public radio

The NPR Dancers

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Inside NPR in New York City

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A look inside NPR's New York bureau, with your tour guide Mike Pesca.

Mike Pesca for President of Radio, that's what I say. Or at least for having his own sports show.

MAKE IT HAPPEN, PUBLIC RADIO.

The PRI Arts & Entertainment Podcast

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PRI, my radio distributor, has launched a cool podcast that aggregates content from across their programming -- from The Takeaway to The World to Studio 360 to, now, The Sound of Young America. They've recently featured our interviews with Seun Kuti and Janeane Garofalo, along with interviews from Studio 360 with David Zucker (mp3) and The World with Sergio Mendes (MP3). It's a broad spectrum of content from the broad spectrum of PRI shows, and definitely worth checking out if you're looking for a hit of content every weekday.

Here's the show's feed.

Here's an iTunes link.

Mark Ramsey Breaks Shit Down

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Mark Ramsey is a radio consultant. Audio consultant, to be more specific. He has one of the hardest jobs I can imagine -- telling radio people that they have to do things differently.

For the past 25 years or so, radio has been a stagnant industry, cruising along without much innovation to speak of. What passed for innovation in radio was inventing the "Jammin' Oldies" format. Mark's spent the past five or ten years grabbing the industry by the shoulders and giving it a good shake.

He mostly works in commercial radio, but recently Ramsey did a big study of public radio for PRI, and out of that study grew this remarkable keynote address at the Public Radio Program Directors' conference last weekend here in LA.

I gave Mark some shit for largely ignoring the public service mission of public radio, which I can forgive since he's a commercial radio guy... but other than that one point, he is 1000% dead on.

You can download Mark's presentation here. Whether or not you're in the public radio biz, it's fascinating listening.

Bryant Park Project & Fair Game: My Long-Winded Opinions

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LOTS of people have been emailing me for my thoughts on some recent events in the public radio world, so here are some preliminary ramblings on the subject:

National Public Radio recently canceled The Bryant Park Project, their experiment in attracting younger listeners to public radio. Not long ago, Public Radio International did the same with Fair Game. I was distressed at both cancellations, not least because The Sound came into the public radio fold on the coat-tails of the development of those two shows. I was worried: what if I'm next? Then I remembered that I own my show, and only I could cancel it... but I was still worried about fallout.

So, what went wrong? I'm not really a public radio insider, (though I did go to a public radio conference last year and I do subscribe to The New Yorker), but here's what I can see from my vantage point, and how the changing landscape will affect The Sound.

* Both BPP and Fair Game were extremely expensive. Bryant Park Project had a reported budget of two million dollars. I don't know how much Fair Game cost, but they had a sizable staff. When you're spending a lot of money, the stakes get high very quickly. I'm producing a lot less radio than either of those shows was, but my total budget is around $50K, of which $10K or so comes from stations via PRI. Most of it comes from underwriting and podcast donations. Given that all PRI is spending on my is a little overhead to have someone check in with me once a month and maybe copy some CDs for stations once in a while, the stakes here are low.

* Targeting entertainment at young people is a very dicey proposition. A commenter on Metafilter wrote scathingly that BPP was NPR's Poochie. If the reference means nothing to you, well, maybe you're out of the key demo ;). Poochie was a Homer-voiced skateboarding hip-hop dog added to Itchy & Scratchy on an episode of The Simpsons. He's also the ultimate expression of inauthentic pandering to youth. Frankly, I don't completely agree about BPP, but the allegation illustrates an important principle: when your brand has such a strong fuddy-duddy rep, even a slight whiff in inauthenticity will set your target audience off. You must guard assiduously against pretending to be anything you're not.

* There was no reason to target young people in the first place. This may sound odd coming from a guy who has a show called "The Sound of Young America," but remember: my show's title is a joke :). Getting younger listeners isn't about creating shows for younger listeners any more than getting African-American listeners is about creating shows for African-American listeners. It's about creating great shows that have diverse perspectives and are inclusive. Public radio has done a good job of the former, but a mediocre to lousy job of the latter. It's telling to me that there's a category click-box on the Public Radio Satellite System website for bluegrass, but not one for hip-hop. Public radio's perspective is monolithic, and the correction has to be systemic, it can't be ghetto-ized to a few programs.

* HD Radio isn't anything. Especially in the case of BPP, a big part of the plan for these two shows was the proliferation of outlets created by HD Radio. No one has HD Radio, and there is zero indication that anyone ever will. I say this as a guy whose station carriage is about 30 or 40% HD channels :).

