What Books and Radio Share: Great Content, Poor Economics

In What's the Buzz by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

“In polls, public radio is rated as the most trusted source of news in the nation. The audience for most of its programs dwarfs the number of subscribers to the The New York Times or The New Yorker, or the number of people who read even the biggest best sellers,” writes Bill McKibbon in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Here he offers an insightful piece about “new radio” — much of it inspired by This American Life. He discusses the emergence of shows like Radio Lab, The Takeaway and Radio Open Source — programs that demand so much attention they really can’t be listened to while doing the dishes. What’s interesting from a publishing point-of-view is just how similar the landscape looks when compared to traditional book publishing. Historically, there was a time when people through television would kill radio — it didn’t — and today all the chatter about e-book killing books also appears to be misplaced.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life

That said, just as in much of book publishing, the economic model for much of radio is broken as well. As McKibbon notes:

Radio is now cheap to make, true, but the people who make it still need to live. And it’s very hard to get paid anything at all; in the early weeks of the fiscal downturn two years ago, NPR canceled two of the shows — Weekend America and Day to Day — that were consistently airing the work of new independent producers. Up-and-coming broadcasters are increasingly left to make their own way. Consider, say, Benjamen Walker, whose show Too Much Information airs weekly on New York’s independent radio station WFMU. It absolutely crackles — an hour-long mix of “interviews with real people, stories about fake people, monologue, radio drama.” It’s good enough that 240,000 people have downloaded some of the twenty episodes he’s made so far. That’s a lot of people, but it’s zero money, since podcasts, like most websites, are by custom given away for free. Walker’s previous show, a similar effort called Theory of Everything, was widely promoted on the Public Radio Exchange, and six public radio stations across the country actually paid for and ran it. “I think I made $80,” he says. “If I thought about it too hard, I would just quit. It’s much better not to think about it.”

He goes on a bit further explaining the economics of keeping even a show like This American Life on the air and why so many public radio stations continue to struggle. I encourage you to click through, if only for the great accompanying list the offers several suggestions for great listening.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.