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Lydon’s Open Source multiplies radio’s connections

In July 2005, four years after leaving The Connection, Christopher Lydon began hosting the new show Open Source, now carried on five pubradio stations including its home base, WGBH-FM in Boston. Dan Fellini followed the development of the series at medium distance as a managing producer at Public Interactive, which helped develop the series’ integral website. Fellini is editor of PI’s syndicated Public NewsRoom, used on more than 100 station websites.

Originally published in Current, Oct. 17, 2005
Commentary by Daniel M. Fellini

In many ways Christopher Lydon’s Open Source is a conventional radio show. It draws in expert voices, takes calls from listeners and often focuses on hot-button issues of the day. It’s not altogether unlike his previous show, The Connection.

But Lydon is attempting a different kind of connection now, leveraging the power of the Internet to reach out in a way that would have been nearly impossible, and not nearly as compelling, using only telephone and radio.

Open Source depends on its blog as a lifeline. That’s where many of the show’s ideas are generated, where many of its sources are found and where ideas are fleshed out for the radio and web audiences.

The Web is where Open Source makes a broader connection to its listenership—many of whom are nowhere near one of the stations that actually broadcasts the show. Open Source officially launched on July 4, and five stations have picked up the show. Three are in Massachusetts, one in Seattle and one in Salt Lake City. The rest of the listening audience either listens to the show via one of these stations’ live streams or by downloading the podcast. This is evident from the fact that many of the show’s callers are from regions without a terrestrial broadcast of the show.

The concept of Open Source was a long time in coming, and to Lydon, the melding of Internet and radio is natural.

That became apparent to Lydon three years ago as he sat in a Jamaican radio studio, one of several projects Lydon engaged in after The Connection, hosting a late-night talk show. On one of those late nights—phone lines ablaze with callers waiting at great length to get a word in—Lydon took a call from a Jamaican man. This man wasn’t on the island, though—he was calling from Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Good night, Christopher. Welcome to Jamaica,” Lydon recalls the man saying. They talked about ganja, sex and literature. Like thousands of others of the Jamaican diaspora, and much like Lydon’s Open Source audience, the man listened to Lydon on a live Internet stream.

“You had this crossed wire that lets all sorts of people in on the conversation,” Lydon said, “and immediately I realized this is the place where we want to start a new conversation.”

It was Lydon’s “aha” moment and it led to the launch of  Open Source and an inextricably intertwined website,

“There’s a new feedback loop of a radio signal going out, and e-mail and blog posts coming back that enrich the conversation,” Lydon said.

The conversations surrounding particular Open Source shows live on long after the show has aired. Sometimes success—measured in part by the number of online responses a show gets—is hit or miss, but the key is to tap into people’s obsessions. Two recent shows, both part of Open Source’s “passion series,” were about knitting and candy. Producers use other blogs to build interest in their shows, “seeding” the blogs with information. The idea is that bloggers will discuss these ideas and post back to the Open Source blog, and the conversation will grow.

Traditional-model call-in talk shows hope callers willcome to them, says producer Robin Amer. Given a listening audience of several hundred thousand, some of them will undoubtedly be keen on knitting, candy or whatever the topic of the day happens to be.

“But we also take the time to go straight to the listeners, or potential listeners, since anyone online is a potential listener,” Amer said. “In that sense we’re making new listeners—we’ve found that people who were originally drawn to the blog based on one show, like knitting, end up sticking around and posting on other comment threads.”

The idea for the knitting show also came from the Internet—a post in the blog’s suggestion box from someone named Lisa Williams in Watertown, Mass.

“Knitting has made a huge resurgence among urban hipsters, who have meet-ups in towns and cities nationwide, often in bars, to hang out and knit,” she wrote in the topic-suggestion section of the blog. “Overall, they’re ‘taking back the knit’ from frumpiness, making and distributing patterns for sweaters with skulls and crossbones and iPod cozies.”

That was enough to pique the producers’ interests. “It was one of thousands of examples of the way people live their lives,” Lydon said. “And the callers confirmed it. People care like crazy about their knitting, of all things.”

