On his morning show on January 14, Darren Pitra asked with mock exasperation: "Haven't we learned enough?"
Just a year ago, the answer to that question would have been simple: Absolutely.
Pitra and Dave Levora have been on-air morning-show partners for nearly 11 years - as "Dave & Darren in the Morning" - so it's no surprise that these old radio pros have an easy rapport, or that they breezed through the show of comedy and conversation without a lull.
There was a bit about a beer brewed with smoked whale testicles, a recurring motif of the perils - sometimes self-inflicted - of being a bus driver, and evidence of both men having way too much familiarity with the live-action Flintstones movies. They roped me in as a guest - sorry, listeners! - and asked off-the-cuff questions that were thoughtful and insightful without ever getting too serious. Their routine is smooth and comfortable - a warm welcome to the day for listeners tuned in to their favorite radio station.
Except that the show wasn't on the radio at all, instead a podcast on Dave & Darren's NachoRadio.com - which was launched in October after Pitra and Levora lost their jobs at Rock 104-9.
So the learning must continue.
The January 14 podcast was run through a new mixing console, for one thing, and because of that the pair could have three people on the show simultaneously instead of just themselves. (Again: Sorry, listeners!) Pitra and Levora for several months couldn't get firm numbers on how many people were listening to Nacho Radio's two streaming-music stations, and they still can't tell you the geographic breakdown of their podcast listenership except in the vague sense of being strongest in Illinois and Iowa.
For the first times in their careers, they're not just on-air personalities but salespeople and tech guys and accountants and ... .
"We've never been businessmen before," Pitra said.
"Always been employees," Levora added.
Walking the Plank on a Sinking Ship
For more than a decade, the Dave & Darren show was a staple of Quad Cities FM radio, first on 96.9 and then - after being bumped from that station by Dwyer & Michaels in 2007 - 104.9.
But Townsquare Media acquired 53 Cumulus stations in late 2013 - including Dave & Darren's - and a country format was unveiled for 104.9 in July 2014. The duo was out of a job, and what's-next conversations that had been happening for years got more specific and urgent - leading to the October 1 launch of Nacho Radio.
Levora said he knew the radio gig wasn't going to last. "There was always the general, hanging-over-your-head [feeling] that FM radio is a dying thing," he said. "I used to make the analogy all the time that I felt like I was a blacksmith, and the Model Ts were rolling down the street. The technology had changed to such a degree that doing a show on FM radio ... was not a forever thing."
"The technology gives the consumer more choices," Pitra said. "It's not that they're not listening to radio [or other audio-entertainment products]. They do, but they don't listen to it in the same way."
Levora said that younger consumers - specifically Generation X and Millennials - "look at radio as: This is someone else's iPod, and there's commercials on it. And they have no need for that, because they know they can be in complete control of the content. They don't have to sit through nine-minute commercial sweeps."
And that's not the only problem youthful listeners have with radio, he added: "They think that radio is inauthentic, because it's all about hype, it's all about 'We play the most,' 'We're the best.' People in their 20s hear that, and their bullshit alarms go off so fast. They want nothing to do with it. Radio is run by 50- and 60- and 40-year-old guys who are used to the way things used to sound in the '80s."
So Levora (who's 42) said he and Pitra (who's 50) knew they wouldn't work in radio for even another decade. "Watching that industry implode, I'm going to take some degree of pleasure in that," he said. "Because ... we walked the plank on a sinking ship. ...
"We always thought we'd get rescued by some small-time operation, and it turns out: We are the small-time operation."
"We're Still in Our Infancy"
It is a small-time operation, in pretty much every way. The podcast is streamed and recorded starting at 9 a.m. weekdays from Levora's kitchen. When I was there, the dishwasher was running and the Today show was on a television in the background. Levora had a laptop in front of him, while Pitra brought some papers, including sponsor promos to read.
NachoRadio.com at this point consists of two streaming-music stations - Planet ALT with alternative music and Solid with rock music, both curated by Levora - and the Dave & Darren podcast.
The audience is modest so far. Levora and Pitra said they typically have 100 to 125 live listeners for the podcast. When they checked the audiences for the music stations, Planet ALT had 12 listeners and a peak that day of 35. Solid had 21 listeners and a peak that day of 203. Combined, Levora said the two streams now have 10,000 listeners each week.
Billing and costs to-date are presently measured in the thousands of dollars rather than the tens of thousands. Ads sell for $10 apiece, and Pitra said Nacho Radio has a dozen sponsors at this point.
"Most people still don't even know what we're doing," Levora said. "We're still in our infancy."
Yet for a nascent enterprise, there are promising signs. After 74 podcasts, the duo had amassed downloads approaching half a million - an average of nearly 6,300 downloads per podcast. (This does not include those listening live.) The first episode has been downloaded more than 16,000 times.
"If you would have told Darren and I that in January we'd be approaching half a million podcast downloads," Levora said, "we would have said, 'There's no way.' I don't think we knew enough about the business to have projections or goals as far as how many people would participate live and how many people would download the podcast. ... We knew that we wanted to continue to do the show. We're not smart enough to be able to say, 'This is how many people we think we'll have.'"
The Nuclear Option
Pitra said he and Levora might have talked as many as five years ago about podcasting as an alternative to being on the radio. But they didn't get beyond the basic idea until their Rock 104-9 careers ended.
"As far as serious nuts-and-bolts conversations - we're going to do a podcast, we're going to do two streaming stations, we're going to call it Nacho Radio - that discussion happened in July ... after we gave ourselves a couple days to process what the hell had happened," Levora said.
He added that they considered trying to stay in radio: "We were wondering if maybe we would get a job across the street. Maybe we would go to Clear Channel [iHeartMedia]."
