Walton, executive director of communications, reports that membership tops 200,000 — and accounts for 60 percent of the stations’ $55 million budget. Oregon Public Broadcasting — its number of contributors up two percent over the last year — counts 120,000 members, which account for 64 percent of its budget.

The Lessons

Beware the power of the barker. Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Center for Public Integrity, used to serve as vice president of news for National Public Radio. He’s in a unique position to observe membership, given that background. As he compares online news startups with public radio, he notes one big distinction that will affect membership sign-ups.

“The difference is that public radio has a ‘barker channel,’ meaning they have the radio megaphone to get people to come into the tent or become members in the first place during membership drives in which they can withhold the programming,” he says. “That barker channel is great for public radio and drives up the membership numbers, even if listeners hate the membership drives. MinnPost, or other non-profit centers, have no barker channel.”

If barking helps, just talking to potential donors — and current ones — about the deep journalism crisis, especially the local one, helps too. Donors feel an obvious kinship with the stations — maybe akin to a loyalty newspaper subscribers have traditionally felt. Or perhaps, the notion of voluntary donation itself creates a reinforced relationship, more so than a fee-for-service “subscription.” That’s a key question as we see membership pushes for online media ramp up just as paywalls are increasingly erected by legacy news companies.

“People have the tangible sense that journalism is troubled,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who says he hears that from donors, as newspapers from The Oregonian to smaller dailies cut back on coverage.

Borrowing lessons from public radio isn’t easy. Metrics within public radio vary and are not freely available. In addition, we’re in the early stages of thinking about what’s different and what’s similar between public radio and online news sites. Further collaboration here — maybe abetted by such groups as the Knight Foundation — could be a win/win, though potential competition as we see developing in the Twin Cities (MPR, MinnPost) could be an issue.

Finally, as member-based sites ramp up — or, in the case of public radio, morph into digital-first news producers — one curious question will be the the advertising value of these members. Membership and ads need not be two separate universes. In fact, member data — how they read, what they read, what they buy, where they are — can greatly help the targeting of ads. That could make members even more lucrative than readers, and listeners, overall.

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