People care about their cars too. Before Public Interactive began working on and hosting Open Source’s site, it had done sites for Car Talk, Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? and other public radio shows. “We thought we knew everything there was to know about running program websites,” said Debra May Hughes, president and chief operating officer of Public Interactive, “but Open Source is a different animal altogether.”

The show’s producers wanted the site to work as much like a blog as possible and worked with Public Interactive to run it with a free software package many bloggers use called WordPress. The technical learning curve was steep for both Open Source and Public Interactive, and part of the difficulty involved predicting how much the blog might get used.

Traditional ways of predicting a radio show’s web traffic don’t work when the producer’s intent is to reach far beyond the broadcast audience. Forecasting usage of a site like Open Source’s is nearly impossible because it’s difficult to predict, from show to show, which topics will generate great online interest and which will flounder. Call it the Knitter Effect.

“Blog traffic moves in encouraging but sometimes mysterious ways,” said Brendan Greeley, Open Source blogger-in-chief.

Both Public Interactive and Open Source are learning that providing a resource for open-ended conversations online is an unpredictable venture, but it’s that unpredictability that makes the technology so compelling.

The radio show depends on that technology—more specifically, its blog—unlike other shows that use a website to supplement the on-air offering. Open Source rejects the concept of a radio show and a website living as independent projects. For the most part, Greeley says, pubradio shows have a producer and a webmaster, but at Open Source it’s everyone’s job to do show posts, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure the show reflects the site and the site reflects and continues the show.

Reaching out to other bloggers is an important part of the overall strategy to build the community.

“We had an idea that if bloggers recognized the show as one of their own, they’d be more likely to work our show into their own conversations,” said Greeley.

The bypass issue

With all of this direct connection between listeners and producers, are series like Open Source part of the problem for local public radio stations—or part of the solution?

As producers stream and podcast more and more free content on the Internet, there is a risk of leaving stations out of the loop, along with nearly every other means of support for public radio.

“Podcasting is the ultimate bypass technology, because the producers are going direct to the consumer,” Hughes said. “There’s no station. There’s no voice there.”

The challenge for Open Source and other shows that podcast their content is how to translate downloaded listening into support for the station.

Could the producers find a way to intertwine the podcast with the local station in such a way that a consumer would want to support that local station’s efforts?

Doug Carlston, board chairman of Public Radio International, which distributes Open Source, has thought long and hard about this issue.

“It’s a serious question, and I’m not sure there’s a good answer to it,” Carlston says. One solution may be to make these podcasts available only to station subscribers.

That’s not without precedent. Shows like Marketplace, Car Talk and The Next Big Thing have also had a “box office” for collecting revenue—often through pay services such as

“Still, I think that works only if the content providers see the stations as their primary source of funding, rather than as their primary distribution vehicle,” Carlston said.

Blogging and podcasting have taken off so rapidly over the past few years that many within the public broadcasting community, including Carlston, are searching for viable solutions.

Greeley says he hopes Open Source will be even more valuable to local stations because it will develop tight-knit, loyal communities that are more likely to support the show and, therefore, the local stations that carry the show.

Open Source and Public Interactive are exploring localization strategies that would help stations form local online communities tied to the national community.

“We’re trying to figure out a way that local stations with few resources can create a local Open Source community and a tool set that stations can use within their sites,” Hughes said. “None of this is built. It’s all in speculation, but I think that’s the answer.”

It’s developing community—that connection—that brings out Lydon’s passion.

“Why is the public conversation in this country so constipated, so stupid for the most part?” Lydon asks. “It’s so idiotic, when we have these new media that can actually share the sound of people thinking, worrying, creating, loving, connecting. . . .”

Lydon wants to leverage the new media to “get along a whole lot better, to have a richer association with people who are isolated in the corner feeling sorry for themselves.”

“My view of the world is that it’s just dying to talk,” Lydon said. “It’s just dying to make connections and gab across all these barriers of color and poverty and warfare.”

“In a couple of months we haven’t taken over the whole world,” he says with a hopeful tone, “but we’re making steady progress.”

Web page posted June 2, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006


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