* Stations aren't address duplicative programming. Both BPP and PRI's new morning show, The Takeaway, relied on the idea that stations wanted alternatives to Morning Edition, especially in places where multiple stations were playing the show at the same time. It turns out, they don't. They're happy to squabble over the Morning Edition audience. NPR could have made ME (and their other shows, for that matter) exclusive to one station per market, but they didn't.

* Podcast monetization is just coming around now, but not really for PRI and NPR. Fair Game and especially BPP were designed for a multi-platform future that's in its earliest stages. Despite speculation to the contrary, both were building very strong podcast audiences. That said, both PRI and NPR are organizations that can't afford to alienate stations, and that means they can't really go directly to listeners for money. So the only real option available to them to monetize those online audiences is underwriting, and that's a pretty modest revenue stream right now. So while both shows were relatively good at online stuff, they weren't getting much money out of it. Certainly not millions of dollars. The only long-term solution I can see to this is charging stations less money for shows, but that's a big change that is against my interests, so, uhm, pretend I never said that.

* Neither show was that great. Both shows had a lot going for them. Faith Salie is really funny and has a killer voice. Mike Pesca is my #1 superstar choice for the future of public radio. There was some great writing on Fair Game. BPP got some amazing guests (Sigur Ros, anyone?). But at the end of that first year, neither show was exceptional or remarkable or amazing. That isn't surprising -- doing something new is unbelievably hard -- but if either of these shows were This American Life, they wouldn't have gotten cancelled. This American Life almost died several times, too, but when a show wins a Peabody its first year out, you kind of gotta give it some slack. Both shows had promise, but neither show made such a compelling case that they couldn't be cancelled.

Given all of that, though, I want to be clear: neither of these shows were failures. There were problems with both, but I think now is the key moment for public radio. Does the funding of these shows generate a rush of new ideas and entrepreneurship, or does the cancellation of these shows drop the curtain on new audiences? Was this just a cover, a way to say, "well, we tried that, and it didn't work," or is it the dawn of a new era, where public radio creates more than one new show every ten years?

Anyway, here's some good news: I'm still here, and I'm not going anywhere. You guys who support this show have shown me that while I love public radio and want to continue to be a part of it, and am often optimistic about my part in it, there is a future for this operation no matter what. I don't need any gatekeepers permission to do this show -- you are the gatekeepers, and you seem very resolute in your support. So: thank you.

Public Radio Talent Quest Produces Three Pilots

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Folks may remember the Public Radio Talent Quest from last year. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting put together a big pot of money to find new talent for public radio. They sponsored a contest for organizations to dig up the talent, and two won. PRX, the Public Radio Exchange held an American Idol-style competition online, while a consortium of producers decided to make a "big list" of people they'd like to hear in public radio, then ask them if they'd be interested.

They narrowed the list down to six finalists, each of whom would get enough money to produce a professional-quality pilot episode. Based upon these pilots, one winner would receive funding for a full year of programs. Among the finalists were Mark Bittman, "The Minimalist" from The New York Times, SNL alumna Julia Sweeney, who hoped to do a science program, and a woman who goes by Skepchick.

What happened was a surprise: the CPB was so excited about the finalists that they chose three winners, rather than just one.

Al Letson, a performance poet, playwright and actor will host "State of the re:Union." The show will look at the unique cultures and communities of cities and towns across America. You can download the pilot, about Washington, DC, from this link (MP3).

Majora Carter is a MacArthur "genius" grant-winning organizer in the Bronx. Her show, "The Promised Land" will look at how leaders are created, "around the world, or around the block." You can download the pilot from this link (MP3).

Glynn Washington is Executive Director of the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at Haas Business School at UC Berkeley. His show, "Snap Judgement," will look at how one decision can have huge consequences. The pilot is available from this link (MP3).

What do you think of the shows?

Podcast: TSOYA Classic: Canada, Et Al.

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We continue our journey into The Sound of Young America's vast audio archive with this program from The Sound of Young America Classics.

America's radio sweetheart in conversation with the laughter star of the eastern block, comedian Eugene Mirman. We'll also hear from incredibly talented painter Brandon Bird and Kyle MacDonald who writes the blog One Red Paperclip. His aim is to trade up from a red paperclip, to a house.

Please share your thoughts on the show in the comments section!

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Fat Bald Hodgman Controversy: Jesse Fires Back!

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I don't like to get involved in CELEBRITY SPATS, but you can't insult FRIENDS OF THE PROGRAM and get away with it.

