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Podcasters gotta eat; Tom Scharpling to end The Best Show on WFMU

Tom Scharpling and Julie Klausner at RadioVision 2013

Tom Scharpling and Julie Klausner at RadioVision 2013

Tom Scharpling announced on his program Tuesday that he is ending The Best Show on WFMU, broadcasting its final episode on December 17. Over the course of 13 years The Best Show has grown for itself a sizable and loyal nationwide audience that enjoys the host’s unique mix of on-air rants, real listener calls and improvised guests and calls in character from comedy partner and Superchunk drummer Jon Wuster and other well-known comedians, like Patton Oswalt and John Hodgman.

The Best Show has a uniquely strong audience for a community radio program. This stems from a few factors. Importantly, WFMU is located inside the nation’s largest radio market. But the station has also been a leader in archiving its programs online, giving The Best Show a strong internet presence from the very beginning. And one must not underestimate how much The Best Show benefits from the popularity of comedy podcasts in general, along with having famous friends drop by.

In making the announcement at the end of his show, Scharpling said “It is a huge commitment… It’s hard to do something that’s more or less a full-time job for free. I’ve done it for as long as I can do it… the reality of this is I can’t sustain my life and this show and the commitment it takes to do it right.”

This is a sentiment that many a college or community radio broadcaster can understand. I’ve known dozens of people during my time in radio who pour enormous energy and passion into producing programs on noncommercial stations, with their only return being the intrinsic satisfaction of doing it, and perhaps the recognition of listeners and peers.

While some are able to do it for years or decades, others find that saturation point, where the time and stamina of producing a radio show week after week starts to compete too aggressively with other responsibilities. Or they find that, like Scharpling concluded, they can’t continue to do it at the level of quality with the amount of energy they have left to dedicate.

I’ve been there myself a couple of times. Most recently, I ended production of my weekly radio program and podcast Mediageek at the end of 2009, after producing it for seven years and racking up fifteen affiliate stations. I simply found that the weekly grind of producing a half-hour news and information show–for free–was not compatible with having a challenging full-time job and some semblance of a social life.

This is the difficult flip side to independent media. While we should be supportive of platforms and technologies–like community radio and podcasting–that greatly lower the bar for people to communicate to large audiences and communities, the sustainability of these individual efforts must be considered, not just the sustainability of the platforms. That’s what was on my mind when I asked the Scharpling-led comedy podcast panel at RadioVision how sustainable their podcasts will be in the face of other professional demands, or a dry period. That was only two weeks ago, and come to think of it, I don’t think Scharpling really gave an answer to that question.

Most fundamentally, a potential radio producer or host needs to be able to put food on the table and pay the rent before she can think about making a show. While some people have the means, time or simple drive and wherewithal to create something, sometimes with little regard to their material circumstances, this isn’t something we should expect or demand of our independent media creators.

As I was finishing writing this piece, I stumbled upon the transcript for a talk given by Christina Xu at the XOXO festival in Portland this past September which also gets at this conflict, from the perspective of independent publishing:

“A system that depends on trailblazing for success will see two groups of winners: a small group of exceptionally talented/hardworking/lucky people, and people who have the privilege (wealth, education, social connections, otherwise) to try stuff without worrying about the full weight of failure. Everyone else, all the creators who are talented but don’t want to or can’t afford to risk everything, will shy away.”

I would add that the first group–the exceptionally talented/hardworking/lucky–may win, but may also burn out in time. In many ways Tom Scharpling is a member of this first group who won, by creating a program over the course of more than a decade that garnered a significant fan base. But The Best Show still doesn’t put food on the table, even if it may have opened up other opportunities for him. Is this really a win?

This is an enormous question, for which I have no easy answers. Access for creating and distributing mass media has become greatly democratized in the last two decades. Access to funding and making a basic living as a media maker is not yet so democratized. Independent media–community radio, podcasting, internet broadcasting, etc.–will continue to face problems with sustainability until we figure out how to bring these two things into better alignment.

Podcasters and community broadcasters gotta eat. We shouldn’t expect them to starve for our art.

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