Why it’s good that WBAA decided to drop ‘This American Life’ (and then didn’t)

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wbaa artThis piece is adapted from my commentary in episode 65 of The Pub, Current’s weekly podcast.

I make a podcast about public media for the public media community, and until I wrote this, I had never tried to write a definition of what public media is.

Here’s how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting defines it on their website: “Public media is a system of independently owned and operated local public radio and television stations.”

Jeez, thanks a lot.

That’s like when you go to a dictionary to look up “transmogrification” and it gives you “the state or quality of being transmogrified.”

In fact, not only is that CPB definition unhelpful, it’s also a little inaccurate. CPB funds things like the Public Radio Exchange, and PRX is not a radio station. I could go on and on with other examples of public media that aren’t radio or television.

I think the definition of public media is so unclear here in the United States because public media is a much more complicated beast here than it is in other countries.

If you ask a Canadian or a Japanese person to define public media, it’s easy. They’ll give you some version of this:

Public media (outside the U.S.) is media — historically broadcast news, cultural, educational or entertainment programming — the production and distribution of which is funded by the government but is editorially independent from the government.

(The “editorially independent” part is key. That’s what makes public media different from state media. It’s why Russia’s Channel One is state TV and BBC One is public TV.)

Here in the United States, taxpayer funding is only part of what sustains those public radio and television stations that we think of as being public media. U.S. public media orgs raise the rest of their money through a combination of donations and advertising (even if they don’t call it advertising), the same way that nonprofit media orgs do — nonprofits like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

Does that mean that, in the United States, nonprofit media and public media are one and the same? I have some very smart friends who say yes, we should start calling ProPublica and similar nonprofits public media.

I think it’s great to broaden the definition of public media beyond organizations that are, at their core, broadcasters, but I do disagree with the notion that nonprofit media = public media.

I think for it to be public media, some amount of taxpayer subsidies must be part of the budget. What’s the minimum percentage of public funding for it to be public media? I have no idea, but there’s got to be a number. There must be a point at which the degree of public subsidy is too small to really be a defining influence on what the organization does, right?

The agricultural industry gets tons of taxpayer subsidies, but we don’t call them “public farmers,” do we? (Maybe we should.)

I would posit the following definition for public media in the United States:

U.S. public media is media — historically broadcast news, cultural, educational or entertainment programming, but increasingly online content — the production and distribution of which is partially funded by the government but is editorially independent from the government.

The proportion of public funding is large enough that the organization chiefly operates as a public service agency, creating and distributing content that the commercial and nonprofit media marketplaces can’t or won’t.

The second sentence of my definition there arguably excludes a lot of organizations that we think of as being public media, and to them I say: Suck it.

If you’re drawing taxpayer dollars to do what you’re doing, there’s got to be a reason why people should be compelled by force of law to pay for it, other than “Well, we’ve gotten a CPB grant every year for the last 50 years, and nobody seems to notice or care what we’re doing with it, so here, watch this Suze Orman special.”

Because lord knows there’s no way the commercial marketplace would sustain what Orman does.

Savage v. Glass

I’ve been thinking very hard about this stuff ever since May 12, when Mike Savage — g.m. of WBAA in West Lafayette, Ind. — announced in a post on LinkedIn that he planned to drop This American Life from his radio schedule.

Two notes on that post before we proceed: A) This is the first time to my knowledge that anything important has ever happened on LinkedIn; B) Savage (or someone else) has since deleted the post (I’ll get back to that later), though I have preserved it with screenshots here.

“The decision to [cancel TAL] was not taken lightly and was made for a variety of factors,” wrote Savage, whose activities and opinions draw extra attention because he sits on NPR’s board. “But one factor stood out — the recent decision by Ira Glass to distribute the program to paid subscription service Pandora.”

I interviewed Savage a few days after he published the post, but a few days before the post vanished and he clammed up.

“Our audience numbers were not that great for This American Life,” he told me. However, he reiterated that TAL’s Pandora deal was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him.

“To have the same program that we air [also stream] on a commercial entity, I just didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to take the money that we work very hard to raise from our listeners and invest that in that sort of service,” Savage said.

Savage also argued that Pandora could be drawing audience away from public radio, which is a claim that I’ll say is not supported by available evidence. That doesn’t mean it’s not true; there just isn’t proof. And I think that shaky claim has become a distraction from his primary argument.

Basically, he isn’t sure if TAL really counts as public media anymore, and he’s therefore not sure that it belongs on a public radio station.

I reckon Savage is many things (as we all are), but he is not a Luddite, a clueless protectionist or any of the other things I’ve seen people calling him in recent days. Savage knew exactly what he was doing when he threw that post up, whether you agree with his message or not.

This was only a little bit about WBAA and its lackluster weekend numbers. Savage was trying to force a big conversation that he thought the system needed to have. That’s why he announced his decision on LinkedIn of all places, long before he planned to remove TAL in August. He had a whole separate plan for communicating the news to his audience. The LinkedIn post is just for, you know, us — the kind of people who would read an article like this on a trade publication website. (Though certainly, Savage would have known his listeners would catch wind via the LinkedIn post, as they did.)

And you could say that Savage was putting the petty squabbles between his fiefdom and a greater lord above the interests of his listeners who just want to hear a great show, which everyone with ears still acknowledges TAL is.

That criticism, I think, is unfair. Savage’s intent was to try to protect the noncommercial identity of public media, which is squarely about serving the users. You may think he picked the wrong hill to die on, but I’d hope everyone reading this agrees that his cause was just and righteous.

When I interviewed him, Savage also had answers — pretty good answers — to most of the challenging questions that his perhaps over-simple argument about the Pandora deal invited.

Questions like: OK, you don’t approve of Ira Glass selling his wares to a for-profit middleman. So, why are you OK with NPR selling its wares to SiriusXM — another for-profit middleman?

“The revenue that’s generated from [NPR’s satellite radio syndication] comes back into the public radio system,” Savage said. In contrast, the money that TAL makes beyond public radio comes back to TAL and TAL alone.

Remember that Glass and co. split off from WBEZ last year. He has his own public benefit corporation now, which despite the fuzzy name is a type of for-profit company.

If Glass keeps making the kind of amazeballs money that he’s making with things like ad-supported podcasts and Pandora (I once calculated TAL’s podcast ad revenue alone to be about $10 million annually, and I await any correction of that math), he can spend it any way he sees fit.

In contrast, if NPR makes money outside of public radio, the member stations that control NPR — via people like Mike Savage who sit on its board — can force it to use that money to lower programming fees that the stations pay, thus perhaps freeing up local station dollars for local programming.

Now, Glass says he too is reinvesting that sweet, sweet side money into a worthy cause. Glass actually was the first commenter on Savage’s LinkedIn post.

“The money we make elsewhere, we use to do more in-depth reporting. To do stories we never could’ve afforded for the first decade we were on the air,” Glass commented. (Side note: Notice how he uses comma splice and sentence fragments, as though he were writing radio copy?)

Indeed, TAL has performed some phenomenal — and, no doubt, expensive —investigative feats in recent years. Regardless of whether the show still counts as public media on the back end, on the front end it’s still the best public radio show out there. Pound for pound, nothing fulfills public media’s programming values as excellently and as consistently as This American Life does.

But we don’t make policies based on the exceptions in life. We don’t say, “I can totally handle crack cocaine, therefore crack should be legal.” (Well, some people say that.)

Say Glass wasn’t a radio producer. Say he was an autocrat. Because he is — by most accounts — a total sweetheart, I bet he would be the most benevolent dictator on the block. It would be la belle époque under the reign of King Ira I.

But would you conclude from that experience that dictatorships are good? I wouldn’t.

I think it’s fantastic that Glass is using his new incomes to pay for great, public media–style journalism. But I don’t trust every other commercial media producer — and I am calling Glass a commercial media producer — to do the same.

“Trust,” by the way, is the key word here; Glass’s new private company doesn’t have the same public disclosure requirements that nonprofits must fulfill. We just have to believe that he’s spending his money on journalism and not on top salaries (though I do believe him, for what it’s worth). I, for one, don’t feel comfortable asking people for donations to pay for programming when I have no way of verifying how their money will be spent.

I got into public media because I believed that profit motives are often bad for media. They’re not always bad; many wonderful, important, socially valuable things are made by commercial media every day. In fact, most of the good things are.

But when I started out, I believed that the profit motive ultimately means there are some important things that commercial media can’t or won’t do.

I’m not totally sure, but I think I still believe that’s true. In which case, it matters whether TAL actually counts as public media.

Here’s an analogy.

CBS Sunday Morning is a really well-produced show, and I think it adheres to all of public media’s core values. I know many (very old) people who enjoy the program very much.

If Les Moonves at CBS decided to sell public television stations the right to air CBS Sunday Morning, would that suddenly make the show public media?

If your answer is “no,” then I think you think that means TAL isn’t public media. And I think public media has to be very careful and very deliberate about buying commercial programming.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened; Garrison Keillor’s shop is a for-profit company. So is the Car Talk shop. We have proven that public media buying commercially produced shows can work well.

But we have also proven that it can work badly, and for evidence, I refer you to the mild-mannered and chipper dumpster fire that is weekend public television schedules.

Come to think of it, the quality of the shows is actually irrelevant to this debate.

If public media invites for-profit productions into the tent and the shows are cheap, cheesy and promotional, people are going to say, “Well, money corrupts,” and they’ll be right.

But, if public media invites for-profits into the tent and the shows are really good, people are going to ask, “OK, why do you need my tax dollars if the commercial marketplace can produce this amazing, important show?”, and they’ll be right, too.

My conclusion? I think it’s great for public media orgs to make money selling their stuff to for-profit middlemen, but not the other way around.

Maybe your conclusion is different, but I can’t imagine a more important conversation for public media to be having with itself right now, and we’re having it because of Mike Savage’s LinkedIn post.

Unfortunately, that post and its lengthy, star-studded comment thread vanished last Wednesday (reminder: I saved it here). The next day, an unsigned note appeared on WBAA’s website, announcing that “After considerable listener feedback, This American Life will remain on WBAA.”

When contacted by Current’s Tyler Falk for comment, Savage wrote, “Our statement on our website speaks for itself.”

I have no doubt that many listeners contacted the station to complain, because listeners always complain about any change in schedule. But the fact that Savage’s post disappeared (rather than simply being updated) suggests to me that he was facing other, more serious blowback. Mike Savage does not have the reputation of a shrinking violet. The unsigned note and his subsequent non-comment read, to me, a little like hostage videos.

In the universe of things that a public radio station could do to adapt to rapidly changing technological and market dynamics, nixing one syndicated weekend show from the schedule is hardly extreme. I fear for public media’s ability to experiment and have tough conversations if one station in one little market finds that it cannot take so modest a risk as the one that Savage tried to take.

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

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