Earlier this week, the public radio financial "news" program Marketplace ran a piece comparing Mac and PC owners. It primarily contained the sort of information you might expect -- allusions to Priuses and lattes and the like. Which would have been fine... BUT FOR THE FACT THAT IT ALSO CONTAINED VICIOUS SLANDER.

Perhaps that slander would have slipped unnoticed into the ears of our nation's Prius-driving, latte-sipping public radio listeners, if it weren't for eagle-eared Matt Tobey of the CC Insider. Tobey, a righteous warrior in the cause of JUSTICE, pointed out a vicious, unfounded accusation buried within the piece. "Reporter" Andrea Gardner claims, with reference to the Mac v. PC commercials: "the PC guy is overweight and balding."

Excuse me?

Pardon me?

HOW DARE YOU?!

As we all know, the PC is portrayed by John Hodgman, the handsome, Yale-educated comic writer and former professional literary critic.

And as all of us with ANY SENSE know, JOHN HODGMAN IS MOST CERTAINLY NOT BALDING!

It may be that the esteemed Mr. Hodgman is slightly overweight, though he's been looking quite trim and health lately in my view. HOWEVER: he has a full, healthy head of hair. He certainly has more hair than I, a NOT-BALD MAN TEN YEARS HIS JUNIOR.

I have registered with the Marketplace staff my EXTREME DISPLEASURE with this IMMORAL AND POSSIBLY ILLEGAL DISCOURSE. I have even recorded it for their benefit, and they promise to REPLAY this recording on this coming TUESDAY during their so-called "program."

If you wish to register your opinion of their opinion of a GREAT AMERICAN, Mr. John Hodgman, you can use Marketplace's comment form here.

(Above: NOT BALD, BUT VERY FUNNY)

UPDATE:
More from CC Insider
And from Mssr. Hodgman

"The Takeaway" debuts Monday on WNYC and elsewhere!

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I'm looking forward to the launch of a brand-new public radio morning show tommorow, "The Takeaway," with John Hockenberry and Adoara Udoji.

"The Takeaway" is a co-production of PRI (my distributor), the BBC, WNYC in New York, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston. The goal is, at it's essence, to provide an alternative to Morning Edition, which is something that I think is desperately needed in public radio. (And to be clear: I like Morning Edition).

When I attended my first public radio conference six months or so ago in Minneapolis, I was really wowed by Hockenberry's brief talk about how he imagined the show. Expect a program that at least aspires to be truly multi-platform, and focused on the in-depth and analysis, which is exactly what I think public radio does better than any other broadcast outlet.

You can hear the show on WNYC (both AM and FM at different times), on WEAA in Baltimore, and on WGBH in Boston. You can also hear it online at thetakeaway.org. There's already a sample up at PRI's site.

Now, just to make this a bit more Maximum Fun-like, I will say that while I was at the conference, I saw Udoji at Saks Off 5th in downtown Minneapolis. I was looking at shirts, and she asked me what shirt size I wore. I told her (16.5x35, if you're wondering), then told her how much I enjoyed their presentation earlier that day.

"How did you..." she started, confusedly. "OH! You don't work here!"

Yes, PRI's new flagship star thought I worked at Saks' discount store.

Car Talk: The TV Show

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Well, PBS is planning a ten-episode run of a new Car Talk animated sitcom. I have some grave reservations.

Let me put my cards on the table: if you know me, you know I love Car Talk. It's the biggest weekend show in public radio, and for good reason. I think Tom & Ray Magliozzi are the most charming guys on the radio. I have been listening to their show since I can remember, and it remains one of my all-time faves.

That having been said: what the fuck is up with this PBS sitcom? This article in the public media newspaper Current and this one in Fortune (?) have the details.

Some disturbing elements:
* According to Current, the writing staff (of three, apparently) is composed of Car Talk's producer, Car Talk's web producer, and a guy who wrote a cartoon show called "Duck Dodgers." Maybe the show will be dramatizations of email forwards? That's most of the "original comedy" on the radio show.
* Imagine this on the posters: "From the director of "Ferngully!"
* Not to mention, "From the producer of Billy Joel: Live From Long Island!"

Now, I am not willing to blame any of this on any of the Car Talk team. Tom & Ray, as I have mentioned, are Real American Heroes. I met Doug Berman once and he seemed nice and smart to me.

But give me a break, here.

PBS is going to do comedy, and this is how they're going to do it? With three writers and a PBS special producer? Really?

Come on.

If HBO and F/X and even AMC can produce great TV shows that aren't based on 150 year old books, PBS can too, but this kind of baloney isn't how you produce great TV shows.

This is why Ira Glass is working for Showtime.

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