Open Source woos webheads for radio’s sake
There comes a moment in this broadcast of Open Source from PRI when host Christopher Lydon throws the conversation not to the guest sitting across from him but to a staffer rare in public radio — a “blogger-in-chief.”
The blogger, Brendan Greeley, is stationed at a shiny Mac PowerBook in the control room, across the glass from Lydon at Boston’s WGBH. The host has been talking with a Syrian-born Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor about generational differences in the Muslim world. Greeley, meanwhile, has been scouring the show’s website for comments from site visitors.
Greeley comes back with a remark posted by Mystique, a Saudi Arabian blogger who visited the site after being invited by an Open Source producer. While the blogger’s parents view the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah through a religious lens, she said, she takes a political and pacifist tack.
“The question is, which of these frames is winning now?” Greeley asks.
“The third, which he’s not offering you,” answers the professor, adding another twist to the probing dialogue.
Even after Lydon signs off in the studio, the discussion branches in new directions. Mystique links from her blog to Open Source’s site the next day, and her readers congratulate her on the cameo radio appearance. (Writes one: “You should let them know you are not a ‘he!’”)
The exchange leaps from radio to the Web and back to radio. It zigs from Jeddah and zags to Boston. And it confronts, if not quite bridges, a generational gap between two members of a global Arab diaspora. It is, in short, just the kind of conversation Lydon and his crew hope to inspire — and an example of how courting bloggers creates publicity for the show as well as material.
Since its launch last summer, Open Source has settled into its home in the disputed territory between the blogosphere and mainstream media. Where some journalists see the new-media vanguard as a threat to their authority, Open Source and a new breed of programmers find a chance for a revitalizing give-and-take. Participants in NPR’s New Realities planning exercise said they were eager to create cross-platform “trusted spaces” with their audiences, enabling them to share content with stations, networks and each other.
If Open Source’s experience is any indication, bridging the space between radio and the Web poses unique challenges. Not the least is defining and measuring success. Another is explaining to broadcasters an unorthodox hybrid that is not just a website or a radio show, but both.
“In some ways, I think people are not quite sure what we’re doing,” says Mary McGrath, the show’s e.p. and a creative partner of Lydon’s since their days at The Connection, a popular talk show on Boston’s WBUR in the 1990s.“ It’s too early in some ways for the public radio audience and the station audience. But there’s just so much possibility.”
A “never-before intersection”
The day after broadcast, Lydon is eating a quick breakfast at a cheery Au Bon Pain down the street from Open Source’s Cambridge offices, explaining the show’s modus operandi.
“I’ve felt from the beginning that we have this never-before intersection of a local broadcast signal and global online expression,” he says as he pops a huge last bite of a pastry into his mouth.
At 66, Lydon is tall and lean, with a scruffy white beard. He speaks thoughtfully, but with the passion of someone who clearly relishes words and conversation.
“We’re learning that the real name of this new game is not presenting yourself in another medium, but inviting other people in — getting commenters and callers and bloggers onto the air,” he says. “That’s the real trick.
“My observation of this podcast fad is that it’s putting the same old people into a new venue,” he continues. “Well, that’s not the real implication here. The same old people are smaller players in a world with many more interesting voices in it.”
Open Source builds on Lydon’s enduring passion for finding those voices and joining them in conversation. It is also his second act in public radio. In 1994, he and McGrath created The Connection, a two-hour weekday call-in show on WBUR. They lost that perch in 2001 after a failed effort to claim part-ownership of the program and a public spat with Jane Christo, then WBUR’s g.m.
Lydon returned to radio for specials and guest-hosting stints in the years that followed. The epiphany that led to Open Source came when he was hosting a late-night radio show in Jamaica. One caller was an expatriated islander in Brooklyn, N.Y., listening to an Internet stream. That confluence of radio and the Web — a “crossed wire,” in Lydon’s words — stoked the host’s imagination.
Meanwhile, Lydon started blogging as a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. With help from Dave Winer, an influential blogger and software developer, he created the first podcast. He became an outspoken evangelist for the potential of the Web.
“It’s not about the technology,” he says. “It’s about the implications for democracy and information and communication and human contact and formation of opinion, and I just love it to death. It is a new world.”
Playing nice with bloggers
Today the hourlong Open Source airs on 31 stations Monday through Thursday. It is produced with backing from Public Radio International, the Schooner Foundation and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
The program pays for studio time at WGBH, where the show is sent to the system.Though it feeds at 7 p.m., stations are able to air it at any time because Open Source foregoes calls from listeners. In fall 2005, the show reached a weekly audience of 114,200 and had an average quarter hour audience of 38,000. Its broadcast audience is only a part of the total audience that concerns its producers, however, who devote just as much attention to their website, radioopensource.org.
Most public radio shows have blogs that mirror the on-air content, adding occasional web-only features or interview clips. Open Source flips that traditional relationship on its head.
“In a way, the site is live all the time, and the show is the four best hours a week to come out of it,” McGrath says.
