Saturday, July 26, 2008

This is NPR: National Pub . . . oh the hell with it


National Public Radio's excellent experiment, The Bryant Park Project, now belongs to history.

The alternative morning program for public-radio listeners -- and the 24/7, multiplatform "New Media" effort surrounding it -- gave up the ghost Friday as its staff said goodbye to listeners and, a few hours later, its website became a cyberghost town.

Its Twitter feed ceased tweeting.

AND A NUMBER of NPR affiliates began the process of putting something else on their digital subchannels -- new programming that likewise will go unheard by an HD Radio-free listening public.

NPR executives will survey the carnage and declare -- actually, already have declared -- The Bryant Park Project a failure. A noble effort that never really got off the ground, never gained an audience, never developed into the digital answer for a public broadcaster faced with upcoming generations who are rejecting radio for the Interwebs and their iPods.

Obviously, The Bryant Park Project had turned into a luxury NPR no longer thought it could afford. And that's pretty much where we stand, here in the besieged trenches of traditional, mainstream media.

The Digital Huns have battalions of radio men and newspapermen (and women) pinned down, audience reinforcements are not forthcoming and the commanders have been told that supplies and ammo are starting to run desperately short. What to do?

Obviously, given the dire circumstances, only one thing. Stop probing for a way out . . . somebody could get killed out there.

Far better that Her Majesty's media starve en masse than have someone get picked off by a Facebook sniper while probing enemy lines.

REALLY, ONLY THE ONION could do justice to the ongoing story of the print and broadcast media's utter fecklessness and timidity in the face of the "New Media" challenge. For once, it wouldn't have to make this s*** up.

In canceling the BPP, interim NPR chief Dennis Haarsager said the program failed because, among other reasons, "Web/podcasting usage was also hampered . . . since we were offering an 'appointment program' in a medium that doesn't excel in that kind of usage."

I realize I am just a Philistine -- a Schlitz-drinking ruffian with an Interwebs account and not enough sense to be running a fine organization like NPR into the ground -- but I thought this (Whadda youse call it again?) "podcasting" thing was all about "appointment" listening.

See, here's the deal: We get to set the appointment time. We can listen whenever we want.

And it seems to me that -- since the NPR media player delivered the program in segments -- it would be simple enough to update the newscasts hourly . . . or any segment if it became horribly dated before the next full program aired. (Then again, I wouldn't know about these fancy technological paté-and-quiche doomaflatchies what NPR has. I have been known to drink Schlitz and wipe my nose on my sleeve.)

I guess there just must be some fundamental disconnect between BPP listeners who saw -- and heard -- a witty, informative and well-put-together multimedia effort and NPR suits who saw nothing but roadblocks on the road to the Digital Future.

The thing is, if you have exemplary content that an audience desires, what's a little roadblock other than something you'll bypass soon enough? What can't be as easily bypassed is the kind of organizational nincompoopery that launches a major programming-and-Internet initiative, fails to gain clearance on more than five analog radio signals and 19 digital-radio subchannels, doesn't promote it, then kills that major initiative because not enough people listened.

Item 1: NPR only managed to get its major New Media project on five lousy affiliates when there must be dozens where the BPP would have been a far better programming fit than Morning Edition. Oh yeah, the show was on a satellite-radio channel, too.

Item 2: 19 HD Radio subchannels basically work out to zero listeners. How many of you out there have HD radios? How many of you out there can find one in a store? How many of you out there even know somebody with an HD radio? I rest my case.

Item 3: Launching a major programming-and-Internet initiative, failing to gain clearance on more than five analog radio signals, 19 digital-radio subchannels and one satellite-radio channel, not promoting it, then killing that major initiative because not enough people listened is the craziest thing I've seen in radio since my program director AT A CATHOLIC RADIO STATION wanted to buy a station Humvee and paint it in camo "to represent the Church Militant."

I am not making this up. Neither could The Onion.

AS I'VE WRITTEN BEFORE, it seems to me The Bryant Park Project was a success by any programming benchmark. It was fresh, it informed and -- in the two weeks I got to know it before NPR pulled the plug -- it made me laugh.

Come on, what's the last NPR program that made you laugh?

Whad'Ya Know? doesn't even make me laugh.

Perhaps, however, the BPP's greatest success was in creating a virtual community out of a few over-the-air listeners here, some Sirius satellite listeners there and a bunch of online listeners over yonder. By design, Bryant Park Project hosts and staffers lifted the veil between faceless public-radio program and the listener driving to work . . . or sitting at his computer at work . . . or eating breakfast . . . or, perhaps, sitting in a room -- alone -- and feeling friendless.

Old media, new media, multischmedia . . . NPR's "new kind of news program" did a very old-school thing. It made a human connection. It created community, which ought to be something even the most addle-minded radio executive can understand on some level.

Community. We humans crave it, but less and less manage to achieve it.

We moderns don't do church so much anymore. Neither do we know our neighbors, nor are we the club-joiners we once were.

I'll bet it's been decades since there was a schoolyard standoff between devotees of Color Radio W and Boss Radio X. Why? Because young people don't listen anymore.

Why? Because Corporate MegaRadio, Inc., has turned radio into a gigantic, flavorless, excitement- and community-free cluster. . . never mind.

THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT was breaking that unfortunate mold. It had turned its tiny corner of the electromagnetic spectrum once again into a communications medium. Listeners -- and readers -- got involved with the program. They submitted story ideas. They pointed staffers in more profitable directions on a story or two.

What a concept in modern communications -- an organic community of media providers and media consumers. The BPP created one. For its trouble, it got canceled before anyone reasonably could tell how the experiment would turn out.

And when the ax fell, listeners set up a Bryant Park Project page on the social-networking site, Ning. Likewise, the BPP group on Facebook is still active.

Maybe this is the real experiment. What happens when the corporate gatekeepers lose control of their creation? How does it work when listeners refuse to let a cherished program -- or station -- slip into oblivion?

What are the ramifications for the media landscape -- both "new" and "old" -- then?

But perhaps the biggest question centers on why any media provider -- broadcast or print -- would refuse to embrace means of communication that turned mere media consumers into members of "the family"? Why would you bring people into your paper's . . . or station's . . . or network's life, then kick them to the curb before anyone had a chance to spill red wine on the couch or "forget" to return that chainsaw they borrowed last summer?

Why would you do that?

Whatsa matter? You don't like people or somethin'?

1 snappy rejoinders:

PocketRadio said...

CPB/NPR has bilked Congress out of tens-of-millions for useless upgrades to HD Radio, which doesn;t even work, compared to analog:

http://hdradiofarce.blogspot.com/2008/03/is-hd-r-farce.html