Last week American Public Media (“APM”) announced the cancellation of WITS – a national program that debuted with considerable fanfare only a few years ago. The reason: WITS was not sustainable as a national radio program.
There are lessons for everyone in public media from the rise and abrupt fall of WITS. To me, the biggest one is PRODUCE PROGRAMMING FOR THE PLATFORM ON WHICH YOU COMPETE.
Consider this quote from WITS host John Moe after the cancellation:
[We had] no intention of ever *being* a radio show. It was a stage show that snowballed in popularity as the humor got goofier...
It wasn’t designed to succeed as a radio program and it failed because of that fact.
THE VITAL SIGNS
When I heard about the cancellation I went to the WITS pages on the APM website. Here is the WITS track record according to APM:
WITS was heard on over 100 frequencies but many of these signals were HD2 and HD3 stations or repeaters of large state networks like South Dakota Public Radio.
WITS was broadcast on 15 FM stations in the top 50 markets including KJZZ, WHHY, WUOM and KOPB. Missing from the carriage were stations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, DC. Without these key markets, it is hard to be taken seriously as a national program.
According to APM, WITS had a national weekly audience of 80,000. Again, with so few listeners it is hard to be taken seriously as a national program.
• REVENUE FROM STATIONS:
According to APM, WITS was offered free to affiliated stations. APM certainly intended to charge stations carriage fees at some point but the revenue prospects didn’t look good. I counted 42 potential fee paying stations (called billables in the biz). Based on fees for similar programs, this number of billable might yield $70,000 - $80,000 in annual station fee revenue. WITS was not sustainable.
SEARCHING FOR THE NEXT GARRISON KEILLOR
When WITS was launched as a national program, some observers said it might become a younger, hipper replacement for Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor has announced his retirement from APHC at the end of the 2016 season.
The search for the Next Keillor has been going on for years, sort of like the search for the Next Bob Dylan. APM tried to replace Keillor with Noah Adams a couple of decades ago. It didn’t work.
WITS had an opportunity to work. It attracted big-name folks like Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford, David Cross, Father John Misty, Neko Case. APM gave WITS five years to develop. But, as host John Moe admitted, it was never intended for radio.