The Good Ship HPR (HPR Show 2255)

Dave Morriss


Table of Contents

Hacker Public Radio

What is it?

The podcast called Hacker Public Radio (HPR) is an amazing phenomenon. It has been providing an episode a day every weekday for years, and these episodes originate from the community.

I heard someone refer to HPR as “Crowd Sourced” which seemed like a good way of describing things. It is an open access resource which is managed under various Creative Commons licences, usually CC-BY-SA.

The content is very broad in scope. Anything “of interest to Hackers” is acceptable, which is interpreted in a wide variety of ways.

Access to shows is open to all through the HPR site, where shows back to episode 1 can be browsed, notes read, etc. There are feeds which propagate various updates: to shows, series, comments and email. Current shows are archived to the Internet Archive (archive.org) within a few days of appearing in the main feed, and older shows are gradually being archived this way with the intention of eventually storing everything there.

For example, to find show 1999 on archive.org look for https://archive.org/details/hpr1999. The entire HPR collection can be browsed (and searched) at https://archive.org/details/hackerpublicradio.

Some history

As you can see, if you examine the details on the website statistics page the predecessor of HPR started more than 11 years ago as “Today With A Techie”, transforming into “Hacker Public Radio” over 9 years ago.

Started:            11 years, 4 months, 12 days ago (2005-10-10)
Renamed HPR:        9 years, 1 months, 20 days ago (2007-12-31)

In the earlier days the frequency of show release was not the predictable 5 per week, every weekday, that it is now. There were gaps, sometimes of several days, and occasionally shows came out on the weekend. Stability was achieved in October 20121 and there have been no gaps since then!

There are currently 280 hosts who have contributed shows at some point in the history of HPR, and at the time of writing in February 2017 show number 2230 has been released. The number of episodes and hosts will be greater when the episodes from “Today With A Techie” are incorporated into the archive.

The Hacker Public Radio experiment has been very successful over the years, but there is a certain fragility in the way it works, and that is the reason for doing this episode.

The Problem

The big gotcha is that HPR needs a steady supply of contributions to keep releasing one show every weekday, and sometimes the supply dries up.

HPR needs approximately 52*5=260 shows per year (which coincidentally means that one show from each registered host per year would easily clinch the deal!). However, the rate of supply is not reliable. Sometimes there are plenty of shows in the queue, but at other times the supply dwindles and the future of HPR looks very much in doubt.

There is a small buffer of emergency shows held for use if there is a gap in the schedule 24 hours prior to release. This emergency queue currently contains 8 shows, but there has been debate over whether this is a good idea.

It was April 2016 when I started planning this episode, and HPR had just been through a bit of a crisis in the supply of shows. The queue was down to the last few shows and was almost about to run out. An appeal for shows went out and it was great to see how people stepped up and provided them.

Then things went quiet and the state of shortage started to loom again, though it did not become as severe. It took another appeal on a Community News show to restart the flow. Then another shortage happened towards the middle of August, and so it went on – and tends to go on. You only need to look at the sawtooth shape of the graph on the calendar page to see what I mean.

This is a feature of what has been described as the “Community Internet Radio” model that defines HPR:

feast” followed by “famine” followed by “feast” and so on.

In a recent conversation about this problem I likened the situation to a leaky ship - “The Good Ship HPR”. The ship is always in danger of sinking unless we keep emptying the water out by bailing. There are at least 280 crew members who have buckets and can help with emptying the water, but there are also many more passengers who could grab a bucket and join in! Everyone needs to take a turn: it’s not reasonable to expect just a few crew members to keep the ship from sinking beneath the waves.

As mentioned earlier, in the past 12 months (12th April 2016 to be precise) HPR reached the point where the queue was almost completely out of shows. After calls for help from Ken on the mailing list and in the form of a show, many people stepped up and made a contribution bringing things back to a much healthier state.

This is wonderful, but it’s not the way to run “The Good Ship HPR”. We can’t have water washing over the decks before we start bailing! It needs to be a constant process.

Statistics

Let’s look at some recent statistics (collected at the time of writing: 2017-02-19):

  • In the past 12 months 67 hosts (some new) have contributed 260 shows.
  • In this period 22 new hosts have done their first show and have gone on to contribute 56 shows in total between them.

The following table breaks down the contributions:

  >10 shows between 5 and 10 <5 shows
Hosts 5 10 52
Shows 87 73 100
Percentage 33.46% 28.08% 38.46%

The table shows the number of episodes contributed by the 5 people who each did over 10 episodes in the last year: 87. This was 33.46% of the episodes needed. The 10 people contributing between 5 and 10 episodes recorded 73 episodes (28.08%) and the remaining 100 (38.46%) came from 52 people contributing fewer than 5 shows.

The table below shows the number of new hosts joining over the lifetime of HPR. Remember that HPR was created on the 31st December 2007, so there was not much time for new hosts to join that year!

Calendar year Number of new hosts
2007 1
2008 47
2009 19
2010 21
2011 49
2012 32
2013 39
2014 21
2015 27
2016 22
2017 2
  Total: 280

Solutions?

There are no simple solutions to this problem. People are contributing episodes for HPR, and the project is still alive, but there are factors which make a steady rate of contributions unreliable.

This problem of unreliability has been occurring for as long as the HPR project has existed, and nobody has found a solution yet.

