Another one bites the dust…

Posted by Maximum Fun on 19th December 2008

Our friend John Moe, host of American Public Media’s “Weekend America,” just twittered that the show will be leaving the air as of January 31st. This comes on the heels of NPR’s cancellation of News & Notes and Day to Day. Lots of MaxFunsters are still smarting from the cancellation of The Bryant Park Project and Fair Game earlier this year. PRI’s The Takeaway is still standing, but that’s cold comfort, especially with that show having found limited traction on stations.

What did those shows have in common? For one thing, they were all targeted in part at people who weren’t listening to public radio, yet. Public radio has saturated one corner of the market — older, college-educated white people who want serious news. These shows tried (and try) to broaden that out a bit… to folks who are a bit younger, to folks who might want a bit more levity or a more conversational tone, to highly-educated people of color who are underserved by the Morning Editions of the world.

They also had another thing in common: they were expensive.

One of the reasons many of the staple programs of public radio — This American Life, All Things Considered, Marketplace — are so good is that they spend a lot of money to get that way. Producers (often independent producers) work a week or two on pieces that use 4 or 6 minutes of a two or three hour daily show. No one is paid a lot of money, but the work is labor-intensive and thus expensive, even when the wages are low.

That’s a system that works for those shows because 200 stations (or more specifically, the listener-members of 200 stations) are sharing the production costs. When 200 stations carry your show, it’s also much easier to get sponsors — would Volkswagen have paid millions to underwrite This American Life if it was only on in Chicago? Certainly not.

So when the sponsorship revenue dries up (the official reasoning for NPR’s recent cancellations) and the station carriage isn’t there, the shows go kaput.

Of course, that leaves me thinking about the implications for The Sound of Young America. I have to edit some podcasts right now, but I’ll be back later to expand this post.