On the Media: Open up

I’m a fan and loyal listener of On the Media. They devoted their entire show this week to the fate and future of the book and though it had plenty of good segments, I was frustrated listening to it because I knew of other interviews I wish they’d done that I could have suggested — if only they’d asked.

And so it struck me that On the Media should open up the process of making its show. When they decide to make an entire episode about one media topic — which I encourage to forestall the show’s slide into becoming just another politics and public affairs show — why shouldn’t they tell the audience — media-savvy, by definition — and ask them who they know and what they want to know. They could tell us what they’re thinking of making and we could beat that. If the BBC can publish its rundown for a daily news show to ask for input, why can’t OtM?

I would have told them about the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is doing fascinating work about not only the form of the book but the process of writing. I would have suggested that they report more about the new benefits being digital brings to books — being searchable, linkable, lasting. I might have liked to have heard a debate about John Updike’s screed against digital at the booksellers’ convention a year ago. I could have sent them lots of links about all this (and I’m not pushing to be interviewed myself… though it has been awhile). I know that many members of their audience would have had more more good suggestions.

OtM did invite listener participation. They asked us to submit 12-word novels and they read the 12 best. They were amazed at the response; that should tell them something. They asked us to design their T-shirt. And that’s cute. But it’s just a tad — albeit unintentionally — condescending: ‘Go play there, listeners, but we won’t let you in to affect the real show.’

I’m not blaming OtM’s crew. They’re operating under habit, the way it has been done forever, the only way it could be done, before the internet. But if any show should shake things up and change the way a show is made, shouldn’t it be this one?

Brian Lehrer’s public-radio show is mobilizing its audience to report. I’d like to see show’s enable their audiences to create.

  • Jeff, you are making the unwarranted assumption that a program like this is trying to cover an aspect of society rather than trying to illustrate a point of view that they have already adopted.

    OtM is better than most of the media it covers because they take a jaundiced view of much of what passes for “objective” reporting. This is their basic theme: the media could do better.

    It would dilute their message to give illustrations that are counter examples. Furthermore the threats (in this case to book publishing) are much greater than the successes of new initiatives and they may feel that, given the limited amount of time they have, the dangers need to be covered exclusively.

    This isn’t to say that you aren’t right that the press should be soliciting more input from its audience.

  • The Institute for the Future of the Book is interesting…but I should probably point out your hyperlink to it is broken… How’s that for input….

  • Just like Chris Lydon’s (for a moment defunct and now reborn) radio show, Open Source (http://www.radioopensource.org). Great post, Jeff.

  • SteveSgt

    Sometimes, Jeff, too many cooks can and do spoil the soup. Often, you’re better off to have those two different soups at two different meals, and let the cooks express themselves uniquely in each instance.

    I think OtM does what they do well BECAUSE it’s a tight-knit group of relatively like-minded people putting it together. If hundreds or thousands of people started having their say into how each and every interview gets edited, each and every story is researched, each and every story is selected for the show, I think it would loose the focus that makes it so informative and engaging now.

    As a media producer myself, I certainly would love to get a lot more feedback than I do. But I think my job would be unwieldy if I opened every step of the process up to a committee.

  • I’m a big fan of OTM as well.

    I think they can keep their point of view, and at the same time open it up a little bit. They could benefit from learning stuff viewers send their way they don’t even know about that will support their point of view.

  • I tuned into this episode of OTM. I was listing via streaming video via WGLT, by the way.

    I was struck by one one of the guests said, namely that if ever single newspaper and book printing on dead trees were suddenly available only online, the result would be an vastly improved environment.

    Thank about it. Not only would much of the logging end, so would the environmentally hazardous process of milling and pulping trees. There would be no need to transport all that lumber and paper by truck and train. Think of all the landfill space that would open up all of the sudden.

    And consider how it would democratize the publishing world. Suddenly owning a printing press would NOT make one a gatekeeper. Everyone would be able to be a publisher.

    The only thing stopping it would be the sentiment I heard expressed over and over on OTM: “Doggone it. I like to turn pages.”

  • Jeff —

    Point definitely taken. Getting listeners involved, and taking that involvement to entirely new levels, is key to On The Media’s mission. In fact, we are already at work developing deep projects that tap the power of our audience — and you will see the fruits of these efforts in the coming months.

    I was happy you mentioned the Brian Lehrer team’s early crowdsourcing efforts, which we are continuing to prototype and expand on — not only within the BL show, but also our new national morning show, our newsroom, and of course, OTM.

    It makes sense for OTM to peel away layers of the media-making onion even with our own show … and it’s good to remember that to get people involved, sometimes all we have to do is ask.

    John Keefe

    Executive Producer, On The Media

    and Senior Executive Producer for News, WNYC Radio

  • Terrific to see John Keefe is listening. OtM is my favorite podcast. My NPR stations (in Seattle, then Idaho) don’t pick it up so I’d never heard of it and it’s a great show I started listening to in the last year or so. If John, Brooke and Bob haven’t read “Wisdom of Crowds”, it’s worth their time as it gives some guidelines for how to take in the collective intelligence of the crowd.

    As Jeff has said on numerous occasions, the power of magazines that they’ve squandered is their community. OtM could be much more than a 1-hour program if it wanted to be. It could be a franchise that expanded upon its foundation.

  • Several of our shows have started to open up their production activities pretty aggressively, including Bryant Park Project, Talk of the Nation and News and Notes. All three of them are embracing user input, particularly through their blogs. They’ve used the blogs to solicit story ideas, identify interview subjects, take questions and critique our content. And it’s not just shows; reporter Ketzel Levine has a blog and Flickr group, which she uses in part to mine for story ideas and content. In all of these cases, sometimes a story begins as a user comment on a blog, perhaps escalates to a full blog post, then becomes an on-air piece, which in turn gets mentioned on the blog for more user comment, going full circle.

    Part of the challenge has been the process of simply updating our online infrastructure to allow for greater public participation, but we’re beginning to make some progress. In the meantime, some of the shows have begun launching Facebook presences to give users another venue to offer input and discuss things among themselves. These activities, of course, just scratch the surface of what we’re planning on doing, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re just warming up. :-)