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<i>Post</i> Radio Pulled. Why?

You ever get sick of radio because it's too shrill or too ideological? Or you're not quite the NPR type?

Well, bad news. A highly-publicized attempt at breaking out of that mold is going under.

The grand experiment of Washington Post Radio (WTWP) – dubbed "NPR with caffeine" at its outset – has failed. According to the Post's Paul Farhi:

Washington Post Radio, which brought the newspaper's journalists to the local airwaves, will go off the air next month after failing to attract enough listeners and losing money during its 17-month existence.
Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher weighed in early this morning on the "difficult marriage of two very different news cultures," offering why he thought the station never fulfilled its potential:

  • Radio requires different skills. Skills that most print reporters don't have. (Just as print demands different skills of its practitioners.)
  • The station's slogan "There's always more to the story" suggested that listeners could expect more, but focus groups sponsored by a rival NPR station found that listeners weren't getting more. (Full disclosure: That NPR station is WAMU, where I frequently guest-host. But then again, I was a frequent guest on WTWP, so make of that what you will.
  • When the initial format didn't work, the station went for quicker hits on "a more populist and lowbrow selection of stories."

    But all this doesn't mean that the concept of a third way in radio – a hybrid media vehicle of NPR thoughtfulness and talk radio energy – isn't possible. Washington Post Radio was a wobbly step, but it was a step in the right direction. I'm not alone in that opinion. Former WTWP producer Kate Brown said as much in an e-mail:

    The concept of Washington Post Radio in itself was an ingenious endeavor. But while it's inception was a worthy brainchild, it's execution faltered severely. It was launched too quickly without enough thought put into how to effectively navigate a constant and unending turf war between Bonneville and the Washington Post. Constant disagreements ate up precious time and money and detracted severely from producers and hosts' ability to concentrate on quality programming.

    Lines should have been drawn in the sand, long before WTWP hit the airwaves, but unfortunately, in their hurried attempt to make radio history, the lines weren't drawn until it was too late. The Post had a product to sell and one surely can't blame them for making that their top priority. But newspaper doesn't always translate well to radio, and the attempt to put print into broadcast form often resulted in tedious, dull programming.

    Bonneville looked at The Washington Post as an unyielding source of content. But not all print reporters, brilliant and talented as they may be, are meant to be heard on the radio.

    It was a grand experiment that, if ever duplicated, needs to be achieved in a more thoughtful, measured way. With less emphasis on "finding the magic formula," and more on quality content.

    In the end, producers and on-air talent (the lifeblood of any good programming staff) should have been listened to more, Post executives should have been listened to less, and more solid direction should have been established from the get-go. Checking a few very over-inflated egos at the door might have proven helpful as well.

    As I wrote years ago, there is a market for the "midbrow" listener who wants more than headlines but less than a lecture. For evidence, look no further than the increased viewership and/or hits being gained by nontraditional media like online publications, blogs and even international outlets. But it's going to take skilled talkers to deliver this content, and most reporters feel more at home in front of a keyboard than a microphone. So the key will be in finding friendly and personable talkers who can discuss the news, not sell a political agenda or wander into professor-speak.

    If someone builds it, listeners will come.

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