PRI adds variety to program slate with acquisition of Live Wire

By Andrew Lapin

Live Wire, hosted by Luke Burbank, will join PRI's lineup in July. (Photo: Jennie Baker Photography)

Live Wire, hosted by Luke Burbank, will join PRI’s lineup in July. (Photo: Jennie Baker Photography)

Public Radio International is adding the Portland, Ore.–based variety show Live Wire to its programming lineup, the distributor announced Monday.

Live Wire, which bills itself as “radio variety for the ADD generation,” is independently produced and currently airs on 48 stations nationwide. PRI will take over distribution of the weekly show beginning July 1, the same day it ends distribution of its widest carried program, This American Life.

“Since we started the show we were hoping to gain the attention of a national distributor,” said Robyn Tenenbaum, Live Wire co-creator and e.p. The program launched in 2004 and shops itself to stations with the help of digital distribution tools from Public Radio Exchange. Though representatives from NPR and American Public Media were “aware of us” and NPR programming VP Eric Nuzum attended a taping, PRI was the first distributor to make an offer, Tenenbaum said. The two were in talks for six months prior to the announcement Monday.

“Our agreement with Live Wire is representative of the types of relationships we are looking for going forward, where PRI and the producer will work together” to build station carriage and an online footprint, said Julia Yager, PRI head of sales, marketing and distribution. PRI envisions working with Live Wire on a series of live events in partnership with stations, as well as “listener challenges involving music, art and literature,” Yager said. In October the program will tape live in Seattle in collaboration with KUOW, marking its first live show outside of Oregon.

Tenenbaum is grateful to leave independent distribution, which she likens to “pushing a boulder up a hill.” Under self-distribution, the program reached markets including Seattle, Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas.

The most challenging aspect of self-distribution is “just getting PDs to return our phone calls [and] recognize this show from Portland,” Tenenbaum said. She plans to hire a marketing director for the show.

Meanwhile, public radio’s This American Life is considering handling its own distribution as it prepares to leave PRI July 1. A “behemoth show” such as TAL would find success with self-distribution more easily than Live Wire, Tenebaum said.

“If you started with a whole bunch of stations, being an independent distributor could be a billing nightmare, but I suspect it could work,” she said.

The show is recorded live at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland and features a mix of comedy sketches, musical numbers and interviews. Host Luke Burbank, a veteran pubradio voice who has appeared on shows including This American Life and Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, became the face of the program in September 2013, when previous host Courtenay Hameister stepped down. Hameister remains at Live Wire as head writer and producer. The show has produced nearly 250 episodes to date.

PRI does not currently offer a variety show. It lost pubradio mainstay A Prairie Home Companion in 2004 when the show’s producer, Minnesota Public Radio, broke away to form American Public Media. American Public Media also distributes John Moe’s variety program Wits.

Meanwhile, NPR has taped two pilots of Wonderful Town, a variety program hosted by Weekend Edition Saturday’s Scott Simon, but has not announced plans for a full series.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Live Wire is produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. The show is independently produced.
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