Public radio at the end of its ‘Wits’

American Public Media announced today that the show, “Wits,” is no more.

John Moe, the host, announced the decision in a letter to fans today.

Dear Witizens,

We’re making some changes and with them comes some hard news. After an amazing few years, Wits, the radio show, is coming to an end.

Decisions like this aren’t easy – especially when a show inspires the kind of fan support Wits has enjoyed. You have helped us sell out our live shows season after season; you have downloaded the podcast along with thousands and thousands of other people; you’ve listened to the public radio show, helping it grow steadily across the country. Wits has been a delight, if not the radio megahit we might have wanted.

This summer, the Wits radio show will be retired. We’ll also suspend live shows for the time being; there will be no stage programs in Minnesota or on the road this fall.

But! You haven’t heard the last of us or of Wits.

We’re going to take all we’ve created and developed and loved and learned and we’re going to look at what a Wits 2.0 might become, in the digital world, eventually on stage, and who knows where else. Our hope is to evolve a version of the show that contains all the fun, passion and creativity you love, but at a cost and pace we can sustain better than before. The landscape of media is changing fast and those in it need to be flexible and nimble.

So be sad but don’t despair. I’m sticking around to create new things, along with Wits co-founder and senior producer Larissa Anderson. In fact, even as you hear less of me on your radio, you’ll be able to hear more of me in your headphones as I and many others involved with Wits will be able to focus our time and energy on bringing more great programming to the Infinite Guest podcast network. Our new project Conversation Parade is just one, really fun example.

Thank you, Witizens, for all you’ve done for us. Here we go, off the radio and on to the future.

John Moe

It’s been three years — almost to the day — since it was announced Moe and “Wits” would be a regular show, which led people — especially me — to consider the possibility that Moe — and perhaps some version of Wits — would replace Garrison Keillor, who wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was his audience. I wrote:

Wits is, to put it succinctly, hip. It attracts the children and grandchildren of Keillor’s audience, which still sets the traditional public radio image. But for how much longer? Public radio needs younger listeners for long-term survival.

Since then, of course, Keillor has handed his show to mandolin player Chris Thile, who doesn’t exactly scream Minnesota but is certainly youthful.

These are certainly trying times for public radio, which is having such a difficult time developing new programs, and giving them the chance to find their way the way “A Prairie Home Companion” did many years ago.

That much is clear just by the fact a staple of the weekend lineup still features a show with a host who’s dead.

When it was announced a few years ago that Car Talk would end production, I asked whether public radio can still take risks, and answered by noting that it’s very much up to the radio audience.

But public radio is a lot more popular now than it was when Car Talk started. I know. I’m from the Boston area and I can assure you, nobody listened to WBUR, the station that produced the program, and where it grew for 10 years before it went national.

A few years ago, when the Smithsonian was asking for it, I encoded the very first A Prairie Home Companion show and it lived online for a few hours, until Keillor asked it be removed. It was, to be kind, not very good. But MPR was a new outfit with not much audience and the risk of trying it out wasn’t going to hurt anybody.

You can do a lot of creative things when nobody listens to your radio station because there’s little downside to taking risk. But not anymore. Public radio has never been more popular and taking a risk has never been more dangerous. The early A Prairie Home Companion would have a most difficult time getting on the air — anywhere — today.

In many ways, public radio’s predicament reveals it’s a victim of its own success as well as the changing technology.

Whether it has a significant future — in whatever platform it chooses to distribute itself — is as much a question today as it was three years ago.

There have been some successes — Brains On strikes me as one of them — and plenty of failures.

It’s a tough pill for us old-timers to accept, as Moe seemed to point out in heartfelt tweets this morning.

It’s too early to declare terrestrial radio dead, but there are few left in it who have worked in it most of their adult lives, believing that the “theater of the mind” is still a place where magic can happen.

These feel like days when we’re watching an old pal in cultural hospice.