Studio 360: framing art in human terms

Kurt Andersen jokes that he feared Car Talk fans would take up their pikes when New York’s WNYC-FM moved their favorite program and filled the slot with Studio 360, his new weekly show about arts and culture that went national in March [2001].

It was a daunting vote of confidence that WNYC, which produces Studio 360 for Public Radio International, felt the hour-long magazine could compete where public radio’s weekend kings once held sway.

But Studio 360 held listeners, and even attracted more. How could that be?

“I talk about carburetors sometimes,” Andersen says.

True to his self-effacing style, he’s kidding. But Studio 360 and Car Talk have more in common than you might think: They’re not what they seem to be.

Car Talk pretends to be about cars, but is really about its ebullient hosts. And Studio 360 pretends to be about art, but it’s more accurate to say that it covers human experience—humor, love, fear, pain and, above all, the ways we express these emotions.

It makes a point of not treating artists as de facto saints. Famous or obscure, the dancers, painters, musicians and others who appear on Studio 360 speak first as people, then as professionals. They have to earn our interest and respect. And honest enthusiasm, rather than a pre-digested canon, sets the show’s agenda. High- to lowbrow, it all mixes. Features on cigarette packs and bike seats bump against stories about Vermeer and Franz Lizst. The show’s tagline is “Where art and real life collide.”

“I don’t see it as an arts program per se,” says Melinda Ward, senior v.p. of Productions at PRI, which owns, funds and distributes Studio 360. “The way Marketplace looks at the world through a business and economic lens, we’re using arts and culture. But there’s almost nothing we can’t take a look at, and that’s a great way of people bringing in and helping them realize . . . that the arts are maybe broader than that painting in a museum they never see, or the concert they never go to.”

Public radio has no problem creating shows that zero in on one kind of art or music, and several of its major newsmagazines routinely incorporate stories about arts or culture. The idea of a general-interest arts show may seem obvious, but lots of past efforts have sputtered out or failed to find berths on stations.

Now, with Studio 360, PRI is betting that a newsier but accessible style will appeal to stations by offering them a flexible building block for better weekend listening. The good news is that rising carriage and promising research suggests they might be on to something.

Years in the making

Julie Burstein with NYC skylineYou don’t have to tell the people behind Studio 360 about public radio’s struggles with arts shows. Some of them have first-hand knowledge. Executive Producer Julie Burstein worked on The Sunday Show, NPR’s five-hour arts magazine that died when the funding crisis hit in 1983. And Ward oversaw Edge, a short-lived PBS program hosted by Robert Krulwich that, she says, proved too pricey.

Ward and her colleagues started talking in 1994 about trying again. At the time, art’s place in America was the stuff of dinner-table discussions and lead news stories. Legislators and arts advocates exchanged shrill words over the embattled National Endowment for the Arts, and Ward, who had just come to public radio from PBS, wanted to “up the dialogue.”

“I felt as a society that people cared about arts, but there was a very inadequate response to the challenge [to the NEA],” she says. “People were indifferent to it because they didn’t understand the role of culture and arts in their own lives. . . . Also, looking at the increasing cultural diversity in this country, the arts are one of the best ways we have of sharing experience. What kind of program might help us accomplish that communication?”

Stations were also saying that, as cultural leaders in their communities, they didn’t have a wide-ranging program that served listeners who were hungry for arts programming.

As time passed, PRI talked about creating a classical music performance show, possibly with the name Hot Ticket, but such a program no longer seemed able to realize their ambitions. Besides, stations and funders were losing interest in single-topic shows. So PRI decided to invest in a newsmag-style show with a broader focus that explore all kinds of art, not just live music.

But PRI has never produced its own programs, so it needed a partner, the same way it teamed up with WGBH to produce The World. At about this time, WNYC was breaking away from the New York City government and was poised to take better advantage of its setting in a cultural capital. An alliance was born.

NEA and the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds signed the checks that launched Studio 360—PRI dropped the name Hot Ticket when the performance angle waned. (Perhaps it was just as well—PRI staff found that online porn purveyors owned their prospective website, hotticket.com.)

Today, 20 percent of the show’s $750,000 budget comes from station fees and underwriting, and 80 percent from foundations. PRI hopes to flip-flop the equation in five years to keep the show going.

“Not too amateurish and horrible”

PRI’s partnership with WNYC started three years ago. So what took so long? Well, it took a host and a few staff changes to get things going.

The producers clearly take pride in landing native New Yorker Kurt Andersen as a host, both for his cultural IQ and his profile in the city’s media scene. He co-founded the satirical Spy magazine and, more recently, the gossipy online media mag Inside.com. A contributor to the New Yorker and former editor of New York magazine, he has also produced for television and published a high-profile novel, Turn of the Century.

He strikes you as someone who barely sleeps—forget investing time in a budding radio show. “I no longer have young children. I have no interest in sports, and I have no hobbies,” says Andersen, who speaks with passion and often seems to lean into his words. “Those are my secrets to having time.”

Andersen landed at WNYC out of serendipity one day, when he showed up for an interview program to talk about Turn of the Century. He saw the job posting on the wall.

“One thing led to another, I did tests and whatnot, and they decided that my voice was not too amateurish and horrible,” he says, adding that the show “filled my basic prerequisite that anything I do is something I would want to listen to, watch, read, or whatever.”

Andersen arrived in what he refers to as the “pre-Julie” days—the development phase when Burstein, now e.p., had not yet arrived and Susan Morris, now credited as a consultant to the show, was what Ward calls a “project director.” Andersen, Burstein and WNYC deflect questions about Morris’s departure, and Ward says, “It’s not worth going into.”

Burstein came to Studio 360 last July with a long history of producing and reporting for radio arts programs behind her, including Fresh Air (before it went national), Riverwalk and AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight. When she learned about the e.p. job at Studio 360, she jumped for it. “I said, this is the culmination of what I’ve been doing in arts and radio for 20 years,” she says.

Show-length companions

Studio 360 needed a unique structure to make its enthusiasm stick, and Burstein dipped into her freelancing experience to find one. You can see it in action if you squeeze into the show’s production studios, which overlook the East River and the World Trade Center from the top of New York’s municipal building.

Burstein joins producers Kerrie Hillman, Jocelyn Gonzales and Michele Siegel in a tiny control room cooled only by a small swivel fan, which adjoins a conference room where a dry-erase board maps out a few months’ worth of show topics. Through a pane of glass, Andersen and writer Calvin Trillin face each other at their microphones.

Trillin has joined Andersen to talk about food. In Studio 360 lingo, food is this week’s “cover story”—the broad theme that links three of the show’s produced pieces. Trillin shares memories of his childhood and travels, ranging from his memories of his father to his experiences cooking monkfish, which he says may be “the single ugliest animal.” (“The head looks sort of like a football that a Pontiac has backed over,” he says. “It has lots of doodads hanging off of it.”)

They chat for a stretch, and Andersen interrupts their conversation to introduce a profile of artist Wayne Thiebault, whose best-known paintings depict all kinds of sweets and junk food. Hillman prompts Trillin to don a pair of headphones, and he joins Andersen in listening to a rough edit of the story. Then they return to the show and talk more, spinning off into more reflections and digressions.

Hearing Andersen and Trillin respond to the story jars you a bit. They’re breaking down a wall that stands tall on most shows, where stories act like sullen roommates—they never acknowledge each other’s existence.

Burstein developed the through-line guests to play to Andersen’s strengths. “He is an incredibly inquisitive and smart listener,” she says. “Also, with the kinds of ideas that we want to explore, rather than have him take the objective narrator stance, I would much rather have him engaged and bring someone in who might be able to give perspective on the whole idea we’re talking about. That would add a layer of excitement. It would deepen the experience for the listener.”

As a result, Andersen’s guests have to work harder than the interviewee who pops out after five minutes on Morning Edition. They carry a large part of the show on their wit and knowledge, and it helps tremendously if they have what Andersen calls the “journalist gene”—the bravado to think, “Hey, I can talk about anything!”

Each week’s cover story takes up roughly half the show. The rest is filled out by three other elements: a reported story unrelated to the main theme, a commentary penned and delivered by Andersen, and a “Design for the Real World” segment. The latter focuses on an everyday object, such as a stamp or a cigarette pack, and explains how it came to look the way it does.

Breaking out of New York

Andersen has stopped interviewing Trillin to listen to another story, and he makes an offhand comment about the week’s program: “This is a very New Yorky show.” Indeed it is. Trillin writes for the New Yorker, as does Adam Gopnik, who comments on Thiebault in the profile of the artist. And another story profiles New York artist Saxton Freymann, who uses fruits and veggies as fodder for sculptures.

With so much going in their hometown, Studio 360‘s producers risk focusing too tightly on New York. But they studiously try to avoid that pitfall, and the show reflects their efforts. “It’s something that we are aware of all the time,” Burstein says. “It’s a major goal of ours to get outside of New York.”

“We’ve got a long ways to go in terms of developing the infrastructure,” says PRI’s Ward. “That’s all in the works for the future. I think the program will continue to get richer and richer.”

Burstein and PRI know that the show must keep a broad focus to appeal to stations, and they’re promoting it as an ideal pivot between Weekend Edition and a longer string of cultural programming.

“I would certainly say it’s creating a bridge between news-and-information programming and cultural programming,” says Abby Goldstein, p.d. at Studio 360 pilot station KERA in Dallas. Goldstein, who acknowledges she’s a fan of the show, says it’s “perfect” as such a bridge. “Instead of just playing a bunch of music or doing a bunch of reviews, it actually delves into the reasons why. It digs below the surface, which I think is really important. That’s what we try to do as news and information programmers.”

The show’s carriage has ballooned in just two weeks, with 20 stations picking it up since the end of May, and PRI talked up some promising research at a Public Radio Conference event in Seattle. The research firm FMR Associates played the show for 200 pubradio news listeners, who rated it “higher than any new show I’ve seen,” according to FMR President Bruce Fohr, who spoke at the event. Sixty-two stations have committed to airing Studio 360.

Getting on-air and digging deeper into the art world will be the show’s next task in a system where other arts programs have slipped away. Maybe then Studio 360‘s creators will realize their hopes, and make everyone’s view of art and daily life a little more panoramic.

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