Bryant Park: Adoring web fans mourn loss of virtual community
NPR’s Bryant Park Project died as it lived last week, with producers and fans chatting, cracking jokes and sharing peeks behind the scenes, both on its broadcast and in the online social-media matrix that grew around the newsmagazine.
But the mood tended toward anger, sorrow and disappointment as the show’s final broadcast of July 25 approached. In the show’s last five days, producers took turns cueing up a song each day keyed to the stages of grief, from denial to acceptance (titles at right).
Staffers and fans alike took to blogs, Twitter and Facebook to mourn their loss and question NPR’s decision-making.
“Can’t deal with this last-week thing,” wrote BPP staffer Laura Conaway to the 700 fans who follow the producers’ short text emanations through Twitter’s messaging hub.
“I keep waiting for the hurt to stop and stay stopped. Will wait some more, I guess.”
Frustrated listeners filled BPP’s blog with hundreds of comments.
“It is sad abandonment of investing for the future,” one fan wrote. The show’s demise spawned a Facebook group and other campaigns aimed at lobbying NPR execs to reverse course.
NPR announced the decision to end BPP in a press release July 14, after the New York Times broke the story. Network execs stressed that the show’s quality was not to blame and praised its successes.
“Obviously, you and the rest of the staff have done a great job building loyalty among your audience and in presenting news in a different way,” wrote Dennis Haarsager, NPR’s interim c.e.o., in an e-mail to a BPP staffer that he later posted on his blog.
Yet in the end, the show’s accomplishments in building a passionate online following were not enough to save it. NPR had scaled BPP to the size of a moderately sized national radio venture, with a budget of more than $2 million and a workforce of about a dozen staffers. But in nine months BPP failed to gain the traction on that medium that the network had sought.
BPP aired on the primary analog signals of just five public radio stations; 19 digital multicast channels, which can be received only on relatively scarce HD Radio receivers; and a Sirius Satellite Radio channel. Many listeners heard it through podcasts and streaming on the Internet.
“The economics of doing a radio program without a radio outlet, for an online experience only, don’t make sense,” said Ellen Weiss, NPR’s v.p. for news and information. The show was also conceived in “a different economic climate,” Weiss said.
The limited acceptance by stations hampered the show’s ability to drive traffic to its website and podcast, Haarsager told Current. Podcasts of other NPR newsmags drew far more downloads, according to the network, with Talk of the Nation getting 10 times the podcast audience of BPP, for example. BPP’s podcast was downloaded an average of 79,000 times a month over the past six months, putting it on par with the podcast of Day to Day.
A dissenting take on its growth came from the show itself, in a report by BPP backup host Mike Pesca about the show’s cancellation. Pesca said the show surpassed benchmarks set by NPR before its launch. Its website drew 1 million page views per month after six months, and the show attracted a younger audience that went on to discover new NPR shows, he said.
Not just a show, but a community
Launched on NPR’s website in April 2007 ahead of a broadcast debut in October, the two-hour BPP sounded like a cheekier version of a traditional NPR newsmag. Its cohosts bantered more than most NPR hosts, talking over each other and the upbeat music beds that often backed up their lighter moments and even newscasts. They laughed at each others’ jokes and sometimes their own.
The show’s frequently updated blog added to the humorous, candid vibe. Co-host Luke Burbank once challenged Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to an impromptu Ping-Pong match and posted a video of it online. Yet the show also treated the day’s biggest stories with the gravity of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
To BPP’s admirers, however, its online listener-participants set it apart. Producers cultivated an ongoing give-and-take with them through the blog and elsewhere. The website solicited comments, and the hosts read feedback on the air — contributing to a tight-knit feeling rare for a public radio show.
“This isn’t simply a show; it’s a community,” wrote listener Matthew Scallon on the show’s blog. “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 online.”
Scallon and other critics of NPR’s decision to cancel BPP felt that the network missed the point by focusing on its broadcast carriage. They reacted to BPP’s demise as if they were losing not a radio show but a favorite neighborhood bar or coffeehouse.
The extent of the backlash offered them further proof that the show was a great success in community building — which in turn depressed them all the more.
BPP transcended its initial mandate of drawing younger listeners to public radio, said Rob Paterson, a consultant who worked with NPR on its New Realities planning in 2006 and became one of BPP’s most passionate boosters.
“I’m nearly 60, and there were lots of people like me who were attracted to this,” Paterson said. “I’m devastated. I really am.” After news of the cancellation, Paterson started an online forum, The BPP Diner (bppdiner.ning.com), to serve as the new social hub for BPP’s staff and followers.
Paterson and others argued that NPR should have anticipated the show’s low carriage on stations. Its morning broadcast time would have required many potential outlets to dump at least part of Morning Edition, an audience and fundraising powerhouse, to pick up BPP, by its nature an untested experiment.
“How could you think that that would happen?” Paterson said. “It’s really like saying, ‘Our business plan is based on levitation. If we wish hard enough, we’ll float off the ground.’”
Haarsager acknowledged that BPP’s mission of attracting a younger demographic and its irreverent tone also made it a mismatch with the other news/talk offerings available to stations.
Other factors may have affected the show’s fortunes. Founding cohost Luke Burbank left NPR in December, and Alison Stewart, the other co-host, took maternity leave in April.
Several senior NPR managers who reigned during the show’s creation — CEO Ken Stern, programming chief Jay Kernis and digital media veep Maria Thomas — also had left the network by the time it was dropped.
NPR is in conversations with Stewart, who returned from leave for the show’s last week, about assigning her to another position, said spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. The network also held jobs open in NPR News for BPP staffers to apply for, she said.
NPR offered Matt Martinez, BPP’s senior supervising producer, another position, Martinez said, but he declined it. He ended his nine years with the network on Friday.
Posthumously, the show may serve as a signpost for future new-media ventures.
KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, Calif., did not air the show. But Terry Green, g.m., said BPP did “a commendable job” of linking the on-air broadcast to its website.
BPP “points the way,” he said, “to what a lot of public radio programming could do constructively, in terms of being present both as an online and an interactive space with listeners through blogs and similar tools, and through over-the-air programming.”
Web page posted July 29, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC