On the death of BPP

Well, the Bryant Park Project has less than a month left. Literally.

Was it too beautiful to live, perhaps? Hardly. I mean, can anyone really feign shock that well?

Let’s recount the strikes against this endeavor:

  • The economic downturn is hitting NPR like everyone else; news budgets are frozen and that’s just the beginning. Like any business looking to cut costs, whoever was hired last will be fired first, whether that’s a show or a person. That’s just the way it goes.
  • One of the original hosts (Burbank) — and let’s be honest, the host with real NPR cred — walked away just as the show was getting started. Talk about throwing off the rhythm.
  • The second host (Stewart) took off for maternity leave six months into the show. That can’t help.
  • Then the news anchor (Martin) left for a cush job at ABC News. (What is it with NPR people leaving a real news operation to go work for a fake news operation? Is it just the money?)
  • Plus the fill-in host (Pesca) has been splitting his time between BPP and NPR HQ the whole time.

I’m sure Matt Martinez was busting his ass every day trying to keep things rolling forward, but with a set of facts like these, what can you really do?

Add it up and can you imagine a show — any show in any format — making it to its first birthday without a hell of a lot of buy-in (political and cash) from the top?

But wait — there’s more!

  • This was fundamentally a Gen X show inside a Boomer network. What Boomer on the Board of NPR is going to protect a show they don’t air on their station, they don’t listen to and/or they don’t like?
  • This show never made it to the bulk of the listeners out there. The only people that knew about it were NPR junkies that took the time to browse the NPR web site, trolling for goodies. More might have liked it but never knew it existed.
  • In a risky economic environment, what local station program director is going to broadcast BPP instead of Morning Edition? Show of hands, please… yeah, that’s what I thought.
  • Assuming you’re a station with an HD Radio transmitter and you could program BPP onto a secondary channel, great! But who will hear it? Right: no one, because no one has an HD Radio. (BPP could be an Internet success because iPods and computers far outnumber HD Radios.)
  • Though BPP was successful on the web (something like 1,000,000 monthly uniques), we must remember that NPR is not a media company, it is a radio company. Arbitron numbers will always be bigger than Google Analytics numbers to a radio company. NPR may be trying to change to meet the challenges/opportunites of the web (and are making huge strides for a company that size), but it’s still a radio entity, so building a show specifically for the web is not a strategic option for them. At least not today.
  • Compared to an out-of-the-garage web startup, the cost of producing BPP was astronomical. Sure, web startups in Silicon Valley can devour $2 million at a power lunch, but for NPR and public radio that’s a huge sum, especially given all the other factors noted above. Web startups don’t need that much money, but to do BPP “the NPR way” requires big salaries and budgets. It was a radio economic solution applied to what was essentially a web economic problem — that makes it unsustainable on its face.

All in all, it’s a sad day for NPR. Not so much because it lost a program that was, in truth, faltering from the start, but because the Board appears to have missed a key opportunity here.

NPR could have taken a revised BPP straight to the web and made it the flagship show of a new web-scale innovation unit. BPP could have led NPR into a future not bound by the FCC, Arbitron, legacy stations, transmitters and more. For about $1 million a year they could have jump-started the next stage of their evolution.

I’m beginning to think Gen X and Gen Y need to band together and start their own national public media service — without the parochial split between radio and TV and web. Because PBS kills quality Gen X projects, too. Oh, and Fair Game was axed by PRI recently.

By the way, read the comments on the brief BPP blog post about the cancellation. There’s an audience there, to be sure. And it’s one that could easily sustain a web-based (and web-scaled) program and service. If I had $1 million to invest, I’d definitely put it into this audience.

10 thoughts on “On the death of BPP

  1. Great analysis. While I was a fan of the show, I think you’re right. Being in Alaska, I only listened to the podcast version of BPP and I’m sure any tracking of subscriptions and downloads of podcasts are not on anyone’s radar that has decision making power. Seems like a gen x/y show like BPP would go over so well on the west coast with LA, SF, Portland, and Seattle being very young and engaged in the types of things they featured. It seems like the local/national debate is alive in public radio as much as it is at Clear Channel. It also seems the door for indie podcasts is being pushed open more and more, as a small audience by NPR standards would healthily support a podcast.

  2. @MKinMotion Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that an “indie” podcast is much more supportable online. NPR was trying to build yet another national show based on the radio distribution framework and expectations of sustainability traditionally placed upon NPR programs.

    NPR’s success over the past 20 years, and the nature of its codependent relationship with more than 500 stations around the country, blinds it to new opportunities and the new scales at which things can/should work in a networked economy.

    It’s totally understandable. But still sad. And it suggests a very risky future for NPR.

  3. One other factor for the demise of BPP is two VPs (Jay Kernis & Maria Thomas) who pushed web services and more Gen X programming are gone.

    What I have mentioned to some at NPR was I had hoped to see more cross-pollination and yet when BPP (occasionally) played stories from NPR News, it sounded out of place. A more informal program like BPP might have NPR reporters stop in and give live “reporter’s notebooks” about the stories they are highly processing on the “main channel.” Robert Siegel never stopped by BPP to talk about his experiences in China…he finally did that several weeks later on Talk of the Nation.

    I did like a lot of what I saw BPP do. They were building a good online (podcast) audience. I really liked the online conversations that occured between comments after each story (and participated in some). It was like having water cooler conversation with others around the country/world.

  4. @Anthony, thanks for the comment. I do think Thomas’ departure was a blow to the operation. She “got it.” Kernis I know less about, though he’s the upper-level exec that went from NPR to CNN, so I’m already not impressed (zing!). Okay, snarky, but still… CNN? Really?

    Anyway… I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for me when it came to BPP — a program I liked in concept up it just didn’t take off for me, mostly because it had that herky-jerky feel of being at NPR, but not being at NPR. It felt so separate and new, yet there were these elements that would pop up that made it feel like the old. It was awkward.

    That said, all that could have been worked out in time, especially if producers/managers recognized the differences between being a radio program and a community web program.

    I think a good example of what the BPP could have become was something like Buzz Out Loud, the daily tech news podcast from C|NET (now part of CBS). That’s a show that lives on the web, on phones, on Skype, in a studio, in online forums, on video, on the road and so on but has a daily audio podcast with tons of committed listeners. While the style of Buzz Out Loud would not have been appropriate for BPP, the overall approach would make more sense.

    Anyway, I hope NPR changes course here before it’s too late. And I think Paterson is right that if this is the way NPR decisions will be made going forward, then the beginning of the end is here. The platform will decline as the audience ages and dies, and resources will be aligned for self protection, not necessarily public service.

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