In this section I am proffering some thoughts, ideas and comments to try and raise awareness and request suggestions from the community.

Some assumptions and caveats

I have been guilty of various incorrect assumptions about where contributions come from. I thought it might be useful to start by clarifying a few points.

  • There is a process of what might be called attrition amongst the contributors to HPR. A proportion of the host population have done just one show and then vanished. Others have done more than one show but have then stopped producing shows.

  • Although the process of recruiting new hosts is important, especially considering the attrition just mentioned, HPR continues to function because of repeated contributions from hosts.

  • Encouraging existing hosts to continue contributing shows would help considerably to solve the shortages.

  • HPR needs listeners, and its visibility needs to be reasonably high. In terms of the supply of episodes contributors are more important than listeners though. Ideally, all listeners would be contributors!

  • Not all contributors necessarily listen to HPR. Some might use it as a springboard to doing a podcast of their own. Others might just like the HPR concept and want to make their mark.

Raising the profile of HPR

  • The more HPR is known about, the more listeners there will be. The more listeners there are the more hosts there are likely to be. The more new hosts we get the more shows there will be (though see the caveats above)!

  • Suggestions were made by droops in show 2035. Here are the points he made:
    • Transcribe shows. This is a large task.
    • Get well-known podcasters to guest host or advertise HPR.
    • Interview more people who will mention the interview on their blog or social media
    • Offer a phone app to simplify the recording and submission of shows
    • Collect more topics through a survey or a submission form
    • Generate host photos with show titles for social media
    • Make a video explaining what HPR is
    • Each show on the website should link to related shows (using tags). The tag system exists and is being populated.
    • More shows about cool software, books or documentaries
    • An HPR shop with stickers, t-shirts and tote bags

Need for new hosts

  • After sampling the HPR database it was revealed that quite a number of registered hosts (87) in the period up to the end of 2015 contributed one show and have never been seen again. Looking at the statistics, around 31.07% of the host count contributed their one show before the start of 2016. If this is the norm it means that HPR needs a constant stream of new hosts.

  • There needs to be some means of attracting potential new hosts to make a contribution to HPR. In general many people are impressed by the HPR model, in my experience. The thought of doing a show is often not considered though.

  • Perhaps there is mileage in someone doing a show (or video) about breaking down the barriers for new hosts. I have encountered people who show great trepidation when thinking about recording something themselves. The question “what would I talk about?” is often the first, perhaps followed by “what would I need to do it?”. There is often the comment that “I’d feel stupid recording myself” or “I hate the sound of my own voice”.

Simplifying the submission process

  • It’s already quite streamlined compared to what it was. The idea droops suggested of making a phone app is really good I think. Is there anyone in the community who could do such a thing?

  • Perhaps a show describing the current process would help to explain it better? Maybe even a YouTube video?

The incentive to do show number 2 and beyond

  • Since I joined HPR I have felt that it’s important to give feedback on shows. I wonder how valued contributors feel, and to what extent the lack of feedback has dissuaded people from doing more shows.

“I did a show for HPR which I thought might be interesting but nobody said anything about it. I don’t know if I’ll bother to do another.”

  • I enjoyed the Community News shows when I first heard them and was keen that there should be a regular review of each month’s episodes. I still feel that this is an important part of HPR, along with the comments which are made on individual shows.

  • I have wondered if a “Like” button would improve the process of giving feedback on episodes, and could help with encouragement. This would probably not be trivial to implement.

What is an HPR show?

  • The range of show topics submitted to HPR is very broad. The impression new listeners get could be that HPR is all about highly technical topics, scripting and programming. While this is true, we have also had subjects ranging from swimming in a river in France, through cooking of various sorts, making coffee, mental health and building a bicycle. The term “of interest to Hackers” also means of interest to hobbyists or makers. The description is so wide that there is hardly anything that is not acceptable. Perhaps this fact should be made more visible to potential hosts?

  • Should we be “advertising” HPR to potential listeners, and more to the point, potential hosts as a vehicle for them to tell others about their particular interests?

More statistics

  • I have been delving into the HPR show database while writing this episode, and it occurs to me that maintaining a page of statistics about hosts and shows might be interesting and might help to remind contributors and potential contributors of the constant need for shows.

  • The statistics section above might serve as an example of what could be displayed on the HPR site.

  • On the more wacky side, perhaps some competitive statistics could be displayed:
    • Longest show in the last year or month?
    • Shortest show in the last year or month?
    • The show with the most comments?
    • Host with the most shows in the last month or year?

    Personally, I’m not particularly keen on any of these ideas!

Really absurd ideas

  • Send out “begging letters”.

    Dear X, HPR is constantly in need of shows. You have been a contributor in the past but we have not heard from you for a while. If you could record another show for us it would be very helpful to the survival of the project.

    As the recipient of various letters and emails of this sort in other contexts, I think such a scheme would dissuade more people than it persuaded. So my vote would be against.

Conclusion

We have seen what “The Good Ship HPR” is, and have considered the leaky boat problem. I have offered some collected thoughts and opinions. I have no absolute answers. If you can think of other ways of ensuring there is a steadier flow of shows then please let us know - through the mailing list would be the best route.


  1. How do I know? I wrote a Perl script to look for gaps and the last one found was between shows 1092 and 1093 on Monday October 08 2012 and Wednesday October 10 2012 respectively.