Matson on Music
Luke Burbank's thriving "Too Beautiful to Live" podcast records live shows at Columbia City Theater with Sir Mix-A-Lot, Blue Scholars, The Long Winters
Posted by Andrew Matson
Luke Burbank — ex-journalist, hip guy, good talker and comedian — didn't necessarily want to become a home-studio podcaster. That was just the best way to retain his audience and momentum when KIRO AM canceled his talk/music show, "Too Beautiful To Live," last September over low ratings.
But with TBTL's (tbtl.net) current number of those downloading the show dwarfing its old listener numbers and various monetization techniques actually working, he seems to know what he's doing.
Burbank stages a version of TBTL called "Summer Slam 2010" Friday and Saturday nights at the Columbia City Theater with guests Sir Mix-A-Lot, The Long Winters, Rachel Flotard, Andy Haynes, and Ben Huh on Friday (sold out), and Blue Scholars, Smoosh, Say Hi, and Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings on Saturday (almost sold out). Tickets are $35.
"Since the show's been growing a lot, people have been approaching me to give these little talks," says Burbank, who says TBTL averaged 200,000 radio listeners a month in 2009 and now gets almost 2 million downloads in the same span in 2010.
"They want me to show up and be the voice of this thing, this idea, 'the digital future of radio.' And I don't know if I'm that at all."
Admittedly, Burbank's not the most tech-savvy guy, but he behaves like an Internet-literate millennial, and as indie rappers say, is on his grind.
"TBTL is basically an audio blog," he says. Like a blogger, he plays DJ/analyst to other outlets' stories/reportage as much as generates his own content about the news of the day and discerning-person's pop entertainment. TBTL's business models are borrowed as well, hustled together from public and private radio. Last January's pledge drive will sustain it for nearly a year, and KIRO still sells ads for the podcast, which it hosts at www.mynorthwest.com, recently inking a deal with Ford. Burbank possesses blogger traits and values, compulsively oversharing and maintaining extreme transparency, relating his daily struggles with body weight and alcohol consumption.
"The trust between me and my audience, that's all I have," he says.
His interaction with indie rock culture isn't forced, either. Burbank's natural tastes run to underdog snobby, like local labels Sub Pop and Barsuk Records, whose artists get TBTL airtime. Burbank calls his audience "the Tens," as in quantity, paralleling the former label's self-deprecating aesthetic; he channels the latter's bookish cool, with obscure pop culture references and the odd literary nod.
Grass-roots as TBTL is, Burbank ends up innovating on the fly, and his podcast runs a strong parallel to underground rap culture, which uses message boards and blogs to promote itself by any means necessary. It's all sincere and functional, and applied to Burbank's vague morning-show-style format, translates as a brand.
"It's not the quality of 'This American Life,'" he says, "but I think TBTL works for that type of person. A sort of overeducated, slightly over navel-gazey, hipster-type person."
From years working at NPR, Burbank's seen "next big things" come and go — he was one, back when he covered Congress in his 20s — and he's reticent to call himself the digital future of radio because the designation sets him up for failure. It puts in the ether a day when that's no longer the case. But for now, it is. He is. Whether he wants to be or not. And though he's not trying to toot his own horn, he feels good not to be floundering.
"I felt there was a way to do a show like this and get enough people listening to it, so that you could make it financially doable,'' he said. "And it's happening. And I feel very satisfied by that."
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