Required reading for public media executives and programme makers

I have followed the trajectory of (US) National Public Radio’s Bryant Park Project because they were experimenting with so many social media tools and ideas, and more than that, they seemed to have grokked the ‘social’ in social media. Their Twitter feed wasn’t just an automated bland, bloodless promo for the programme but rather a way that the staff showed their humanity and personality as well as worked to engage people with the subjects on the programme. Just look at one of their latest Tweets:

For those of you not familiar with the Bryant Park Project, I’d direct you to Robert Paterson’s post on BPP and their use of Twitter. I use Robert’s phrase ‘wrapping content in a community’ as the title of a presentation that I give on social media and journalism. (Looking through Robert’s recent posts, he and I are eerily on the same wavelength in asking why public media isn’t being successful in innovating. Like many media organisations now, the cultural and political conflict is increasing as organisations shift from considering change strategies to, in some cases, fighting for survival.)

I’ll give credit to NPR’s interim CEO, Dennis Haarsager, for going to the BPP blog to address some issues and share some of the lessons of the project.

We’ve/I’ve learned — or relearned — a lot in this process. For non-commercial media such as NPR, sustaining a new program of this financial magnitude requires attracting users from each of the platforms we can access. Ultimately, we recognized that wasn’t happening with BPP. Radio carriage didn’t materialize to any degree: right now, BPP airs on only five analog radio stations and 19 HD Radio digital channels. Web/podcasting usage was also hampered — here’s the relearning part — since we were offering an “appointment program” in a medium that doesn’t excel in that kind of usage.

I would love to be a fly on the wall and know why NPR stations didn’t pick up the programme, but I probably know why. I worked on World Have Your Say at the BBC, and NPR stations were resistant to that programme because they felt it to be too ‘talk radio’ even though we dealt with substantive international issues. However, the programme dealt with them from the point of view of people and not necessarily pundits and politicians. BPP was trying to attract younger listeners to public radio, but unfortunately, that might have been its undoing. Some NPR stations in the US can make the BBC’s Radio 4 look like Radio 1.

What Dennis Haarsager doesn’t talk about because he probably can’t is the organisational struggle that NPR is going through. John Proffitt who works for a non-profit company that operates a “public TV station, a public radio station and a statewide radio news network” is a little more candid:

For all those saying NPR should have raised money directly for BPP, there’s a political mess you’re not aware of here.

If NPR openly attempted to raise money for any program, with large or small station carriage, the nationwide collection of stations would revolt. And please note the Board of NPR is majority-controlled by stations.

In short, it would never be attempted and would certainly be killed if it were.

There are indeed structural and cultural problems within NPR that make a project like BPP fail and put all forms of new media engagements at risk. But never forget that many of NPR’s most anti-new media anti-innovation qualities are inherited from the codependent relationship with the stations. In a sense, it’s no one’s fault, yet it’s everyone’s fault. And that’s the center of the problem.

But I don’t want to focus on the specific organisational issues that NPR is struggling with. The comments on Haarsager’s post provide some of the clearest explanation of the power of social media. The producers and presenters of BPP tried to foster a community and develop a real sense of relationship with their listeners. I think they succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. I can’t link to individual comments or I would. Here is a sample:

Sent by Matthew Trisler, Radio-Sweethearts.com | 3:54 PM ET | 07-22-2008

It’s been said already on Twitter today, but the thing about BPP that Haarsager misses is that it never served as a “portal,” but as an organic center for community involvement.

Sent by Carlo | 4:49 PM ET | 07-22-2008

People don’t want an API. They don’t want “tailored content delivery” or their “attention tracked.”

Those are buzz words.

It seems to me, somehow, your outlook on the BPP was more about the neat, shiny technology than anything else.

More focused on the “networks” than the “social.”

And that’s too bad.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon @mattsteady | 5:11 PM ET | 07-22-2008

As a reverted NPR listener, a listener who came back to NPR because of the BPP, I understand that the average NPR listener treats their show as a member of the family. Believe or not, the BPP community has an even greater attachment than that, not just to the show but to each other. This isn’t simply a show; it’s a community. Staff and listeners exchange with one another, sometimes on news items and sometimes on more personal stuff. There are many examples of personal and intelligent exchanges between staff and listeners, examples that, if you take some time to look at on the blog, you will find have a depth of affection not found in anything else NPR produces on-line. This is not to disparage those other shows but to show how special the BPP is as a community.

The show looks like it was reaching outside of its youthful target market. Sent by John Riley | 5:48 PM ET | 07-22-2008

I am 74 and live alone. Local NPR stations are mostly music. I get on the net and listen to NPR talk. I just found BPP and enjoyed it very much, intelagent but not stiff. It gave me many smiles and was topical. I wish I could have been saved. The idea of internet show funding should be explored. The net lets me listen any time I wish. The way of the future.

Sent by ronbailey | 8:48 PM ET | 07-22-2008

That’s the sorriest dose of pablum I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. If you say the audience isn’t there for an “appointment program” on the web, then why not focus on formats that allow listeners to time shift the content? Most days I listened to BPP via the podcast around noon Eastern time.

Good riddance, NPR. You guys have screwed the pooch, and you’ve lost me as a listener and a contributer, and more importantly as a supporter via my blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed.

That’s just a teaser from a few hundred of the comments, but I think these listeners have said more about what social media means than most explanations I’ve heard. BPP was successful in using social media tools, a blog, a podcast and Twitter to connect with their audience.

BPP was not going to replace the venerable Morning Edition programme, which as one of the commenters said has been on air for more than 30-years and has some 30m listeners. That is the wrong metric for success, and frankly, that seems to be the problem. They tried to create a programme that would attract new audiences, but to succeed, it would have to displace one of its longest-running and most successful programmes in 9 months. I would never sign onto a project so designed to fail. And now I fear that obstructionists will use the programme as an example of the failure of social media and the internet. From the the comments, I think BPP succeeded as an experiment in social media. Too bad from a strategic standpoint and in terms of NPR’s own structure, it had little chance to succeed as a traditional radio programme.