Bryant Park host finds cure for Seattle homesick blues
Luke Burbank, co-host and key startup team member for NPR’s new Bryant Park Project, will leave the morning show for Gen-Xers Dec. 14 . He plans to return to his hometown of Seattle to be closer to his 13-year-old daughter.
“Here’s the thing about living 3,000 miles away from your kid,” Burbank told the show’s listeners last Tuesday. “It really sucks. You miss her all the time, and you wonder if you’ve got your priorities straight.”
Burbank, whose energy and candor contributed mightily to Bryant Park’s irreverent tone, began his farewell segment by playing a chirpy but wistful voice-mail message from his daughter Addie. He closed with a mock-bitter, bleeped-out reply to a Sigur Ros fan who’d posted a nasty comment about his botched Oct. 5 interview with the Icelandic band. “You hurt me,” Burbank said, “You hurt me real bad. I hope you’re happy now, [bleep].”
Announcement of Burbank’s departure came six weeks after NPR unveiled the morning alternative for young adults who don’t listen to its newsmags (earlier article).
Six public radio stations air Bryant Park on their FM or AM stations, including KUOW’s sister station KXOT in Tacoma, Wash.; KCPW in Salt Lake City; and WWPV in Burlington, Vt., a college-owned station programmed by Vermont Public Radio.
Eleven others carry the show on their HD Radio channels, according to NPR. NPR also puts it on Sirius Satellite Radio and, of course, the Web.
Since Bryant Park launched Oct. 1, its web audience has soared. The site had more than 265,000 unique visitors in October, almost six times as many as in September. They clicked on 325,000 media streams, nearly 100 times as many as the previous month.
Burbank, a former NPR West reporter and Day to Day booker who has contributed to This American Life and guest-hosted Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, signed on with Bryant Park this spring to build the show with Senior Producer Matt Martinez. They started with a blog, adding audio and video files and then piloting a daily national radio show this summer after cable news veteran Alison Stewart came on as co-host. The show expanded from one to two hours this month.
“We’re all grateful to Luke for getting us this far,” said Jay Kernis, NPR senior v.p. for programming. “We wouldn’t have let him out of the contract if we felt the show would be harmed.” NPR posted the job last week and hopes to hire a new co-host before Burbank departs in mid-December.
To get the job, candidates must have a strong news background, complement Stewart’s talents and demonstrate that they can handle live interviews well, Kernis said. The next co-host will also have to have multimedia production skills and “represent the core values very well,” Kernis said, referring to the qualities that define pubradio.
It’s unclear whether Burbank has a job lined up in Seattle. NPR’s communications staff did not respond to requests for an interview with him, and Burbank declined to talk without clearance.
“I’m sorry to see the system losing him because Luke is one of the few personality-types we have in public radio,” said Jim Russell, creator of Marketplace, Weekend America and other American Public Media programs. “He’s a very talented guy.”
Credible reason to leave
When people cite family reasons for leaving a job, Russell is often skeptical, but he said it rings true in Burbank’s case. Burbank had turned down a spot on Weekend America because he didn’t want to move away from his daughter, Russell said.
Nevertheless, Russell doesn’t see Burbank’s exit as a big setback for Bryant Park. “Who was the first host of Marketplace?” he asked. (If you guessed David Brancaccio, you’re wrong.)
“It’s not very troubling—early on, shows do cycle through talent until they find the right chemistry,” Russell said. “After all, they’re not really on the air anyway.”
Burbank’s announcement prompted an outpouring of disappointed and sympathetic listener postings on Bryant Park’s blog, but those were the program’s fans. The previous week in Salt Lake City, KCPW heard from about 40 listeners angry about its decision to air Bryant Park from 5 to 7 a.m., replacing its early airing of Morning Edition. The reaction wasn’t unexpected—any change that brings a significantly different show to a schedule is guaranteed to prompt some listener rebellion.
“People are upset about the style—that’s where the objections are coming from—because it’s so un-public radio,” said Bryan Schott, KCPW news director and p.d. The hosts’ banter particularly upsets core listeners. “It’s alien to them that the hosts talk to each other and laugh about things and make offhand remarks.”
Schott decided to schedule Bryant Park because ratings and pledge income for the first airing of Morning Edition had been miniscule. Plus, it was a chance to differentiate KCPW’s schedule from that of nearby KUER, which airs Morning Edition five hours every weekday.
“It can’t be all Morning Edition and all All Things Considered all the time,” Schott said. “I see Bryant Park as a way of enhancing what we do in the morning.”
Schott began listening to Bryant Park during its online pilot and hears continual refinements. “They are not there yet, but I can see where they’re going, and I believe that they’re going to get there.”
To reply to listener complaints, Schott recorded an interview with Kernis about Bryant Park and NPR’s reasons for creating it. He posted the audio on KCPW’s website.
“We’d worry if a station took off Morning Edition and there weren’t angry listeners,” Kernis told Current. “This is something new, and people don’t like change.”Bryant Park’s target audience is entirely different from Morning Edition’s, Kernis said. “We are going after people who never thought public radio was for them, who are very interested in the news and putting the news in context, and very interested in how the news affects them.” These listeners aren’t tuned into pubradio but will gravitate to Bryant Park via Sirius, web streams or podcasts, he said.
Web page posted Nov. 20, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee