Tryouts on Broadway
The five siblings of WNYC's Satellite Sisters, as pictured in publicity art.
WNYC to test a trio of weekend shows at home
Originally published in Current, Aug. 30, 1999
By Steve Behrens
If a show can make it there, it can make it anywhere, so WNYC is planning to try out three new weekend programs in New York City, burnishing them locally before offering them nationally.
The historic old station--public radio's biggest--isn't generating portentous hoopla around these modest-scale shows, but there is a whiff of manifest destiny in WNYC's gradual expansion into national production.
"I call WNYC a 75-year-old start-up," says Dean Cappello, its v.p. of programming for the past year. "For 72 years, it was owned by the city. There were great people there, and interesting things happened ... but nobody had a sense it ought to take its rightful place as the flagship of public radio." Now it can try, and it must, he says. "I think we're obligated to help shape the future of public radio."
The trio of programs under development are talk, essays and reporting, all for weekend broadcast:
- Satellite Sisters, which gets some hype at next month's Public Radio Program Directors Conference, will feature five real-life sisters and guests, doing their best to talk like real people instead of radio people. The show, now in pilot production, starts locally in the fall and nationally next year.
- The Next Big Thing--produced and hosted by a recruit from NPR, cultural reporter Dean Olsher--will be a highly produced hour modelled after a personable print magazine. Olsher has months to develop the series--and experiment with single pieces for local air--before the show begins local broadcast next May. It's a New York City show that may go national. "If it gets to be a national show, great," says WNYC President Laura Walker.
- Hot Ticket (working title) has a comparatively tighter focus as a one-hour Sunday program on issues and ideas in the arts, executive-produced by Susan Morris. The show begins local broadcast Dec. 5, but, as a co-production with Public Radio International, it's aiming for national distribution before long.
As with everything else at WNYC, producers develop programs in the context of an institution that is buying its freedom for $20 million from the city government. (So far the station has paid off half of the debt, on schedule.)
New Yorkers saved WNYC's AM and FM stations for a reason, says Walker: "to create programming, primarily for ourselves and also for the nation."
"We're trying to create things we know our audience wants--things that start out with an idea and passion, where the bugs are worked out on the local level."
Besides, Walker wants to make national programs so WNYC will earn some money with them rather than simply write checks to NPR and other producers. The station's spending on NPR dues almost tripled in the last three years, she observes, "and with no end in sight."
"Empathy with an edge"
Of the three programs, Satellite Sisters is the farthest along. The proposal--from Portland, Ore., marketing executive Liz Dolan--came more than a year ago when WNYC had already identified a need for such a program, Walker says: "We don't have enough women's voices on our air, we don't have enough real conversation on our air."
The featured players are the Dolan sisters--"five sisters who talk like sisters do, about things that matter to them," says Walker. As the publicity materials promise: "No hostility, no judgment, no rules. Just empathy with an edge." The sisters are quick-talking, humorous, bright by their own self-description, in their 30s and 40s. Some are mothers, some single.
Cappello, who came to WNYC two years ago from the bygone Monitor Radio and was promoted to program chief within a year, says his mission is to "narrow the gap between conversations off the air and on the air." For example, people do talk meaningfully about issues related to Monica Lewinsky, he says, but generally not on the air.
Dolan describes the show's origins via cell phone as she drives down Pacific Coast Highway: "It came out of a conversation Julie and I had one time." Julie is a Dolan sister. "It would be so much more fun to work together than to work in the dumb jobs we had."
Liz Dolan's dumb job at the time was v.p. in charge of global marketing for Nike--an exciting, all-absorbing job that had monopolized her life. She quit Nike in 1997 when she turned 40, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. But what could the sisters do together? "Talking is the only thing we could think of," says Dolan.
She knew Laura Walker early in the 1990s, when Walker was working as a top fundraiser for Children's Television Workshop and Dolan--on behalf of Nike--gave her millions to sponsor the first two seasons of CTW's Ghostwriter series. So when Dolan was ready to propose the Satellite Sisters idea, it was payback time.
"She owed me at least one pitch meeting--she had to listen to one idea and give us an honest reaction," says Dolan. Walker liked the idea and, as a fellow marketer, could see potential revenue from a national underwriter as well as from a web site developer. WNYC and Dolan's Mud Bath Productions entered the series as partners in a for-profit joint venture.
Last August, the sisters went into a Los Angeles studio with freelance producer Mary Beth Kirchner to tape the first pilot. Since then, the sisters have learned a few things that don't work. They gave up on themes, because so many of the shows fit into "life transitions." And Dolan says the sisters rejected the role of interviewers, because they ended up sounding like "really bad versions of Terry Gross."
"The other complete curve we've been thrown is Julie moving to Thailand," says Dolan. Julie, the eldest sister, will still participate from Bangkok. The youngest sister, Lian, will work with Liz in the studio, while Sheila may call in from New York, where she runs a school, and Monica from Portland, where she works in medical research.
There are also three brothers in the family, who listened to the pilot apprehensively, as Liz Dolan tells it. "They were afraid we would take out every sin they'd ever committed. They were hugely relieved we didn't mention them once."
Other "cast members" will add diversity beyond the Dolan clan. One regular visitor will have fresh observations from her daily life as a brand-new mother, who's having trouble with breast feeding, among other surprises. A good number will be men, including Lian's obstetrician, Shafeeq Shamsid-din.
The objective is to inspire people to assess their own lives, says Cappello, and to talk to each other about what they figure out.
Paralleling the news
The Next Big Thing will be kind of New Yorkerish, says Dean Cappello. So it may be no coincidence that the host/producer, Dean Olsher (no relation) wants the show to take the approach of famed New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who paralleled the news rather than covered it. He'd like to see the show carried on Saturdays, along with Weekend Edition or This American Life.
When Cappello came to WNYC, he was looking to produce "something that would take more advantage of the city, something more literary and essay-like." Cappello thought of Olsher, whom he'd met once at NPR. "He called me about the time I was going to call him."
Olsher had worked four years as a freelance cultural reporter for NPR and three as a staff member on the culture desk, doing pieces on J.D. Salinger's sold-off letters, Duke Ellington's greatness and lost languages.
Cappello wants listeners to feel they've taken an hour-long journey with a good companion, and he thinks Olsher fills the bill--a curious, well-read journalist with a personal style unconstrained by convention.
The march of culture
WNYC is saying less, so far, about Hot Ticket, a weekly hour about the arts and culture. Executive Producer Susan Morris was not available for comment.
Walker says both Hot Ticket and The Next Big Thing respond to a need among its listeners. WNYC learned from the audience of Leonard Lopate's local talk show that New Yorkers are "very interested in feeling more connected" with the march of culture.
Despite its title, Hot Ticket will be about "issues and ideas in the arts," says Walker. It won't cover openings or fawn over celebrities.
But it might do a story linked to an opening and featuring a famous artist, she says, like the one Morris did for WNET's series CityArts, in which painter Frank Stella walked around the Whitney Biennial exhibition with a couple of opinionated teenagers who barely knew who he was. [Earlier article about WNET's CityArts.]
Morris, who was story consultant for City Arts, has also produced for BBC's arts program The Late Show, for Bravo, for the Independent Arts Channel, and for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To Current's home page
Earlier news: WNYC begins a new life, having bought itself from the city government, 1996.
Outside link: WNYC's website.
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