There was a time not so long ago when the phrase "public radio superstar" would have prompted a scoff or two; but that was before the ascendancy of producer/hosts like Ira Glass and his now-iconic, long-form storytelling show This American Life.
Produced by Chicago's WBEZ, the hourlong show is broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners across the country. A million or so devotees download the podcast each week.
So it was with no small amount of shock that media watchers learned in March that TAL would be breaking with its distributor, Public Radio International, after 17 years. Instead, beginning this month, the show will distribute itself, using story-sharing nonprofit Public Radio Exchange to deliver the audio files to stations and handle billing.
That's undoubtedly bad news for PRI--which won the right to distribute TAL in a bidding war with National Public Radio in 1997--but listeners to KBSX, on Boise State Public Radio, shouldn't notice a difference.
"It won't change anything for us; it's just a different distribution arm than what we've used before," said BSPR Station Manager John Hess. "We'll have to pay a fee to PRX, but it probably won't be much more than what we've been paying to PRI."
More important is what the change might mean for the availability of shows like This American Life. Glass wrote on thisamericanlife.org that PRX's platform, where indie producers can post their work in hopes that stations will pick it up, is about "the democratization of public radio."
"What this signals more is that individual producers want a little more control and to hang onto a little more of that revenue themselves," Hess said. "They're foregoing that middle man."
However, Hess told Boise Weekly the new distribution system could make it easier to work with scheduling for TAL, which KBSX currently broadcasts Saturdays at noon with a replay on Sundays at 2 p.m.
"We think we've got it at a really convenient time for people to find it, but we may end up doing more replays of it--maybe in the evening or a weekday evening," he said. "Our plan is to keep it just where it's at."
That's good news for fans of the show, which Hess said is easily one of the most popular offerings on KBSX.
"Definitely it's in the top 10 of all the shows we have, and I think with a certain demographic--a younger demographic--it's definitely in the top five," Hess said. "It brings in a different audience, a younger audience, to public radio and that's something we want--to rejuvenate and grow the listenership."