Any pressure the producers of Day to Day might feel is understandable.
The new show's selling points read like a wish list compiled by someone burping up buzzwords from pubradio confabs. NPR pitches the newsmag — its first since Weekend Edition Sunday, 16 years ago — as a midday show newsy enough to draw listeners on lunch breaks back to NPR, but zesty and offbeat enough to pepper the schedule with diversity and youthfulness.
Not only that, but stations are looking to Day to Day to lift ratings between their towering drivetime tentpoles, Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Further, as pubcasters hunt high and low for partnerships, Day to Day builds off an editorial and promotional relationship with Microsoft's online magazine Slate — a pairing that has alarmed a few media watchdogs.
So far, the constituency that matters most seems to be biting — the show debuted July 28 on more than 50 stations. Programmers received pilots, but some scheduled the show without hearing even a second of it, betting on the track records of NPR and Day to Day host Alex Chadwick.
The program's neat alignment with the public radio Zeitgeist is no accident. Jay Kernis, NPR senior v.p. of programming, has called Day to Day "the most-researched endeavor I've ever been a part of." (And Kernis had been a leader in creating the heavily researched Morning Edition.) For guidance, NPR turned to stations, which desired more news programming, and core listeners, who said they wanted a lunchtime jolt of NPR but didn't have time for long stories.
Day to Day's producers say the show has a brisker pace than NPR's norm and flexibility to deliver news when it breaks. Rather than approach news head-on, they say, they'll seek fresh angles on events through the lenses of "ideas, beliefs and behaviors" — a catch phrase the show's creators often drop.
"We want to see if we can take the newsmagazine to the next step," Kernis told a group of station programmers at the Public Radio Conference in May.
At times, Day to Day even sounds like an ambitious reinvention of NPR's respected but often-spoofed trademark sound. When a Day to Day job-seeker was asked what she disliked about public radio, she said, "Blah, blah, blah."
"That's the part we're tired of, too," said Chadwick, closing the show's debut episode. "We will try to avoid the 'blah, blah, blah.'"The first week
The week before Day to Day's launch, Executive Producer J.J. Sutherland sounded dangerously caffeinated. At a mile a minute, he explained how the show ventures "off the news."
A pilot episode, for instance, featured a straight-ahead report on President Bush's discussion of how the United States killed Uday and Qusay Hussein. Then an ethicist pondered whether it's all right to gloat about the killings, looking to the Bible for examples.
"It's certainly rooted in news," Sutherland says. "But it might not necessarily be the typical Morning Edition or All Things Considered two-way."
A regular feature debuted in Day to Day's second episode: "The Explainer," in which a reporter adds context to a news event. Andy Bowers, a former NPR reporter who left to teach radio to Slate staffers, explained the different procedures states have for recalling governors. A rumbling bass groove backing him made him sound suspiciously like a would-be Ira Glass, but with shorter pauses.
In its first week, Day to Day featured lots of interviews and a generous helping of California-based news coverage that underscored the show's Los Angeles home.
Chadwick cites advantages and drawbacks to working across the country from NPR's headquarters. On the plus side, "we can put on the air the stuff that we really want," he says, without editors goading them into dull stories.
"But we also will have less editorial backup," he says. "So it's going to be a scramble sometimes. It's going to be a challenge every day."
Day to Day partnered with Slate in part to avoid overtaxing the network's other reporters. The show's first week relied heavily on Slate staffers as commentators and interviewees.
In a feature called "Buzzwords," Chadwick interviewed Slate political analyst Will Saletan, who humorously cooked down the obfuscating language of Democratic presidential candidates.
When Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) invokes God, Saletan quipped, he's telling conservatives, "Okay, I'm Jewish, but the important thing is, I'm religious" — and telling liberals, "Okay, I'm religious, but the important thing is, I'm Jewish."
Slate's writers, along with a few other journalists from around the country, form a stable of what Kernis calls Chadwick's "radio buddies." As on NPR's Tavis Smiley Show, Day to Day's regular commentators are intended to create a familiar on-air team for listeners.Worse than Satan?
NPR has had to defend its decision to partner with Slate. Some media columnists wondered if NPR reporters would go soft on Microsoft, which owns Slate. Others disliked the whiff of commercialism from relying on a for-profit entity.
Robert Feder, media columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, asked "why a noncommercial network that raises money from pledge drives by touting 'editorial independence from corporate media' would team up editorially with any for-profit media powerhouse — let alone one owned by a corporate giant as big as Microsoft."
Meanwhile, Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's On the Media, told the Online Journalism Review he wished the network had teamed up with "anyone else, including Satan." Garfield declined comment for this story.
"We're not partnering with Microsoft," Sutherland says. "We're partnering with Slate." He notes that the magazine's coverage of Microsoft has been "fairly good" and, "Obviously, if Microsoft is in the news, [Slate staffers] won't have anything to do with it" on Day to Day. "You can expect our coverage of Microsoft to be fairly aggressive," he says.
Why Slate? In a Chadwick online diary entry about Day to Day's first week, synergistically written for Slate, the host drew parallels between the audiences for the show and the magazine. "You can read many Slate pieces out loud in three or four minutes — perfect for us," he wrote. "These writers are already thinking in about the same space that we do, and probably for the same reason. People read Slate articles in between other tasks."
Some station programmers wondered at first how the partnership would play out but were reassured after hearing the show. Worrying about Slate "is a very provincial attitude," says Ruth Seymour, g.m. of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif.
"NPR is smart enough to know that they need to keep control of their own editorial process," said Tom Patton, station manager of WJCT in Jacksonville, Fla.Living on the edge
Seymour, Patton and other programmers picked up Day to Day with enthusiasm. Several said a deciding factor was Chadwick, who has built a solid reputation as a reporter and substitute host. Programmers systemwide also want to make their schedules newsier and hope to attract younger listeners with the faster-paced program.
"Rather than wait four or five years for things to filter in from the coasts, like the middle of the country typically does, we thought we'd live on the edge," says Mark McCain, g.m. of KMUW in Wichita, Kan., whose station carries Day to Day. "We're pretty confident it will be a good show."
"It is far and away NPR's most commercial show yet — but I mean that as the highest possible compliment," says Jed Duvall, station manager of WFYI in Indianapolis. "It's more thorough than what is offered on the commercial side of the band and is much more thoughtful, yet at the same time it doesn't bog down."
Duvall says it might even make Talk of the Nation seem "a bit draggy."
"It's tough to judge from one show, but if they can continue what they started, I think they may be on their way to broadening the appeal of public radio beyond its current core listener," he says.
Web page posted Aug. 7, 2003
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