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How to Disrupt Public Radio


Lots of people have been talking about the phenomenon of This American Life’s Serial podcast and what it has meant to the booming ecosystem of on-demand audio.

But there’s more to the story. There’s something nobody’s talking about.

And that’s how Serial demonstrated with great clarity how to disrupt public radio.

Now I’m not making a value judgment here. Disruption is neither good, nor bad. It just is. And if you’re a content-maker, disruption of traditional content/distribution ecosystems is going to be one of your goals, frankly. Meanwhile, aspects of this are not new, but Serial may be one of the most perfect public radio disruptors yet.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the story.

The crew at This American Life had the resources, the talent, and the interest to create something that, while hardly new to the world, was new to the audio space: A true crime saga – investigated in almost real time – and told in serial form over 12 episodes.

Now they could have created this show and dropped it into iTunes like so many podcasters have done before and since. But they didn’t. They did something else.

They put it on the radio.

The entire debut episode.

The one that whetted your appetite for everything that was to follow.

And they didn’t just put it on the radio, they put it on public radio. And they didn’t just put it anywhere on public radio. They featured it as an episode of one of America’s most popular radio shows (and podcasts), This American Life, and they thus “stole” a prime show and a prime slot on hundreds of America’s finest public radio stations.

And then they proceeded to “steal” the attention from that same public radio ecosystem.

Don’t misunderstand my terms. I make no value judgment here. I would advise anybody who could to do exactly this – but not everybody can. Few have a launch platform as powerful as This American Life.

But back to my story…

At the end of the episode you were invited to hear “what happens next” on a podcast, not on the radio – not on your friendly neighborhood public station. And not anywhere in the public radio ecosystem.

Your ears have been hijacked.

But wait, you might say. Aren’t my ears hijacked every time I consume a podcast for a show I could have heard on the radio but, for whatever reason, didn’t?

No, that’s different. Because that’s a show hijacking its own audience to a different platform. Serial hijacked somebody else’s audience on somebody else’s platform and attached to somebody else’s financial support ecosystem.

Suppose you watch Dateline NBC. And let’s say there’s a special episode of Dateline NBC that’s actually the first episode of a documentary series about accused killer Robert Durst. And suppose at the end of that episode you are invited to watch the rest of the story – by going to HBO to see The Jinx. Great for HBO. Maybe great for Dateline. Not so great for NBC.

And then you go to the Serial website. There you are invited to sign up for updates about Serial. In other words, all those folks who discovered Serial on their local public radio station (and elsewhere) are now handing over their contact information and initiating a relationship off the public radio grid with this new show.

The Dateline NBC fans just signed up for the HBO email list.

And then comes the plea for financial support.

You know how you can’t generally support public radio shows – you can generally support only the stations that carry those shows? That’s because the stations pay for the shows – you just pay for the stations. This is inefficient, of course, as anyone who has every complained about their overloaded cable bill knows every time they ponder how they’re paying for dozens of cable channels they never watch.

Serial fixed this. You don’t support the station you may have heard the first episode on, you support Serial, the podcast (technically you support WBEZ in Chicago, but that fact is underplayed in the fine print).

So here’s what Serial has achieved:

  1. The show hijacked the attention, time, and listening of public radio fans and moved a portion of it off public radio per se

  2. The show hijacked the relationships that exist between local public radio stations and their listeners by gathering emails for fans of Serial, thus launching new – and direct – relationships off the public radio grid (I can’t do that for Fresh Air, can I?)

  3. The show circumvented the “you support the station, the station supports the show” business model by linking support directly (superficially at least) to Serial, the show.

In the end, this is exactly how it should be, of course. As has often been said, if content is king, then distribution is queen. And thousands of public radio stations are amazing distribution points. Even if you leverage the distribution, then steal the attention.

Okay, now suppose you didn’t hear the first episode of Serial on public radio. Suppose you discovered it later from the iTunes store or from Internet buzz or from friends or wherever. Public radio isn’t responsible for that, right?

Oh yes it is.

Never underestimate the power of launching a program on a hugely popular stage. Just ask the TV show that follows the Superbowl.

So is this theft of attention and relationships wrong? No, it is right. Indeed, it is inevitable for any show that can swing it. Shows are the center of gravity for public radio fans. Fans should be able to support the shows they love, while the distribution channels take their cut behind the scenes.

Even if, as in this case, the distribution channel missed out on their cut.

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