Saturday, September 12, 2009

TBTL - a New Beginning? Or the Beginning of the End? (Part 1)

The show was, indeed, too beautiful to live.

One of the greatest radio shows ever (ever!), TBTL (short for Too Beautiful to Live) has been cancelled as an on-air broadcast. The show will be turned into a web-based podcast. So it's losing the regular built-in audience of a major talk radio station in Seattle, and throwing itself on the mercy of the notoriously fickle internet audience. The website, the community, and at least two of the three major players will remain. The new show, such as it is, will be broadcast not from a radio studio, but from a room in the home of host Luke Burbank.

So this is the end of the world. Right?

Or is this really a new beginning? Is it possible that TBTL is going to be one of the new faces of the transformation of the medium of radio?

Here's the thing, friends and neighbors. Radio is changing. Example 1: me. I hardly ever listen to terrestrial radio anymore. I listen most Saturday mornings. I listen to NPR sometimes in the morning, and for about ten minutes while I drive to my job. Sometimes. Sometimes I just plug in a podcast and listen to that instead.

But am I missing NPR? Am I missing key stories? I doubt it. I listen to no less than eight NPR podcasts. I listen regularly to the NPR Story of the Day podcast, the NPR Shuffle podcast and the NPR Music podcast, and that captures most of the content that interests me.

I podcast Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, On the Media, and the magnificent WNYC show Radio Lab, and I never miss an episode of the latter two. Oh, and of course I podcast This American Life, because all of us radio geeks do. It's a rule.

But wait, there's more! There are two NPR podcasts that only exist in podcast form, and they are my favorite NPR productions: All Songs Considered and It's All Politics. Bob Boilen worked for years as a producer for NPR programs over the air, and on the side, produced a music podcast called All Songs Considered. It's eccentric, very personal, and absolutely fascinating, and I have picked up so many new favorite artists from it.

It's All Politics, fairly obviously, is a political podcast produced by NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Political Editor Ken Rudin, who both know entirely too much about the Beltway and are always happy to show off all the maddening Washington insider trivia stuck in their craniums. It's weekly, it's funny, the analysis is always sharp and often brilliant. I learn something every time I listen.

So that's my NPR listenership.

So am I an NPR listener?

I don't think I show up on the Arbitron ratings, because I'm not an over-the-air listener. Even though I listen to 15-20 hours of NPR content every week, I don't count as a listener.

And also, significantly, I don't count for their standard advertisers. I don't listen to the pre-broadcast sponsorship messages. I am not their audience in the traditional way. I'm still inflicted with lots of advertising on the podcasts, but not over the air.

I do still pay for my membership. And once I'm solvent again, I plan to send something into Chicago Public Radio and WNYC for all the great content they're producing.

Can TBTL still exist as a radio show without being an over-the-air radio show? Sure. Why not? There are plenty of podcasts that make a good go of it. Brian Ibbott somehow manages to eke out a living producing Coverville, by selling ads on his website and doing testimonial ad pitches doing every podcast. The Moth has only recently become a radio broadcast, but has existed for years as a brilliant podcast. Other examples come to mine - the Sound of Young America, Ask a Ninja, Rocketboom, This Week in Tech. There are lots of free-standing podcasts. It's a tried and true medium.

But TBTL is the first show I know that has made the jump from on-air to podcast exclusively. (The only parallel I can think of is Howard Stern, jumping from terrestrial radio to satellite, and that is such an apples-to-kumquats comparison that it's hardly worth the effort.)

The jump could spell trouble. They somehow have to hold onto their loyal audience as they make the switch. Luckily (or not so luckily), the overwhelming majority of their audience was listening to the podcast and not the over-their-air broadcast. Most of their listeners are Time Bandits, in the language of the show. They didn't listen the same day, or even the same week. Sometimes, Time Bandits reported falling months behind and catching up in a mind-melting glut of shows.

