When the management of KIRO radio told Luke Burbank that his show, Too Beautiful to Live, was being taken off the air effective September 11, he wasn't surprised.
"It's like the prophecy has come to pass," said Burbank, who, with longtime producer Jen Andrews, built an eclectic, musically hip, and unabashedly nerdy evening show around the idea that it was far too, well, beautiful to survive on a talk-radio station controlled by the Mormon Church and accustomed to a formula of outrage and traffic reports.
"The least surprised guy to get fired is, like, that guy from FEMA—the 'heckuva job, Brownie' guy—and then me," said Burbank, 33, who KIRO management originally brought on in January 2008 in an attempt to capture a younger demographic. Instead, ratings showed that Too Beautiful to Live, which lasted for 395 on-air episodes, was hurting the station more than it helped.
"It was, like, chasing away their listeners," said Burbank.
Rod Arquette, KIRO's program director, agreed. "It didn't appear to be working," he said. "It just didn't seem to fit with the overall theme of what KIRO is about."
Which might suggest that Arquette and Burbank would now be speedily parting ways. Instead, something unusual is happening. The station is paying Burbank through the end of the year to do the show online—where TBTL, as it's known by fans, had its biggest success—and Arquette, asked if Burbank is free to take the concept elsewhere come January 1, is saying: "We're going to have to negotiate... I'm not sure who owns what."
The reason for the hedging: While TBTL was an on-air ratings failure, it was a hit online, drawing more than 225,000 podcast download hours last month. "Which is a huge number," Arquette said, noting that no other KIRO radio show has anything close to that large an online following. The younger listeners were, in fact, tuning in. From all over the country. They just weren't using the same equipment that KIRO's general audience uses.
Arquette knows this and wants, if he can, to preserve the option for KIRO to somehow make money off of an online-only broadcast of TBTL in the future. Burbank, who on September 14 began webcasting the show out of a small room in his Mount Baker house, said any attempt by KIRO to exert control over the show's future probably wouldn't be hostile—"These people aren't jerks," he said—and could ultimately be a compliment. "I think if we're fighting about who owns TBTL when my contract is up, that's a good thing," Burbank said. "Because it means there are multiple parties who are interested."
But, Burbank added, he's trademarked the show's name, owns the web addresses now associated with it (including www.tbtl .net, the show's new homepage), and recently formed a limited liability corporation to manage its financial future. He believes the show is his, and he's hoping to follow the model of Adam Carolla, who in February had his popular morning radio show canceled—and then, a few days later, launched The Adam Carolla Podcast, which drew more than 1.5 million downloads in its first week.
Assuming Burbank can clear any legal hurdles that may be involved in parting ways with KIRO, can he actually make a living running TBTL out of a Mount Baker craftsman with creaky wood floors and—at the moment—doing it with just a webcam, a laptop, a mic, and a borrowed monitor set up on a $60 IKEA table? He thinks so. "Really, it costs nothing to do the podcast," he said. Scheduled for his first week of online-only broadcast: interviews with John Hodgman, the Long Winters, and, fittingly, Carolla. Fans have offered to intern, make iPhone apps, and donate money; one even appeared at his door the first day and delivered popcorn.
"It's like a fucking radio barn-raising," Burbank said. "The whole little town of nerds shows up."