Don't touch that NPR dial

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'Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me'

Peter Sagal reads over lines before a live taping of "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" at the Chase Auditorium last year. (Tribune photo 2011 / July 13, 2012)

But none of these is ready now or in the near future to carry the kind of audience load of a "Car Talk" or "Wait Wait," contends Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president for programming. 

He argues, and much of the public radio establishment seems to agree with him, that leaving the nouveau version of "Car Talk" in place is the responsible, audience-friendly move, one that will ultimately help all the other programs.

Arguing the other side, more or less, has been a Chicago contingent.  

"This American Life" host Glass, in an opinion piece in Current, the trade journal of public broadcasting, argued for taking the new "Car Talk" out of the prime Saturday morning spot that the show, public radio's most popular in terms of how many listen in an average quarter-hour, now occupies. 

"A show that's 100 percent reruns doesn't fit with our mission as public broadcasters. I don't think it's justifiable," Glass wrote.

"Especially not in a time slot that's essentially primetime on weekends. Run 'Car Talk' late nights maybe. Or Sunday night. But not on Saturday mornings. If we're going to have a program that continues on our air forever like 'I Love Lucy' reruns, it should be in the time slots 'Lucy' migrated to.

"For all of public radio's successes, the part of our mission we've always neglected the most is innovation."

Torey Malatia, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Media agrees, and WBEZ won't be running the new (old) "Car Talk" in any time slot come October. The reason is a combination of mission and economics. 

"Keeping the audience interested in the medium has a lot to do with refreshing the product and introducing new ideas," he said, arguing that you can't just think about serving the largest possible audience.

"If that's what you were concerned about, you could say ('Car Talk') is still going to work," said Malatia. "Most people aren't going to know. … People turn on the radio and they hear something delightful, and they're going to enjoy it, right? But, again, I think if you have prime audience time, you should be very thoughtful about what you're offering. You should try to offer things that are both enjoyable but also stimulating, creative, new, exciting." 

He'd consider, as Glass suggested, moving what he called "CGI Car Talk" to somewhere else on the schedule, but National Public Radio "is not really changing the pricing," he said.

At almost $44,000 a year, it is the station's most expensive weekly show. ("Prairie Home Companion" costs $53,500, but it's two hours. "Wait Wait" and "This American Life" would cost, if Chicago Public Radio weren't involved in producing them, roughly $25,000 and $15,000, respectively. Stations in smaller cities pay less.)

He does not sense, however, that he's leading any sort of uprising among stations: "The little that I've heard when I've called around (to peers) is that people just haven't made up their minds, which I think means people are just going to leave the status quo going," Malatia said. 

One of them, Dave Becker, the program director for Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas, made headlines within the industry when he decided to drop "Prairie Home Companion," a show that, he said, "never had much of an audience" on his station and has been losing some of what it had. 

That decision was strictly financial — an expensive, not-super-popular show on a station "struggling like crazy" in a region with a challenged economy — and had nothing to do with whether or not "PHC" will end one of these years. "Garrison, every couple of years, he seems to say, 'Well, I think I'm gonna call it quits,' but then he says, 'I was just kidding,'" Becker said. "It's like Lucy and the football."

But while Becker may be ahead of a curve with "Prairie Home," he will gladly continue to carry "Car Talk."

"I'm happy to hear that the producers are going to work on what amounts to an evergreen show," he said. "I would bet money that we're all going to kind of continue to carry the show and then gauge listener response after maybe three or six months." 

Which brings us back to the question of why public radio seems to have this conservative streak, this reverence for long-running hits and resistance to change that is, as Sagal pointed out, completely different from the "creative churn that you've got in commercial broadcasting." 

"Why is it so hard to launch new shows?" he said.

"We have all these conditions that are ripe for invention, the leading one of which is, of course, the strange irony, that most people don't understand, which is that (programming choices) are up to the individual stations." 

There's no public radio ruler saying, thou shalt carry such and such, as there is in even public television.

But in a blog post he wrote after the initial "Car Talk" announcement, Sagal — who acknowledges that "Wait Wait" would not have survived some rocky early years without some very noncommercial forbearance from the public radio system — supplied something of an answer to his own questions. 

At first, he wrote, "I didn't care much for 'Car Talk.' I considered myself way too smart and sophisticated for Tom and Ray and their braying laughter and their silly jokes. But as I struggled with 'Wait Wait' to become even a fraction as successful as they were, I learned to appreciate, and then admire, and then finally envy their ease, the way they were able to project the best part of their characters through the radio, every week, to an audience that loved them for doing just that."

What the audience values is, he elaborated in the interview, consistency and authenticity. And that, on the left end of the dial, is what they get, for better or worse.

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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