Public radio WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, is discontinuing broadcasts of This American Life after the show entered into a deal with Pandora. The popular program will leave the WBAA schedule in August. In a brief blog post titled “Mission vs. Economics,” WBAA General Manager Mike Savage said that the decision to air This American Life on a paid subscription service was a key factor in the Indiana station’s decision.
“For a program that got its start on public radio and had some of the best on-air fundraising messages for listeners where Ira Glass says he is volunteering his time because he believes in the mission of public broadcasting, the move by This American Life to Pandora is disingenuous at best,” he wrote.
The big issue in Savage’s critique appears to be Pandora’s paid subscription offering. Yes, there is a paid tier for listeners, but This American Life is fully available to the ad-supported free level. So is Serial, which also got an exclusive deal with Pandora as its streaming partner for true crime show’s second season.
Ira Glass, the show’s host and executive producer, responded directly to Savage’s critique on LinkedIn. “I talked to Mike Savage about this today and he explained that part of his fear is that numbers for This American Life on WBAA were suffering because people are listening to This American Life on Pandora, on our podcast and elsewhere,” Glass wrote. “I can say definitively that from a national perspective, that does not seem to be the case.” He cited a steady weekly audience of 2.2 million listeners on public radio stations, even as the podcast grew to the same number of weekly downloads. “The money we’ve made from podcast advertising and from Pandora is money we’ve invested in our core product: making more ambitious, mission-driven shows,” he added.
It seems unlikely that WBAA will reverse its decision (Savage acknowledged Glass’ response with an “agree to disagree”). This contention over Pandora’s creep into more traditional audio programming demonstrates an unease in how terrestrial radio still sees the digital world.