Public Radio Talent Quest: Let's Try Some Shit.


The Public Radio Talent Quest

A friend recently made a comment to me that I thought exposed one of the biggest problems in public media. We were talking about TSOYA's run on WNYC, and he said, "What I don't understand is why, when they're building new programming, public radio never, ever starts with talent."

He's exactly correct, of course.

Start with talent, and you get The Daily Show. Start with a "target audience," and you get The 1/2 Hour News Hour. Start with talent, and you get Saturday Night Live. Start with a "target audience," and you get Mad TV.

New programming in public media is largely driven by pre-existing funding, which turns the development process backwards. Instead of having a great idea, or a great host, or a great producer and feeding it resources, we find a need or niche we decide to fill, then look for money, then actually build the creative elements. It's anti-entrepreneurial and rewards sameness

The best case scenario in this kind of system is to develop a show like Day to Day or Weekend America. Day to Day is basically the same as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The tone is about 10% different, but it was created because we knew there was money for a show that was like ATC and ME that ran mid-day. Weekend America is like Weekend All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, with a tone that's maybe 15% different and a bit more focus on "fly-over states."

Television is the same, but given the enormous cost of television production, the problem is much worse. The best shows on public TV (Nova, Sesame Street, The Newshour) were created twenty and thirty years ago. So were public TV's big stars -- like Bob Vila, Jim Lehrer, Big Bird, Bill Moyers. I mean Ken Burns seems recent, and when was The Civil War? 1990?

I blogged last month about why "This American Life" is going to be on Showtime and not PBS. In Ira Glass' words, "Public television is terrible." He points out that if he'd wanted to bring the show to PBS, he'd have had to spend two or three years raising money before they'd even consider airing it. This with one of public media's biggest hits.

And I won't let public radio off the hook, either. The barrier of entry in public radio is exceptionally low -- I mean, I produce a weekly show with one person and a monthly budget of about $300. But consider again the case of TAL -- they went to NPR after Glass had worked there for twenty years, the show had been on for a year, was fully funded, and had won a PEABODY AWARD. Because it was different, NPR demurred. Today, This American Life is the biggest hit on public radio in the past fifteen years, and it weren't for Public Radio International, it wouldn't even be national.

So, what to do?

How about this for a prescription: try some shit.

This is what every other succesful media organization does.

Television networks air dozens of new shows every season, and only keep a few. The whole internet is a boiling vat of talent and ideas, where great things bubble up every day. With digital technology, it's very easy to produce video or audio at quality levels that are acceptable to at the least internet audiences. I'd say public TV stations could teach a group of 10 people how to produce video 52 weekends a year. Put some stuff up on the internet. See what works. Reach out to people who are already doing interesting stuff. Network. Join the conversation.

The upshot:

Much to their credit, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced a big grant last year to help find new talent for public radio. Again to their credit, they did it in a surprisingly entrepreneurial way -- a contest. They asked any group to outline their plan for finding talent, and offered a big check to the groups with the best plans. Recently, the winners were announced.

One of the two winners was PRX, aka The Public Radio Exchange. It's basically a website for distributing public radio content. Amazingly, before they launched, there was no mechanism for this. Now, any station can buy in to their system and get programming from independent producers and other stations around the country which has been peer reviewed and formatted for their automated systems.

PRX's plan for finding talent is, well, another contest. American Idol-style. On the internet.

It's called The Public Radio Talent Quest, and it's open to anyone. They're asking people to submit short tapes of ANYTHING they would want to hear on public radio. A few elimination rounds later, and they'll have given away $70K.

Will it work? Fuck if I know. But at least they're DOING SOMETHING. Seventy thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it's really only one person's salary. Why not give it a shot?

So, Sound of Young America listeners, I say ENTER! And here is my promise: for each round ANY TSOYA listener advances, I will add FIVE DOLLARS to the prize. And that's five dollars AMERICAN.

Do this thing!

The Public Radio Talent Quest


I don't know if I missed this or not, you, Jesse Thorn, get to enter? Or are you at the semi-professional level and thus disqualified? Because...$70,000...that'd be pretty nice for all your hard work, I'm sure.

The only people who aren't eligible are those with national shows. I don't think I'm in that group. I might enter, haven't decided. Might enter something non-TSOYA related.

