Creating new playbooks for a.m. drive
Veteran broadcast journalist John Hockenberry has signed on as one of two co-hosts for the new two-hour live broadcast in development at New York’s WNYC. The Morning Show (working title) will debut late next winter, accompanied by a strong menu of interactive services.
[The producers later announced Hockenberry's co-host, former CNN and ABC journalist Adaora Udoji.]
To rethink a morning news service for pubradio, WNYC producers literally went back to the drawing board, following a design process created by Stanford University’s Institute of Design to develop program elements behind the scenes. Their goal: conversational reporting that stays on top of international and domestic news and reflects the day’s cultural buzz.
Producers will participate in story planning with newsgathering partners at the BBC World Service and the New York Times to ensure that coverage will go deeper than the day’s headlines, according to Dean Cappello, WNYC senior v.p. of programming and chief creative officer.
“The idea of the show is to say what’s most important and urgent and what’s most compelling and how . . . we spin that off,” Cappello said. Each edition will include a “heavy mix of water cooler” without becoming “a soft show with filler.”
Not long after its debut next winter, the Morning Show will begin originating from WNYC’s new 75,000-square-foot headquarters under construction south of Greenwich Village. But it’s being developed in the station’s home in an ancient city government building in lower Manhattan.
The show’s producers have taken over a WNYC conference room, papering the walls with sticky notes and oversize sheets of paper identifying their aspirations and expected obstacles. The brainstorming exercises follow techniques developed by the Stanford design institute to sharpen producers’ critical-thinking skills and challenge their habitual assumptions.
On one giant sheet of paper, the producers drafted a personal ad spelling out what stations want from a new morning program: “Must be guaranteed to be brilliant, financially secure, sexy, love music and be informed about the world and socially acceptable to all my radio friends — yet funny and provocative.”
Samples of studio work are being kept under wraps for now. “We’re not sharing it broadly, because we want to protect the editorial team so they can take risks and be very, very honest about what works and what doesn’t,” said Laura Walker, WNYC president. PRI, the Minneapolis-based distributor, is WNYC’s primary partner in the production. The BBC World Service, Boston’s WGBH and the New York Times are collaborating partners.
Although slower out of the starting gate than Bryant Park Project, NPR’s new morning drivetime series (see story), The Morning Show has two major-market stations behind it, giving it an early edge in the competition for station carriage.
Both shows aim to compete with or supplement NPR’s Morning Edition newsmagazine, pubradio’s flagship program during the most-listened-to daypart. The show attracts the “largest public radio audience of at-home listeners,” resulting in exceptional performance during station pledge drives, according to Leslie Peters, v.p. of knowledge management for Audience Research Analysis.
Because station programmers haven’t heard a daily run of either show yet, they’re not ready to say whether they’ll choose one or the other for their morning grids.
The Morning Show and NPR’s counterpart take different approaches to broadening the pubradio audience. Bryant Park aims for younger adults and others who like news leavened with humor and interactivity. The Morning Show goes after heavy news consumers who want to be in the know about important events, according to Executive Producer Graham Griffith. Web content and other tools for listener participation are important elements of the Morning Show that also are in development.
“The audience is defined by an attitude of curiosity and inquiry and wanting to hear various points of view,” said Alisa Miller, PRI president. “It is large and not limited to a younger population.” Listeners who tune to public radio occasionally share this psychographic mindset, as well as heavy users who are looking for an alternative to Morning Edition, especially one that responds quickly to breaking news, she said.
“We don’t want to do what others would think of as Daily Show-ized public radio,” said Hockenberry. “Quite frankly, I’m a funny person, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot to laugh about with this stuff.”
“I’d rather know what’s going on than make fun of what I don’t know,” Hockenberry said. “I think that’s where the audience is that a lot of people in the media don’t understand right now.”
“Hearing more adults laughing about how they screwed up the world, that’s not going to get young people,” Hockenberry said.
This is Hockenberry’s return to public radio after 12 years in network TV news. He was working at KLCC in Eugene, Ore., in 1979, when NPR launched an exciting new show called Morning Edition in Washington, D.C.
In Oregon, he said, “We did a lot of news and talked about pesticides a lot,” he said.
He remembers being awed by the innovations of Morning Edition. “It really transformed the system and my life,” Hockenberry said. “I had the opportunity to come to Washington and be part of that growth that NPR experienced in the 1980s.”