In other words, the audience of TBTL is already used to downloading the show, not tuning it in. We listen on iPods and on our computer and in streams. We are already an online audience. As Luke Burbank said, this latest move by KIRO's management might be stripping away the worst weaknesses of the show - its on-air audience - and playing to its greatest strengths.

TBTL has always been a show that relies feverishly on its audience. Audience members are often guests on the show, bringing great ideas or unusual perspectives on news shows or just serving as available talent and the in-studio voice of the audience. Some of the greatest ideas on the show have come from its listeners. The blog is ferociously active, and the TBTL audience - the Tens - are a passionate lot, showing up for roller-skating events, baseball games, karaoke nights, concerts held in the back of Mexican restaurants, and other seemingly preposterous gatherings. There are at least 18 groups on Facebook dedicated to TBTL.

On its last night on the air, over 1300 viewers tuned into the webcam to see - what? The hosts singing karaoke and Luke Burbank heroically dancing in his underwear, fulfilling a promise to the audience. This was the essence of the show. No matter how ridiculous, how absurd, the show kept its promises to its audience. The love between show and audience is more pure and heartfelt than I have ever seen for a radio show. It is a beautiful thing. It was clearly not planned, but the love affair between TBTL's audience and its makers is the true center of the show.

The show was not killed. Let us all remember that. KIRO is still putting money behind the show in its new form. As Jen Andrews pointed out, the typical procedure when a radio show is cancelled is that it's pulled off the air immediately, the hosts not allowed to broadcast a final show for fear they'll say something reprehensible on the air about their former employers. With any other show, the hosts would have been ushered out the door by security guards, not allowed on the air. In this case, the TBTL hosts were given six solid hours of airtime to say a proper farewell to their audience. It was a remarkable statement of confidence, definitely not the sort of thing you do for people who you want to boot out the door as quickly as possible.

Let's hope the new format of the show proves that TBTL does not need to be on the FM or AM dial to drew listeners. Maybe it will take its new wings and soar. We can make it happen. We, the TBTL audience, need to prove ourselves worthy.

If you ever listened to TBTL, you owe it to the show to listen on the first day and tell your friends. Post it on Facebook. Send messages on Twitter proclaiming your loyalty. They need an audience that is there from day one and announces themselves loudly. They - we - need to be there for the show. The ratings will not be measured by the standard numbers. It'll be tabulated by downloads of the podcast, comments on the blog, tweets mentioning TBTL, web traffic.

This is a new experiment in radio and it will succeed if the Tens stay faithful and give KIRO a reason to keep funding it. Radio can survive without the ties to an AM or FM frequency. With a strong audience, an active online presence, talented hosts, and enough moxie, this show could become a completely new example of the new face of radio. Let's make it happen.


Ashley said...

"The love between show and audience is more pure and heartfelt than I have ever seen for a radio show. It is a beautiful thing. It was clearly not planned, but the love affair between TBTL's audience and its makers is the true center of the show."
This made me cry. Maybe cuz I'm a little T&E. But it's also the truth. There is such a strong connection between the hosts & listeners, it's a community that has brought together people of the same sensibilities from around the globe to connect in a way that can only be described as "rawr." Here's to a new era!

Jeff - TB from Central CA. said...

"But TBTL is the first show I know that has made the jump from on-air to podcast exclusively."

There are a couple that spring to mind, just in case you are curious. One is "The Adam Carolla Podcast" and second is "Heidie, Frosty and Frank" both were shows on FM Talk 97.1 in LA now 97.1 AMP Radio. These two shows have made the jump to podcast only after being canceled. 97.1 also let these shows do a two day send-off by allowing them on the air to let their fans say goodbye. Adam Carolla is doing very well with his downloads.

Being a time bandit I will still be downloading and supporting TBTL. I wouldn't put a "cased closhed" on TBTL just yet.

Jake Brownson said...

Great post!

Sky Bluesky said...

Thanks, everybody!

Jeff, I didn't know about either of those podcasts. Any idea how they're doing, ratings-wise?

Nice timing that you brought up Adam Corolla, considering the super-secret surprise guest on TBTL's first web-only podcast!

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