How about for every round TSOYA advances, we will add FIVE dollars to the prize? I'd do it. Let's put the FUN in fundraiser!

By the by, congrats on being BoingBoinged

But.... if you are on wnyc, doesn't that mean they ARE trying shit? or are they not NPR? or are you not shit? Well, you're not shit, you're great, but I mean, are you not new enough to qualify as "trying shit"?

WNYC is an NPR-affiliated station. They carry NPR programming, but they are completely independent of NPR. They also carry programming from American Public Media (formerly Minnesota Public Radio -- the folks who make Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion), from Public Radio International, from other stations, and from independent producers (like me).Most (though not all) syndicated public radio shows are affiliated with a station, with PRI/NPR/APM, or both. I am not.

I'll enter! I'll try to be the only entrant with celebrity guests in his 2 minutes.

Do you want to be affiliated with a station? If so, which one, KQED or KCRW maybe? Also, are there any real differences between the type of shows NPR/PRI/APM produce? Just from my limited knowledge, NPR programming seems most like the stereotypical public radio programming people mock, PRI tends to be slightly hipper with TAL and Studio 360, and APM of course more folksy. Do you have a preference of which you'd want to be syndicated by? NPR clearly is the bigger name and most prolific, but PRI seems more on the TSOYA wavelength.

Thanks for your comments on PBS. Producers in their 40s are still being shut out by the folks who were there when the whole thing got started in the 1960s. Much of their work gets relegated to POV or Independent Lens, which are national series, but in many cities the shows are put on the air at challenging times for many people. I remember in the late 80s suggesting that we try to cut our programs a little differently, and all I ever heard was a haughty, "This is not M-TV!" as if the only stylistic choice was between really slow pans and fast-paced music videos. Editing is just one aspect of the problem. PBS is not making itself relevant to a broad range of curious people of all ages. Maybe CPB will fund something "different" on the TV side, too. I just don't understand what is so scary about trying some new stuff made by some new people? It's not as if they have never bombed with the "safe" stuff by the usual suspects.

I think you're right -- there DOES need to be more opportunity to just "try some shit." Public radio, especially the national level, is fairly risk-averse. But, there are exceptions. Surely the Faith Salie show, like it or not, is a big risk for PRI. Even with major CPB support, Weekend America was a huge financial risk for APM. And, to their credit, NPR keeps trying to fight its way out of being complacent with its past successes and tries to invent an interesting future. They have found it hard to escape the "imprisonment" that success sometimes creates. OK, but having said all that, I do take issue with your comment that "Instead of having a great idea, or a great host, or a great producer and feeding it resources, we find a need or niche we decide to fill, then look for money, then actually build the creative elements." What REALLY happens, when the new program development process is successful, is that a producer is able to intersect a great idea and great talent WITH a need or niche to fill. Neither approach works alone. Lots of shows are created because of the perceived need or niche, but there's no show there. This was a constant struggle with Weekend America, but I think it is being solved. Others have the idea and the talent, but absolutely no idea of what the audience wants or will respond to. That won't work either.Anyway, good conversation, Jesse. Keep it up.Jim RussellThe Program Doctor

Jess - I agree with your main point but I can also tell you that one of the biggest problems in program development is producers and hosts rushing into national distribution. The most successful non-news programs in public radio developed at stations, sometimes for nearly a decade. Even then, most took 3-5 years to become true national hits. The exception is Wait Wait which survived its rough times because of stations' trust in Doug Berman. TAL is a great example of this. The show had lousy audience performance for the first 4 or 5 years it was in national distribution. This, after considerable incubation at WBEZ. The media loved the show. Ira's fundraising modules raised the bar in the industry. That's what kept the program on a lot of stations while it found its voice. To its credit, WBEZ stuck with the program. The lesson here is that old saying, "it takes years to become an overnight success." I'm not defending the networks' track records on developing new talent or programming. But I've seen producers and hosts kill their chances at long-term success by trying to be national stars long before their material warranted.btw - TAL had not yet won a Peabody when NPR turned it down. I know that to be true because I was there. And, despite popular belief, the median age to TAL is right around 50 years old. Just like the NPR News audience.

I'm just glad to see the NewsHour getting a shout-out! NHJL is developing more and more content in our 'media, arts, and culture' unit, which is one of our most popular non-hard-news items... We're trying s**t, but as you mentioned, its all about the funding.