Regardless of what form it took, Pitra and Levora felt strongly about continuing the show. "It was a brand we spent 10 years developing," Levora said.
Ultimately they opted for the present and future of the Internet rather than the at-least-temporarily-more-lucrative past of radio broadcasting. "We had three months of severance," Levora said. "The way we looked at it was we were being paid to develop our own company."
And the podcasting/streaming-music combination was a natural choice for keeping the brand alive - although both Levora and Pitra said it wouldn't have happened without getting canned.
"This was a much easier thing to do when it was our nuclear option," Levora said. "I would not have had the courage to do this on my own, even knowing this is the way it's going" in the radio business.
Certainly, it's more comfortable to go to work than to be in charge of everything. Unexpected challenges included getting responses from Web designers, and trying to figure out how many people were actually listening to the music stations.
"You would think that if someone is hosting your stream, they would be able to tell you how many people are listening to you," said Pitra, who handles the bulk of the business aspects of Nacho Radio. "That's not the case." He added that January is the first month for which there are "super-accurate" numbers.
("We want accurate numbers," Pitra said, in large part because broadcast radio can't provide those to advertisers. Added Levora: "FM radio will go to you with data that is six months old and is an estimate of what the audience is. We can tell you right now exactly how many people are listening. ... It's not an estimate.")
Expected challenges included not having the stability of a corporate job. Yet Levora said he'd rather be earning less money to be "able to do the kind of show that we want to do, to put out the kind of music that people say they want."
That's true even with the added responsibilities. "Being a sales guy was never something I put on my list of things I really wish I could be, but we're not going door-to-door selling vacuum cleaners," Levora said. "We're going door-to-door selling something we believe in. We believe in it enough that we're putting all of our eggs in this basket. ... And it is getting heard."
"That makes it easier," Pitra said.
And even though there's the potential for a global audience that wasn't there on Quad Cities radio, Levora and Pitra don't have aspirations for world domination.
"No one in Utah was pissed off that we got fired in July," Levora said. "This is where we're from, and this is where our audience is. ... It's not like we're national figures that started a podcast."
That's also true in soliciting advertising. "We continue to try to reach out to people that we consider to be part of the fabric of the Quad Cities," Pitra said. "Let's not pretend that it's not a Quad Cities operation."
Obvious, and Obviously Smart
Because the podcasting-and-streaming-music idea was so obvious, both Levora and Pitra said they worried that their build-up to Nacho Radio's launch would be greeted by something less than enthusiasm. "You set us up for this?" Levora said. "You're doing a podcast?"
Yet even though something in the vein of Nacho Radio seems a logical next step for fired radio personalities, the differences between over-the-air radio and Nacho Radio underscore the problems that the former is going to continue to have; this is two radio guys doing pretty much what they always did, but in a way that sidesteps the annoyances and pitfalls of commercial radio.
In other words, Nacho Radio shows why commercial stations will ultimately need to become something much different to survive, especially when the Internet is a standard feature in the last stronghold of radio broadcasting: the automobile.
The weekday podcast typically runs 75 minutes, and it has more Dave & Darren content than their old four-and-a-half-hour radio show. Because the content is condensed, they can play off earlier jokes and bits without losing the audience. Because the talk isn't interspersed with commercials and music, they can talk about something as long as they'd like. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
The podcast can be consumed whenever and wherever its audience wants. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
Dave & Darren aren't interrupted by minutes-long blocks of commercials. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
The music isn't interrupted by minutes-long blocks of commercials. The music stations have a maximum of three one-minute commercials each hour, all separated by music. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
If you like the music, it's not interrupted by the morning-show shtick. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
If you like the morning-show shtick, it's not interrupted by the music. Advantage: Nacho Radio.
Because Levora selects all the music for the streaming stations, he's not constrained by commercial radio's limited corporate playlists. He said his songs for the alternative station could run for more than seven days without a repeat, and the rock station could go more than 22 days without the same song being played twice. "It's hand-crafted," Levora said. "It provides an infinitely better experience than these [corporate] playlists." Advantage: Nacho Radio, unless you really, really like hearing the same songs several times each day.
Yet being a superior conceptual model doesn't ensure financial success, and a decade as a successful team on the radio doesn't necessarily translate into an equivalent audience online.
That highlights the one very large advantage commercial radio has over Levora and Pitra: the ability to absorb losses over a long period of time.
Can't Walk Away
Yet Levora and Pitra seem realistic in their expectations. They know they're not going to make enough money this year to cover their costs plus their old radio salaries. And they've planned for that.
"We can certainly survive 2015," Pitra said. "And if for some reason we find that, going into 2016, we need to modify things ... . I would think at the very least we'll continue to do the podcast."
"If the [music] stations don't grow to a point where it makes sense to keep doing them, we could pull the plug on those," Levora said. (Alternatively, if the music stations sell out their three-ads-per-hour inventories, Levora and Pitra will consider adding new streams.)
They know that their podcast and music streams have limited rather than broad appeal.
They know that audiences won't just find them. Pitra said he's looking forward to better weather, for opportunities to personally put the Nacho Radio app on people's phones. "There are still plenty of people that don't know about us," he said.
And they know that they might not generate enough revenue to enable them to keep doing Nacho Radio as their only employment.
But the great thing about a 70- to 75-minute podcast five days a week is that it doesn't preclude other jobs.
"If I have to get a job driving a bus to support my family, I'm happy to do that," Levora said. "But there's nothing to say I can't still spend an hour with my pal here and do the podcast."
Added Pitra: "And sell the podcast."
"When you have 500,000 downloads, I don't think that's something you can walk away from," Levora said. "We were right not to throw it all away, not to say in July, 'Well, we had a great run, but now it's time to do something else.'"