Why APM’s ‘Wits’ didn’t make it

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Last week, American Public Media announced the cancellation of Wits, a national program that debuted with considerable fanfare only a few years ago. The reason: Wits was not sustainable as a national radio program.

There are lessons for everyone in public media from the rise and abrupt fall of Wits. To me, the biggest one is: Produce programming for the platform on which you compete.

Consider these tweets from Wits host John Moe after the cancellation:

Wits wasn’t designed to succeed as a radio program, and it failed because of that fact.

The vital signs

When I heard about the cancellation, I went to the Wits pages on APM’s website. Here is the Wits track record:

Carriage: Wits was heard on over 100 frequencies, but many of these signals were HD2 and HD3 stations or repeaters of large state networks like South Dakota Public Radio.

Wits was broadcast on 15 FM stations in the top 50 markets, including KJZZ, WHYY, WUOM and KOPB. Missing from the carriage were stations in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. Without these key markets, it is hard to be taken seriously as a national program.

Audience: According to APM, Wits had a national weekly audience of 80,000. Again, with so few listeners, it is hard to be taken seriously as a national program.

Revenue from stations: According to APM, Wits was offered free to affiliated stations. APM certainly intended to charge stations carriage fees at some point, but the revenue prospects didn’t look good. I counted 42 potential fee-paying stations (called “billables” in the biz). Based on fees for similar programs, this number of billables might yield $70,000–$80,000 in annual station fee revenue. Wits was not sustainable.

Searching for the next Garrison Keillor: When Wits was launched as a national program, some observers said it might become a younger, hipper replacement for Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor has announced his retirement from APHC at the end of the 2016 season.

The search for the “next Keillor” has been going on for years, sort of like the search for the next Bob Dylan. APM tried to replace Keillor with Noah Adams a couple of decades ago. It didn’t work.

Wits had an opportunity to work. It attracted big-name folks like Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford, David Cross, Father John Misty, and Neko Case. APM gave Wits five years to develop. But, as host John Moe admitted, it was never intended for radio.

This reminds me of the priceless quote from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.”

This commentary first appeared on Ken Mills’ blog, Spark! Mills is a consultant to stations, producers and organizations that fund and promote nonprofit media.

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  • Fred Fletcher-Fierro

    How I read this is since WITS was never developed for radio it was bound to fail. And APM wasted a bunch of money for five years as they were never going to earn their investment back because the show wasn’t placed in top 10 markets so that it could increase its visibility.

    My thoughts on searching for the next Garrison Keller. If APM is currently doing that they should stop. Radio personalities and the shows they make are unique to the time that they were made. What’s Car Talk without those Boston accents? Or even Wait, Wait without Peter? When Mike Pesca subs for Peter I don’t listen. A month from now Wait, Wait is just a show with jokes about old news. Still to this day I identity Morning Edition with Bob Edwards but have I never listed to old episodes of ME?

    I would like APM to create a live call-in national show that originates from the west coast and is on at 11 AM. Along with this, broaden the news magazine show that is on KPCC at 9 AM “Take Two” to being more national and even international. I want public radio that is engaging, informational and big picture. And one that is just as balanced on the west coast as it is the east.

  • amcdaniel

    As a public media nerd, er, enthusiast, who has spent the last 5 years living in Minneapolis/St. Paul, I think the characterization of Wits as a “radio failure” misses the point. Locally, it was a drop-dead fantastic event. It was rowdy, smart, weird, moving, hilarious… with a packed house every time, and a habit of trending locally on Twitter. In my mind, Wits was always about showing public media that live experiences ARE content– not just laboratories where content is made. Wits was about community engagement, it was about getting public media to lighten up, it was about bringing out the “super fan” in celebrities like Patton Oswalt. The small, scrappy team that ran Wits (along with multiple other projects) came up with smart strategies for cultivating superfans that I plan to steal for years to come. And lest I sound like an MPR apologist– I’ve spent the last 5 years working for MPR’s “competitor,” TPT.

    Sure– the Wits business plan was focused on radio distribution. And sure, we were hoping the show would become the next Prairie Home Companion. Oops. ‘Tis a much different time. But I say rather than call it a failure, we do a better job next time choosing metrics and a business plan that are as weird and non-traditional as the show itself.