How public radio programmers replaced ‘The Takeaway’

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Chris Campbell

Cancellation of The Takeaway left some public radio programmers lamenting the loss of a unique program that covered diverse communities and perspectives during a critical daypart.

The show’s editorial focus on “bringing real diversity of thought” made it distinctive in the midday lineup of WUWM in Milwaukee, said Ele Ellis, content manager. “It was handling topics that the other shows weren’t really digging into, if they were talking about them at all.” 

When The Takeaway went off the air in early June, it left a major hole in the weekday schedules of the nearly 250 stations that carried it. Station programmers told Current they miss having the program in their lineups and are concerned about having one fewer five-days-a-week show to choose from. 

Current analyzed the program schedules of more than 40 public radio licensees that previously carried The Takeaway and found that stations used 14 different programs, mostly nationally distributed programs, for the vacated timeslot. 

Leading the way was WBUR’s On Point, which replaced The Takeaway at 13 licensees. Eight licensees replaced it with Think, a talk show from KERA in Dallas. Here & Now, an NPR and WBUR co-production, and 1A from WAMU in Washington, D.C., each replaced the program at four licensees. BBC Newshour, which is distributed by American Public Media, replaced it at three licensees. 

The Takeaway debuted in 2008 as a drive-time alternative to NPR’s Morning Edition. When that approach didn’t gain enough traction, WNYC redesigned it for middays and scaled back the number of hours produced. Founding host John Hockenberry resigned in 2017, five months before allegations of his misconduct triggered a #MeToo reckoning inside WNYC. Since 2018, the show has been through two host transitions. Tanzina Vega hosted The Takeaway until July 2021, when Melissa Harris-Perry became host. 

Challenge of midday scheduling

Through those transitions, The Takeaway’s audience numbers remained “fairly steady” for South Carolina Public Radio over the last five years, Director Sean Birch said in an interview. SCPR aired the program on both its news/talk and news/music stations.

For Birch, the show’s cancellation has meant that stations have “fewer options to offer our audience during the midday and fewer reasons for them to stay with us throughout the daypart.”

Midday programming is “critically important” for radio news stations, Steve Olson, president of Audience Research Analysis, told Current in an email. 

“Each station carefully programs that daypart, so when they have to replace a show they are challenged to find another program that works well in terms of program flow and consistency of appeal and sound, and thereby serves their listeners,” he said.

Ellis of WUWM said stations have fewer options than they used to for weekday scheduling.  Seeing The Takeaway, “another five-day-a-week show,” go off the air is “really scary,” she said.

For programmers in markets with two NPR news stations, fewer options means less flexibility to differentiate their midday schedules, Ellis said. 

Birch described the challenge differently. There are “a lot of great options out there,” he said. But it can be “tough to find other options out there besides ones that we already do carry.” 

He is more concerned about the loss of a program that was intentional about covering diverse communities, he said. Cancellation of The Takeaway reminded him of the end of Tell Me More, “another show that was very specific about having voices from Black and brown communities on and discussing issues facing them,” he said. “It was a shame to lose that one.”

In addition to show cancellations, station programmers have had to adjust as weekday programs reduced the number of hours they deliver. In 2020, WBUR’s On Point scaled back from two daily hours to one. The Takeaway, which began as a four-hour show in drivetime, reduced its airtime over the years to one hour in its final iteration. 

Audience feedback

To fill the void at WUWM, Ellis decided to test out three possible replacement programs throughout the summer and invite listeners’ feedback about which to schedule permanently.  

The 9 a.m. hour is one of WUWM’s most important time slots, Ellis said. Since it follows Morning Edition, it’s an hour “where you can really lose people or you can really keep them.” 

Ellis wanted audience feedback because “the stakes are very high for people … That’s going to affect a lot of what a lot of people hear,” she said. 

During the nine-week experiment, WUWM gave On Point, 1A and Think a three-week trial run at 9 a.m. on weekdays and reviewed more than 200 responses submitted by listeners. 

In the end, WBUR’s On Point won the timeslot.

“We chose it because our listeners told us they felt it was the best of the choices we offered,” Ellis said. “And, having the opportunity to hear it on the station for three weeks, we agreed.”

SCPR’s Birch wanted to choose a replacement that would bring new perspectives on the news. 

He opted for BBC Newshour, which airs at 9 a.m. on SCPR’s news/talk service. For the news/music station, he scheduled On Point

Since SCPR already carries BBC World Service, adding Newshour to the line up was free, he added. Cost is “always a consideration, especially right now as we’re seeing systemwide fewer people giving,” Birch said.  

Cost was a primary consideration for WSHU in Fairfield, Conn., said GM Rima Dael in an email to Current. In looking to replace The Takeaway, she wanted a show that wouldn’t add to the station’s program fees. 

WSHU is now airing Think, which is free for stations and has the additional benefit of adding regional diversity to its lineup, she said. That’s something WSHU is “beginning to consider more with programs.” 

“I do think that program economics is a factor right now as there’s such a struggle for stations with their budgets,” said Abby Goldstein, president of Public Radio Program Directors Association. 

PDs share a general concern about the lack of program development, she added. “It’s a very hard game to play right now.”

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