Creating new playbooks for a.m. drive
|Stewart (left) and Burbank, co-hosts of Bryant Park Project. (Photo: Stephen Voss © NPR 2007.)|
It’s no easy task trying to produce a radio show that isn’t on the radio.
Bryant Park Project, the latest NPR News series to launch on-air after extended online piloting, is scheduled to overcome this handicap with its radio debut as a two-hour live weekday show Oct. 1 .
Since April, a small production team in NPR’s New York bureau has produced a multimedia blog and series of audio pilots, letting a web audience share in both their goofs and triumphs as they worked on a new approach to morning drivetime programming — an NPR news show that doesn’t follow the playbook of its largely scripted newsmagazines.
The producers of Bryant Park want to discover how to engage Gen-X listeners and others whose cultural reference points and news diets differ from those of core listeners to NPR’s flagship Morning Edition.
“We want this show to be about our lives,” said 31-year-old cohost Luke Burbank.
“We’re thinking about attracting the next generation to public radio,” said Jay Kernis, NPR senior v.p. of programming, but “also listeners of all ages who have not listened to Morning Edition or don’t like it for a certain reason, or like other programs more. This may be a way to bring them in the tent.”
“It’s also a way to reach people who are using other media on other platforms,” Kernis adds. Audience research increasingly shows that adults in their 20s and 30s describe the Internet as their primary news source, Kernis said. They also cite Comedy Central’s Daily Show, although Kernis acknowledged they’re not exactly getting news from Jon Stewart’s satiric newscast.
Bryant Park Project, as co-hosted by Alison Stewart and Burbank in more than two dozen pilots, mixes big doses of levity with a news sensibility favoring alternate takes on the day’s top stories. The pilots, one or two hours long, sometimes deliver fresh treatments of less-reported news events and Web content that’s garnering lots of attention. Burbank and Stewart’s banter sounds genuine and lively as they share gossipy tidbits about celebrities, talk up sports news or chime in on each other’s interviews.
The Ramble, a feature of headline oddities laced with the hosts’ jokey asides, adds a freewheeling element to each show, and occasional segments riffing on pop culture and headlines invite the audience to join in the fun. One such segment in the Sept. 18 pilot that was also videotaped for the website spoofed the popular 1970s game show Match Game. It was created in tribute to Brett Somers, a celebrity panelist from the show who died Sept. 15. Two blog readers who responded to a posting about the contest were enlisted as contestants.
Both hits and misses of the pilots are at www.npr.org/blogs/bryantpark for web listeners to discover and dissect.
Part of the charm of Bryant Park is the hosts’ willingness to make fun of their mistakes and move on. After stumbling over the word “curvaceous” during a Sept. 14 pilot, Burbank paused and said, “I should really look at these teases before I actually try to read them.”
“That would be okay, I think,” said Stewart, sounding as if she had been holding her breath. Stewart, a 41-year-old television news veteran and former host of MSNBC’s The Most, is a foil for Burbank, whose tendency to say whatever’s on his mind amplifies the sense that something unexpected could happen.
This is the first full-time hosting gig for Burbank, an NPR reporter who started his career at Seattle’s KUOW. His best preparation for hosting Bryant Park was a stint as a traffic reporter, Burbank said. “You’re constantly juggling, listening, working with three different stations, trying to make all this stuff fit together and sound cool and collected,” he said.
Online piloting has been “slightly embarrassing at times, but mostly useful,” Burbank said. Booked guests don’t show up and potential ones — including the bands he wants to bring on — declined interviews.
But Burbank has found ways to work around such obstacles. When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate, visited the NPR bureau where Bryant Park is based, Burbank persuaded him to appear on the show and, after the interview, play a game of ping-pong. The match, played on a make shift circular table, was also videotaped for the website. Huckabee won. [Let's go to tape.]
Stewart, who studies piano, says piloting in public feels like practicing for a childhood recital. “Imagine if you were ever a kid preparing for a piano or a dance recital and someone had watched all your practices and said, ‘Eh, it’s not very good.’
“We have to remind ourselves that this is practice—we’re supposed to fall down,” she said. “The key is correcting it.” Stewart’s first big reporting job was leading MTV’s “Choose or Lose” presidential election coverage in 1992.
During piloting, producers have been wearing multiple hats, but the staff is growing quickly as Bryant Park’s launch approaches. Sharon Hoffman, a former NBC News producer, recently signed on as e.p., and Trisha McKinney, an MSNBC veteran, contributed to the pilot produced Sept. 10, her first day on the job. Winn Rosenfeld, a TV producer who has worked with Now with Bill Moyers and Nova scienceNow, is producing web videos for the show.
Rachel Martin, also an NPR reporter, recently took over the newscaster’s job, relieving Matt Martinez, supervising senior editor, who has led development of the project. Martinez, an NPR reporter and producer who earned his news stripes at KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., is now directing the show until a full-time director joins the team.
At full strength, the program will have a staff of 13, not including guest contributors, according to Hoffman.
The series will take its official title from Bryant Park, a public space that is across the street from NPR’s new bureau on West 42nd Street. The park is a cultural center and gathering place in midtown Manhattan. It is home to the New York Public Library and the focal point of New York’s twice-annual Fashion Week.
The program and the website will continue to evolve and adjust as news events dictate, Hoffman said, aiming to deliver a “true multimedia experience” for people who may look to other outlets for their main course of news but seek alternatives as part of their “daily news diet.”
“It’s really more than ... a two-hour radio show,” Kernis said. “It’s an online experience with text and video and photography.” He’s encouraged by the online response to Bryant Park. The blog has drawn about 200,000 page views and some 40,000 podcast downloads since April. “To us it’s piloting in the most public way we’ve ever done.”
It’s unclear how many stations will carry the program at launch; NPR didn’t respond to a request for clearance details.
“Our initial strategy is to find the stations that desire to go after the next audience,” Kernis said. A half-dozen stations in different sized-markets and geographical locations would be a good start, he said, and some may choose to air it on their HD channels.
Bryant Park Project will join NPR’s lineup on Sirius Satellite Radio and remain available as a webstream and podcast.
Program directors at four stations said they haven’t been listening to the pilots or weren’t able to consider it for their schedules. Two said Bryant Park could get airtime on one of their HD channels.
Web page posted Sept. 28, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee