Showing posts with label Bryant Park Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bryant Park Project. Show all posts

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mystical secrets of the Radio Troglodyte

If you don't know where you've been, can you really tell where you're going?

Obviously, that's a question some fans of the NPR-canceled Bryant Park Project never have thought to ask as they continue to pile on the network's new editorial director of digital media, Dick Meyer.

To synopsize the objection to Meyer among the "new media" fans, it seems to be centered on his appreciation of some of the charms of traditional community. And, it would seem, his love of a properly made sandwich.

I won't belabor
what I've already covered . . . but it is kind of funny, once you think about it.

ANYWAY, a few of the folks at The BPP Diner seem to be all about "community," so long as it's a "restricted" community. The past is unwelcome. No "backward thinkers" or "old media farts" allowed.

That means you, Dick Meyer.

Vee haff veys of makink you tink forvart!

Also, it's all about the interaction, baby. (Just so long as it's not in any kind of a traditional, physical community with people you've known forever.) And it's all about the glorious mosaic that is diversity. (Just so long as there is enough uniformity of opinion.)

One anti-Meyer commenter -- and all but one (me) were anti-Meyer commenters --
went on about how unique the Bryant Park Project community is:

Yes, I can appreciate some traditions because they can give one comfort. (RC hangover)

Sure Mr. Meyer is a bright man but I will not buy his book to fund his narrow mindedness. Additionally my life is too busy to read a book that seems to based on what Mr. Meyer hates about the world as it is NOW, because I am living my life NOW.


BPP brought together a non physical community that enjoyed something that they can never have again. (Like Mr. Meyer's lunch place that is now boarded up.) Consider carefully if it was announced that Day to Day was being cancelled would there be the same outpouring? BPP was unique not just because of the talented people we heard over the media of our choice, but the interaction it encouraged and made available to any one that wanted to participate. Yes at NPR you can, "click on contact us at the top of the page...and be sure to tell us how to pronounce your name." But you might as well be sending a letter using a stamp, envelope and drop box. Which sounds an awful like what possibly could be described as Mr. Meyer's prefered way of communication.

BPP created a community by using many forms communication. BPP encouraged and seemed to delight in people communicating with each other. (Even when we sometimes agreed to disagree.)

[Unless you're Dick Meyer, who must be demonized and belittled -- R21]

What seems to be disquieting about Mr. Meyer is that if he yearning for how it USED to be how can he use his digital/media to ever reach what the BPP created in its short life? Does he want to? Will NPR ever move forward? Will it just dwindle away because eventually no one who has ever experienced a "BPP" will settle for something as mundane.

I THINK everyone on The BPP Diner would agree The Bryant Park Project's style and its melding of "old" and "new" media represented a leap forward for public broadcasting. (Until NPR canceled it and leaped backward.)

Has any of those "forward thinkers" considered that the BPP just might have been a rediscovery of broadcasting's past? Probably not -- realizing that would involve "backward thinking" if not outright worship of the past.

To my ears, as good as the BPP was, it was just a younger-skewing, less ambitious version of
NBC Radio's old Monitor program.

The Bryant Park Project revolved around a witty, genial studio host. Monitor revolved around a witty, genial studio host.

The Bryant Park Project featured the hourly network news, branded to that particular program. Monitor featured the hourly NBC Radio news, branded to that particular program.

The Bryant Park Project had regular features, as well as segments for feature stories, sports discussion, music and interviews. Monitor had regular features, as well as segments for feature stories, sports discussion, music and interviews.

The two programs had their differences as well.

The Bryant Park Project featured an extensive Internet presence, via its web site and social networking. In Monitor's day -- it ran from 1955 to 1975 -- there was no such thing as an Internet. Then, social networking was accomplished at the Elks Club, over coffee and doughnuts after church and across the backyard fence.

OVERALL, especially considering the technology of the day, Monitor was by far the more ambitious program. For one thing, it ran all weekend, not a couple of hours Monday through Friday mornings.

In its early years, Monitor -- which also was part disc-jockey show and featured live band remotes -- ran 40 straight hours each weekend, from 8 a.m. Saturday to midnight Sunday. For most of 1959, Monitor also aired for two hours Monday through Friday nights.

Then there were the comedy bits. From the history section of the
Monitor tribute website:

Classic comedians showed up every weekend, including Bob and Ray, Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Stiller and Meara, Selma Diamond, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and, later, Pomerantz and Finkelman. In the early years, Bob and Ray stayed at Radio Central for many hours each weekend, ready to ad-lib skits if remotes weren't ready or technical problems blew up a scheduled segment. In 1957, they won a Peabody Award for their outrageously creative routines on "Monitor."
WHO'D HAVE THUNK IT. Monitor even had its own "Emergency Krulwich." Monitor truly was -- in the words of its creator, legendary NBC president and programmer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver -- a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria."

But you couldn't expect those who live in the Eternal Now to have known that. When you live in the Eternal Now, everything is new . . . and it's ever cleverer than anything a troglodyte like poor Dick Meyer might conceive.

But we troglodytes are in on a secret. Come close . . . listen carefully, and I will share the secret of the universe. It is this:

Everything old is new again.

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'?

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.