Hockenberry spent more than a decade at NPR as a correspondent and program host. He reported from Jerusalem during the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s and received a duPont-Columbia Award for his coverage of the first Gulf War. He participated in the launch of Weekend Edition Sunday and hosted and co-produced Heat, a Peabody-winning late-night live broadcast cited for its innovations and wide-ranging subject matter.
Hockenberry also hosted NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the network’s first foray into live midday talk programming, before becoming a correspondent for the ABC newsmagazine Day One in 1993. Three years later, he joined Dateline NBC as a correspondent. He later helmed the live interview program Hockenberry and led investigative reporting on Internet scams and pornography rings.
Since leaving NBC in 2005, Hockenberry has been contributing to Wired, Metropolis magazine and Condé Nast’s Portfolio. He also hosts the public radio series The DNA Files, and this year he became a distinguished fellow at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When his network career ended abruptly, Hockenberry said, he realized that regardless of the contractual issues involved, “this was not a time to be in television news.”
“If there was another place for the former host of Heat in the media — that was another question. It was a little scary, but I immediately got work.”
Producers of the Morning Show had a place for Hockenberry and have been working with him and other potential co-hosts in the studios.
“The reason you bring in John is because he knows everything about how to do this from the standpoint of a tough journalist,” Griffith said. “The key is to have people who have experience and also a history of not falling into habits.”
“John Hockenberry embodies the values of public radio, the traditional values but with a forward-thinking approach,” Walker said.
Hockenberry sees the show as an enormous opportunity to “put public radio morning news on the map in way that we haven’t really tried to do since the launch of Morning Edition,” he said in the show’s workroom with a view of the East River.
“It would be so sad if the legacy of public radio—given the amazing events that are going on right now and the size of the public radio audience — is that those jokes about people who listen to public radio still get laughs,” Hockenberry said. “They shouldn’t get laughs. There shouldn’t be that sort of parody.”
“It should have no relevance because we’re the center of broadcast news coverage, in many ways, in America,” Hockenberry said.
Announcement of the second Morning Show cohost was pending at Current’s deadline. [Adaora Udoji was named several days later.]
Listeners and station leaders will get their first taste of the new WNYC show with a series of four election specials, the first originates in New York on Nov. 6. Although not intended for broadcast during morning drivetime, the specials will feature both co-hosts and their newsgathering partners as they start covering one of the biggest stories of 2008.
Buttons distributed in tchotchke bags at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Minneapolis Sept. 26 revealed the second co-host of the new national morning news program in development at New York’s WNYC (Current, Sept. 24). Adaora Udoji, a Court TV anchor and former correspondent for CNN and ABC News, joins previously announced co-host John Hockenberry, a veteran of NPR, ABC and NBC News.
The campaign-style badges pairing the co-hosts as running mates in 2008 hinted what the producers would announce the next day during a PRI luncheon spotlighting WNYC’s Morning Show (w.t.) and BBC World News programs.
A video spoofing the gripes of morning listeners and pubradio programmers introduced the co-hosts: “one host who worked in public radio back when it was cool and another host whose name you will never forget—Adaora Udoji.” (The pronunciation, by the way, is a-DOOR-a you-DOE-gee.)
Udoji “is extraordinarily unique as a journalist in that she’s covered 9/11 and the Phil Spector trial,” Hockenberry said, before presenting a bouquet of sunflowers to his new colleague.
Udoji described herself as a lifelong public radio listener. “It’s been a window into worlds that are not my own,” she said. Family history gave her the disposition to understand different worlds: Her father is Nigerian, her mother first-generation Irish-American, and she has lived in Africa and England and spent lots of time in Ireland, Udoji said.
The Morning Show will build on the legacy of public radio morning programming “in a way that connects the dots and is very inclusive, in a different way than perhaps has happened to this point,” she said.
“What drives our show is finding out what the hell is going on,” Hockenberry said. They’re still working out what the broadcast will be like, he said. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park,” he said, “but it’s going to be a fabulous challenge, and I hope you will join us.”
Photos of Hockenberry and Griffith by Heather Swanson, courtesy of WNYC.
The year of Morning Edition's launch is corrected in this online version of this story.
Web page posted Sept. 28, 2007, corrected Oct. 8, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee