Radio Open Source on Hiatus

After two years, the extraordinary Radio Open Source, hosted by Chris Lydon and produced by Mary McGrath, is off off the air and off the ‘Net. It’s a sad day for this hybrid radio/podcast program’s producers and listeners. I wish I’d been wrong, but I predicted this two years ago in my essay, The Future of Public Radio.

Radio Open Source’s problem is just that: It’s a hybrid. It has the cost structure of a public-radio program — a $1 million/year budget — in a podcast-revenue marketplace. Even an infusion of $250,000 couldn’t save them. In the past twelve months, between IT Conversations, Social Innovation Conversations and our other channels, we produced about 400 programs at a total cost of less than $50,000. Radio Open Source produced half as many programs for 20x the cost. I don’t know Radio Open Source’s audience, but we reached nearly a half-million unique listeners and averaged more than 20,000 downloads per program.

To some extent, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Radio Open Source was a live show, recorded in expensive WGBH studios, and had a good sized paid staff. We have no real studios, no paid full-time staff, and nearly half of our programs come from conferences that pay their own recording costs. But that’s the point. Whether non-profit or otherwise, every business has to work within a marketplace. Radio Open Source’s content and production values were terrific but expensive, and there simply isn’t an online market sufficient to support it. As I explained two years ago, there isn’t a public-radio market to support it either.

And why didn’t Radio Open Source succeed as a public-radio program? (1) Scarcity. Radio suffers from that old-school model in which there are only so many hours in the day in which to air a program. (2) Peculiarity. For a station to pick up Radio Open Source (a four-show-per-week series), it had to cancel another daily show and fill the extra day with something. (3) Timing. If a station did pick up Radio Open Source, it most likely ran it at some odd hour of the day, whereas the podcast edition was always available on my schedule. (4) Esotericism. Let’s face it: Radio Open Source was aimed at a fairly elite audience, and broadcast needs numbers.

I hope that Radio Open Source can resurface as a podcast-only program in the fall, perhaps as a weekly rather than four times per week. But to do so they will have to scale back their expenses to match the realities of the podcast marketplace. They won’t be able to re-hire that great team of producers. They’ll have to scrape to get by, just like all podcasters except those who are supported by unrealistic venture capitalists. Record in a bedroom. Leverage part-time and volunteer staff. Focus on Chris’ brilliance, but Chris and Mary may have to do all the research and scheduling themselves. Even then, it’s not at all clear they’ll be able to support themselves from Radio Open Source as a podcast. Very few of us can. And there are very few funders in the non-profit sector who want to underwrite any podcasts, let alone those produced on a broadcast-style budget.

I’d love to have Radio Open Source join The Conversations Network in the fall, and I’ve said as much to Chris and Mary. I look forward to discussing that opportunity with them once they’ve recovered from the trauma of having to pack up, move out and lay off the staff. In any case I wish them well and thank them for producing a truly excellent and inspiring program for these past two years.

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