Blessed with the sort of love him or hate him reputation reserved for the truly popular, Bill Simmons has received a lot of criticism from NBA fans for his propensity to act as the Body Language Doctor: he will make grand pronouncements about players or teams based on nothing more than a player or coach’s demeanor on the floor or in a press conference.
Still, I can sympathize with Simmons: it’s easy to give in to a similar sort of temptation when you read things like this New York Times article about Ira Glass and This American Life leaving Public Radio International:
On July 1, “This American Life” became independent, leaving its distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI. That change is partly technical. The program is no longer delivered to local stations through public radio’s satellite system, but instead over the Internet through the online platform PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
But the big impact is financial. Gone are a distributor’s financial guarantees, which in the case of “This American Life,” reached seven figures. Instead, Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album “In Rainbows,” or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It’s the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.
“You take on the risk if you have to do the marketing,” said Laura Walker, president and executive chief officer of New York Public Radio, which operates WNYC. “I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk way of making money. You’ve got to put in a lot of effort and do the work yourself.”
Set aside the implications for Glass and This American Life for just a moment: what is striking about the article, and this section in particular, is that there is zero discussion about upside. The “big” financial impact is the foregoing of financial guarantees, and questions are raised about what happens if Glass fails – but not if he succeeds. There is concern that Glass’s move towards independence is not a “slam-dunk way of making money.”
To be fair, this is only one article, but the reason the body language doctor angle is so tantalizing is that this approach seems very representative of traditional journalism’s general discomfort with the Internet. When your world is collapsing it’s awfully easy to see only the downside, and to wish that things like disruption did not exist.
So let me provide a counter-narrative, and re-write the lede to this story:
On July 1, just days before the country he chronicles marks Independence Day, Ira Glass of This American Life celebrated his own independence, leaving his distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI. That change is partly technical. The program is no longer delivered to local stations through public radio’s satellite system, but instead over the Internet through the online platform PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Of course This American Life is no stranger to Internet distribution; while 2.1 million people listen to the show live on the radio, another million download the podcast, making it the most popular show on Apple’s iTunes. In fact, it was Mr. Glass’s ability to connect directly with his show’s listeners that made an intermediary like PRI redundant.
To be sure, Mr. Glass is taking a risk by abandoning a distributor’s financial guarantees, which in the case of “This American Life,” reached seven figures. Instead, Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. The upside, however, is enormous. The cost of a financial guarantee is limited upside – that is why distributors take on that risk – but by taking control of distribution Mr. Glass is reserving that upside for himself.
“The entity with the most to lose in this move is not This American Life,” said Ben Thompson, who has written frequently about the impact of the Internet on journalism at his blog Stratechery. “Rather, once other radio personalities realize that the Internet has made distributors redundant a lot more people are going to question why they don’t take control of their own destinies.”
The clear winners, though, are consumers: Mr. Glass has marked the occasion by releasing a new podcast called Serial, and it will be available to everyone worldwide, no distribution deal needed.
Happy Independence Day to Ira Glass.
And, dear readers, Happy Independence Day to you as well, both you in the U.S. actually celebrating the holiday, and also everyone around the world who I can reach with ease, no distributor needed.