Open Source built its site on the back of WordPress, an open-source blogging application, in partnership with Public Interactive, the PRI subsidiary. The site resembles and reads like a blog, with posts by Open Source staffers ordered from newest to oldest. Comments from the site’s 3,700 registered users trail after each post, sometimes reaching into the hundreds.
Everyone on the show’s staff — Lydon and McGrath included — posts to the site and comments on threads along with users. Days and sometimes months before broadcast, the show creates a post for each on-air hour and encourages users to share their opinions and observations in comments posted on the page. The feedback helps frame the on-air discussions and sometimes even sparks ideas for programs.
“Everybody here has had to learn how to think like a blogger,” Greeley says. For the blogger-in-chief and his colleagues, that means writing shorter items, disclosing edits to previously posted material and updating users about developments on the show and website.
The next step after creating a blogger-friendly environment was to populate it. For each show, a producer or intern searches blogs for several hours, then e-mails five to 10 to bloggers with specific questions and an invitation to read the post specific to the program.
At first Open Source sent boilerplate e-mails, but their reception was lukewarm, Greeley says. Staffers have boosted interest by reading blogs more carefully and making their queries more personal.
Bloggers are most useful as “sources and fixers,” Greeley says. “When we use the word ‘blogger,’ we assume they’re in front of computers talking about national politics,” Greeley says. “And a lot are. But there’s a huge, untapped pool of people writing about their own lives, and for our purposes and public radio’s, they’re much more interesting.”
When Open Source produced a June show about allegations that Republicans rigged the 2004 presidential election, for example, producers surveyed Ohio bloggers about polling irregularities, not their opinions on John Kerry or George W. Bush.
Blogger and commenter feedback generates lively discussions and feeds into standalone, web-only features that round up links, blog excerpts and reflections on the show’s topics. On the air, Greeley scatters comments into the show, and every night Lydon reads a commenter’s remark as he sets up the evening’s theme.
“When it comes to breaking news and news of the day . . . they are expanding the conversation to include people who would not be part of it, and are bringing in perspectives that you normally don’t hear,” says Bryan Schott, p.d. and news director at Salt Lake City’s KCPW, which airs Open Source. “That’s the value of using the online community.”
How popular is Team Teal?
As a web-radio hybrid, Open Source has had to find ways to measure its impact that transcend public radio’s traditional reliance on Arbitron data. Greeley gives a tour of his toolbox from his desk at the show’s Cambridge offices.
The walls of the house-cum-office are painted an oppressively dark teal — hence “Team Teal,” an in-house nickname for the staff. Scattered black fur from Juli, a Bernese Mountain Dog snoozing under a desk, scuds the dingy red carpet. Macintosh laptops are ubiquitous.
Greeley’s main tool is the Web itself. “We’ve realized that complementary to reach is influence,” Greeley says. “They feed back and forth into each other. And there are ways to measure influence.”
He types “open source” into a Google search box. The show’s site pops up as the tenth and final listing on the first page of results — a strong showing, considering that “open source” is widely used among netizens to describe a spreading philosophy of software development.
A website’s ranking in Google search results hinges on how many other sites link to it and, in turn, how many links feed into those sites. That means a site with high traffic linking to your site gives a bigger bump than attention from one with low traffic.
So Greeley is keenly interested in how high Open Source climbs, not just to measure visibility but also popularity. When Open Source made Google’s first page of results two months ago, “I ran like a maniac around the office,” he says.
“But it’s such an impossible thing to explain,” he adds. “This is a really important measure of influence in the world. It shows people see us as an authority. And this is a cold, hard metric that people in public radio — except for people in the tech half — aren’t used to talking about at all.”
Another gauge of web reach is Technorati, a website that tracks what bloggers discuss and where they link. A search for radioopensource.org reveals 1,498 links to the site. Greeley then checks on The Diane Rehm Show. It airs on 107 stations, more than three times as many as Open Source, but has 459 incoming links.
“There is no substitute for carriage,” says Greeley, who admits he “obsessively” tracks such data. “But the other things we do take every foothold of the carriage that we have and expand our influence.”
Greeley says he could advise public radio stations on multiple strategies for upping their Technorati rankings. His colleagues at Open Source also see in their work a model for the rest of public radio to follow.
"We're learning things that every local station should be doing — finding local blogs in their community, encouraging people they know and like to blog,” McGrath says. “We know about community building.”
McGrath and her colleagues shared pointers with talk show producers at New York’s WNYC in a May conference call. The station airs Open Source, and its producers want to test similar experiments, says Mikel Ellcessor, senior director of programming operations and distribution.
“They’re asking, ‘How do we make our programs more porous? How do we let the listeners leave their fingerprints on this show?’” Ellcessor says. “How do we shift the relationship with the audience so that it is less of a presentation — us speaking to you — and make it a little bit more of the two of us sitting down together and talking?”
“It’s one thing to say that you’ve made contact with somebody,” he adds. “It’s another thing to say that you’ve engaged them. And engagement is the new terrain that we need to explore.”
Web page posted Aug. 25, 2006, revised Aug. 28, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee