We threw the doors wide open. Want to try it?

Three of the six winners of CPB’s Public Radio Talent Quest for new pubradio hosts—the three scouted and mentored by Launch Production Inc.—will finish their series pilot episodes later this month, but you can now hear the other three at PublicRadioQuest.com, the site of the online contest run by Public Radio Exchange (PRX): Al Letson’s State of the ReUNION, Rebecca Watson’s Curiosity Aroused and Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. The six are competing for CPB series funding. In this commentary, PRX’s executive director looks forward to more online outreach.

Nearly two years ago CPB issued an intriguing challenge called the Public Radio Talent Quest: Find three new on-air hosts and develop pilot shows that showcase their talent.

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The Public Radio Exchange (PRX) proposed an online contest inviting anyone to submit a two-minute audio audition and giving the audience a voice in choosing the winners. Basically it would be This American Idol.

We had two main goals: (a) find truly exciting new hosts for public radio and (b) create an open, participatory way for public radio to identify and nurture talent—with help from listeners.

Last spring we launched PublicRadioQuest.com, an online audio contest application combined with a social network (built by PRX developers on the open-source Drupal platform). The online community has grown to more than 20,000 members, with a talent pool of hundreds of aspiring hosts from all across the country.

We took a calculated risk that the way to find outstanding individuals is to throw the doors wide open, attract the broadest and most diverse group possible, and encourage public participation throughout.

Ultimately, the risk paid off — as you can hear in the strikingly original pilots from our winners Al Letson, Rebecca Watson and Glynn Washington — but for the organizers as well as the contestants it was an adventure every step of the way.

CPB made it clear: they wanted great program hosts. So what makes a great host? The usual qualities, of course: A host has to be engaging, empathic, interesting, knowledgeable, compelling. But anyone who hires people knows that there is a difference between highly competent performers and those with a special something else. You know it when you hear their spark, that secret sauce, the thing that makes you lean in closer to the radio.

It is also a judgment call. No matter how many criteria or scorecards you create, everyone has a highly personal take on the elusive quality we called “hostiness.”

We sensed a tension at the heart of the project: Were we looking for fresh talent that breaks new ground for public radio, or for great hosts who fit right into the mix alongside Terry and Robert and Ira and Krista and other established voices? What would be more likely to succeed on the air today and tomorrow? What expansions of its sound would help public radio grow and reach new audiences?

Fortunately we had a remarkable team and group of judges to help debate and deliberate (Jay Allison, Julie Drizin, Maxie Jackson, Doug Mitchell, Julie Shapiro, John Barth, Israel Smith and Jacquie Jones). Thousands of people weighed in online with their own thoughts about the future of public radio.

You know that anxious feeling when you throw a party and no one comes? We truly had no idea what to expect when we started accepting submissions for the contest’s first round. Would we get 50 entries? 250? Would they all be lousy? After all, we were asking a lot from participants: Tell us who you are in two minutes or less, create an account and upload a digital audio file to us, even if you have never worked a mic before.

With promotional help from stations, good press coverage, a viral word-of-mouth campaign in the blogosphere and the incentives of potential pilot funding and public radio “stardom,” we ended up with more than 1,400 first-round entries.

We clearly had tapped into something extraordinary. In the contestants’ passion and the online community’s enthusiastic online comments, we could hear people were thrilled that public radio was inviting them in — this time, not for financial support but for their ideas, creativity and talent.

Entries came from all 50 states, from teenagers and senior citizens, professionals and amateurs, indie producers and station staffs, podcasters, public radio fans, contest junkies and a legion of Ira Glass acolytes.

As you might expect, their proficiency followed a bell curve. We got a few truly wacky and off-the-wall entries (search the site for “Garrison Keillor is Going to Die”), a lot of mostly mediocre attempts in the middle, and a few hundred truly entertaining and compelling entries that made you want to listen again.

We decided early on that audience participation would truly count: Online public votes would determine one of the contestants advancing to each round. In the end, more than 120,000 votes were cast. That’s more than in the Fox Television contest to decide which state would be the site of The Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield!

For ideas about how to vet the hosts, we consulted with producers of national shows and program directors. The initial 2-minute audio entries were revealing, but how would we test hosting skills in a virtual and very public setting?

The skill tests eventually included a live script read (try pronouncing the name of Inca emperor Atahualpa with no time to prepare), a free-association exercise, composing a 60-second billboard and conducting a classic host-guest interview. These kinds of tests normally are conducted in a windowless room somewhere, but the Talent Quest posted all entries on the site for tens of thousands of people to hear, comment and rate. Feeling a little sweaty?

At the same time, we struggled with details. Should we allow or encourage contestants to post their photos? Should we permit them to blog about the competition, or would it unfairly sway votes or judges’ opinions? Does it matter if they responded to comments about their entries? After all, this is radio. Shouldn’t we tolerate or even prefer people who remain disembodied voices in the dark?

The answers came naturally. The site itself became an online community where contestants and voters established their own rules of engagement and styles of communication. Contestants commented on each other’s entries (partly to promote their own); people with their own blogs wrote about the process and linked to pages on the site; entire discussions launched when we suggested topics such as “your worst job ever.” For the most part, we simply stayed out of the way, reading everything the participants wrote and only occasionally stepping in to nudge things back on track.

In today’s media, even public radio hosts have to be more than voices in the ether. The surge in online video, the sharing of photos, the searchability of text, the instant feedback of forums—there are many great opportunities for engagement we couldn’t pass up.

Once we had narrowed the field to the final 10 contestants, we asked them to blog about their contest experience, chronicling the process and rounding out their own personal stories. Al, Rebecca, Glynn, April, Chuck, Anne, Chris, Bee, Carrie and Komal became more than usernames and audio files. These were fascinating folks on the verge of a potential career break.

We were biting our nails along with everyone else as the votes came in and the stakes shot up. The judges’ conference calls in the early rounds were relaxed and congenial, but they became more tense and impassioned as the competitors revealed their varying visions for a public radio sound.

Each deadline had genuine drama and hardship. (Tip: don’t set contest deadlines at midnight unless you are ready to answer technical questions by e-mail in the wee hours.) And there was real joy when we called the three final winners to say had each won $10,000, a chance to produce a pilot show, and a plane ticket to the PRPD, where they’d appear onstage in a gala event.

A few weeks ago we submitted the three final pilots to CPB, which will decide soon whether to give them further funding. The PublicRadioQuest.com site, the talent database and the community of voters and participants remain an active resource that we are integrating into the broader PRX services.

We invite stations and others to get in touch if you are interested in using the technology or the talent pool for your own needs.

Public radio has a unique opportunity to tap into the talents of its audience, and we’re seeing more ambitious experiments in that vein, such as PRX, Radio Open Source, Public Insight Journalism and Vocalo.org.

The Public Radio Talent Quest gave us a glimpse of what a much more open system might look like, and it sounds profoundly encouraging. Please come judge for yourself: The pilots are on PRX and all the original entries are still available on PublicRadioQuest.com.

Jake Shapiro has headed Public Radio Exchange from its launch in 2003. He is a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a minor rock star in South Korea with his band Two Ton Shoe. PRX is a collaboration of the Station Resource Group and Atlantic Public Media.

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