Thursday, July 24, 2008

It ain't easy being bold in a timid age

I didn't discover The Bryant Park Project on National Public Radio until it already was a dead show broadcasting.

My loss.

The BPP was envisioned by NPR as an experiment in how "old media" might transition into a "new media" landscape, and that experimentation resulted in a multimedia effort that spanned terrestrial and satellite radio, podcasting, blogging, a web portal and "social networking" sites like Facebook and Twitter.

As well, The Bryant Park Project was set up so its listeners -- and readers -- could pay attention to that man (and that woman) behind the curtain. They pulled back the drapes to show us the folks twiddling the knobs and levers, and we liked who we saw.

AND IF YOU go by what people say instead of what they do, so did the NPR brass. From a blog post by NPR interim CEO Dennis Haarsager:
First, let me wholeheartedly agree with your high praise for the BPP staff. They are a team of smart, creative journalists who have delivered compelling programming every day. I want to specifically mention Alison Stewart, one of the finest hosts in broadcasting today; executive producer Sharon Hoffman; and senior supervising producer Matt Martinez. They are some of the most talented people I have ever encountered in broadcasting and they have done a great job of presenting news in a different way and in building loyalty among all of you in a short period of time. They have my gratitude and the respect of this entire organization.
BUT. . . . (And you knew there was a "but" in there, didn't you?)
BPP was designed to help us explore the complex, undefined digital media environment and, we hoped, to establish new ways of providing content on unfamiliar platforms. We've/I've learned -- or relearned -- a lot in this process. For non-commercial media such as NPR, sustaining a new program of this financial magnitude requires attracting users from each of the platforms we can access. Ultimately, we recognized that wasn't happening with BPP. Radio carriage didn't materialize to any degree: right now, BPP airs on only five analog radio stations and 19 HD Radio digital channels. Web/podcasting usage was also hampered -- here's the relearning part -- since we were offering an "appointment program" in a medium that doesn't excel in that kind of usage. Web radio is growing very rapidly (much faster than FM did), but it's almost all to music and, increasingly, to attention-tracking music (e.g., Pandora). While there might be a viable audience for a day/time specific program on the Web at some point in the future, it is not on the horizon.
PARDON MON FRANÇAIS, MAIS . . . that's the biggest load of fork-tongued bullsh*t I've heard since leaving the peculiar world of Catholic radio.

In public radio, the fragrant load goes something like "blah blah blah . . . serve the public interest . . . blah blah blah . . . programming not available over the commercial airwaves . . . blah blah blah . . . new and exciting modes of communication . . . blah blah blah . . . reach out to diverse audiences." Rinse. Spin. Repeat.

In my experience inside Catholic radio -- and I would suspect this holds true for 80 percent of any broadcasting done in Jesus' name -- take public radio's fragrant load and substitute bromides such as "serve the Lord Jesus . . . inspirational and catechetical . . . uplifting . . . reaching out to spread the Good News to every soul." Genuflect. Cross yourself. Repeat.

That is why it's such a good policy to ignore what people say and, instead, watch what they do.

Then you're not so shocked and disappointed when public radio, by and large, sounds like the only listener who matters is 60ish, lives in a big house on a private lake and has two college-age children . . . Muffy and Skipper. Or when an "experiment," like The Bryant Park Project, gets aborted before it has run long enough to gather meaningful data or refine any techniques for committing "broadcasting" in a New Media world.

LIKEWISE, "do -- not say" lessens any disillusionment with Christianity per se when one figures out its on-air apostles often are less interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ (and in being an effective witness to all) than in serving up something deemed acceptable to those most likely to pay handsomely for the service.

Why do you think so much of Christian media sounds like
what Revelation says Jesus would spit out?
'"Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches."'
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea, write this: "'The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the source of God's creation, says this:
"I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
THE GREAT IRONY of our time? That it's so damned difficult to be bold during a stretch of history when boldness is a necessity, not just one of many viable options.

Let me amend that slightly. Make that "intelligently bold during a stretch of history . . ." yadda yadda yadda. See, it's always been easy (and lucrative) to be boldly stupid . . . or boldly lewd . . . or boldly and stupidly lewd . . . or, for that matter, lewdly and boldly stupid.

I know it was difficult to be bold in Catholic radio -- at least in the corner I once inhabited, where holiness somehow got confused with bad music, boring lectures and a timid spirit.

For instance, I fell into producing a program of "contemporary" music aimed at young people. I say "fell," but the reality was more "jump" into producing the show because -- to be blunt -- it was awful (and deeply stupid), and I knew it could be so much more.

And as I started to approach the land of "More," I started to hear a refrain that would be oft repeated: "Catholic radio's not ready for that yet."

You'd think it was 1960, and I was trying to integrate a Southern lunch counter.

AT ONE POINT during my tenure as producer, the general manager and I sat down for a weekly production meeting. The three teen hosts were having commitment problems -- in short, they didn't "commit" to showing up every week to tape the show. I wanted to fire them and get hosts who took the job seriously.

The GM thought it would be easier just to kill the show.

I told her I thought the show was an important outreach to youth. If canceling there must be, cancel the present hosts -- not the show. The show, I added, had potential. Maybe . . . someday . . . it could be syndicated.

Then came the moment when I almost walked out the door . . . and down the road . . . all the way home. For good.

The boss admitted youth programming wasn't "a priority" at that time, and that she didn't want me spending so much time putting the show together. She was starting a daily series of five-minute reflections by local priests, and she wanted me to concentrate on things like that.


OK, it was time to lay it on the line.

I told her I was seriously worn out and burned out by long hours and unending technical crises. That little youth show was the only thing keeping me engaged at the moment. It was important. It had potential.

She repeated the youth show wasn't a priority and that people wanted to hear their priests on the air. Besides, she added, "Youth don't contribute to the station."


UNTIL THAT MOMENT, I always had thought the expression "seeing red" was just that -- an expression.
Then I did.

It took every bit of strength to control myself. I almost bit a hole in my tongue to keep from calling the GM a g**damn Pharisee and quitting.

Instead, I repeated that youth programming was important. I emphasized that all the production work was getting done, despite the time I spent on that particular program. The rest of the day I stewed. I couldn't believe what I had just heard.

The next day, the development guy and I were talking about youth programming. I told him what the boss said about kids "not contributing" to our little Catholic FM station.

This guy was the best money hustler I'd ever seen, and his jaw dropped. Literally. His expression was one of total shock.

"If youth programming isn't a priority, what is?" he asked. "That's the future."


BUT THAT'S what radio is all about today. That's what America is all about today -- grab a buck today, screw the future. Suck up to them what have . . . screw them what don't.

And if financial exigencies of the moment mean that devout keepers of the Catholic airwaves stand ready to cut back on Christian witness to the young -- to a community's own children -- why should we be taken aback that a bunch of public-radio bureaucrats would sacrifice a medium's future to save pocket change today?

After all, it's just radio. However important radio might be, it doesn't rank up there with eternal life. And some folks have decided even that is just another budget item.

So if it's easy enough for a Catholic-radio general manager to think it more expedient to ax -- rather than improve -- a youth program with no budget to speak of, how easy must it be for a public-radio suit to kill an "experiment" that fans loved but NPR failed to "sell" to enough affiliates?

And what of the future?

Well, "after all, tomorrow is another day!" Until it's not.

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