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PRX narrows its search for talent with hostiness

Originally published in Current, June 11, 2007
By Karen Everhart

From 1,452, now there are 10. And they’re hot to talk.

The online casting call created by Public Radio Exchange (PRX) — part of CPB’s Public Radio Talent Quest — last week announced 10 finalists who advance to Round 2 of its nationwide competition to find new pubradio hosts. Each finalist gets $500, a blog and another chance to demonstrate what PRX calls “hostiness.”

The competition at www.publicradioquest.com will intensify at each step in the contest ahead, although it was no breeze to survive the first round with more than 1,400 contestants.

Since its start in April, the contest has become something of an obsession for many participants, keeping the site abuzz with interactivity, with some posting comments in haiku and limericks. Site visitors cast 139,000 online votes to choose a “People’s Choice” contestant and a panel of pubcasting-professional judges selected the other nine finalists.

Part of the judges’ job is to ensure that a good mix of candidates makes it to the next round of the contest, said PRX Executive Director Jake Shapiro. “It would have been unfortunate and missing the point if we ended up with 10 people who all work at public radio stations or 10 mid-20s male podcasters from California. We didn’t want to end up in that situation.”

The PRX contest is one of two talent searches that CPB backed with $250,000 grants. The other search, by a team of veteran producers called Launch, takes a quieter, off-line approach, identifying potential hosts through behind-the-scenes conversations and tryouts (earlier story).

Like the three hosts who ultimately emerge from the multiround PRX contest, each of the three hosts recruited by Launch will produce a pilot, competing for CPB funds.

CPB’s radio staff has committed to back at least one pilot program from each talent quest team, but they’re keeping open minds about the creative opportunities that could be forthcoming.

“Yes, there are six finalists, but in the process we identify a much bigger pool of people that someone can use somewhere else within the public radio realm,” said Kathy Merritt, director of program investments in CPB’s radio division.

“Whether or not CPB can fund all these things, the system needs new talent,” said Bruce Theriault, senior radio v.p. “If these people say they want to work in public radio—even if they call it public media—we ought to be interested in working with them. There’s no shortage of need for bright, talented people.”

It helps to grow up in a cult

The PRX finalists bring an intriguing mix of possibilities to the next three web-centered rounds of the contest — April Baer, a Morning Edition anchor from OPB Radio (the only professional pubcaster to make the cut); Chris de Ville, a motel clerk, aspiring musician and self-described slacker from Austin, Texas; Carrie Kaufman, a lesbian mother and newspaper publisher who just split up with her partner; and Glynn Washington, a nonprofit exec from Oakland, Calif., who has a flair for suspenseful storytelling that he credits to growing up in a religious cult.

Three candidates — Chuck Mertz (Chicago), Bee Jellyfish (a.k.a. Brandy Bond, from Los Angeles) and Komal Trivedi (a Londoner transplanted to Boston) — already host shows for college or indie stations. Anne Glickman went to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and is pursuing her destiny as “the next great public radio star” despite a personal crisis that had her consulting with her therapist by phone last week, according to her blog on the contest site. Al Letson, a poet, actor and aspiring media maker from Jacksonville, Fla., recently competed in Fox Television’s contest for filmmakers, On the Lot.

Although contest managers chose not to identify her as such, Rebecca Watson apparently is the “People’s Choice” finalist. Watson, a writer who blogs about science at skepchick.org/blog, was the only finalist whose name didn’t appear on a list of the judges’ favorites but scored among the top online vote-getters. (PRX posted both lists last week before unveiling the finalists.)

In the first round, 1,452 contestants submitted two-minute audio pieces, under PRX instructions to showcase their “hostiness”—a blend of voice, personality, storytelling and sound—that they could bring to pubradio. “Hostiness is someone who makes you want to stop the radio scanner,” said Israel Smith, contest manager. “It’s someone you really want to hear on the radio—that’s what it boils down to.”

Contestants uploaded audio entries to publicradioquest.com, where some 17,000 registered users could listen to each entry, rate it on a 5-to-1 scale and post comments. To choose the People’s Choice finalist, online participants (including other contestants) could rate as many entries as they wanted. Judges vetted the top-scorer before admitting the contestant to the second round.

On a parallel track, PRX staffers listened to every submission and forwarded 200 to the judges. From that pool, each judge chose 12 favorites for whom they were prepared to argue during the judges’ meeting May 30 at PRX’s office in Cambridge, Mass.

“The things that really struck me had to have some sound production in them or at least a nod to the medium of radio, not just folks who could host a TV show because they had a great personality,” said Julie Shapiro, a judge who is managing director of the Third Coast Audio Festival. “There was a very exciting willingness among the judges to take some risks.”

That was a priority for Maxie Jackson III, senior director of program development at WNYC in New York. “I went into it knowing that the one thing I wanted to accomplish was to get someone who could make a mark, bring new energy and perspective to the table, but we also needed someone who could succeed in public radio,” Jackson said. “I was not thinking about the network — I was thinking more about the stations and the audience we have as a collective.”

“One of our purposes in doing this is to expose our system as a whole to new talent,” Jackson said.

For the next round, each finalist will complete three tasks that test basic radio skills, Jake Shapiro said. They will write and announce a 60-second billboard for a show on a specified topic. “This is a very challenging writing and performing exercise — like writing the marketing pitch that listeners will hear when they decide to listen to the show,” Shapiro said.

They’ll also read copy that’s been given to them with little time to review, simulating a live on-air broadcast, and perform some free association in response to a word or phrase. “This is not necessarily something you’d encounter in a radio show, but it tests thinking on your feet and being thoughtful and engaging on a topic you’re not necessarily prepared for,” Jake Shapiro said.

The tests will be recorded by phone and uploaded for online voting later this month. Seven contestants—one being a “People’s Choice” contender—will advance to the third round. The field will be whittled to five contestants and, later, to the three who will make pilots.

His girlfriend made him do it

Some finalists reported sleeplessness or weird dreams last week as they awaited calls from Cambridge.

“I was not that vain to think that I would win,” said Chris de Ville, a motel clerk who engineers sound for his “post-Television neo-cowpunk band.” He heard about the Talent Quest on the radio and decided to give it a shot. “It’s not that I’m lazy — I do a lot of things — but I thought, ‘Here’s the easy way in. Maybe I can slide by on sheer talent instead of having to work for years to get there.’”

“No one loves public radio more than me,” said Glynn Washington from Oakland. “I was listening to the This American Life podcast when they called me. Ira Glass is a huge hero of mine.”

“The ability that radio has to be transformative is amazing to me and something I hope to give to others,” Washington said.

“I had nightmares all night that they called,” said Bee Jellyfish, a 24-year-old who hosts a late-night sex-and-romance advice radio show. “It’s like Loveline but there’s no doctor, just the experience of me.” Jellyfish, who hosts the show under the banner of the SuicideGirls website of punk-inspired pinup girls, also draws inspiration from Ira Glass.

“I want public radio to be a place where more people feel comfortable going for information,” Jellyfish said. Her name, by the way, is the identity she created for herself after she became a SuicideGirls model.

Why did Chuck Mertz enter the competition? “It was my girlfriend telling me, ‘Why don’t you get a freakin’ job,’” said Mertz, who hosts This is Hell on WNUR, Northwestern University’s radio station. His girlfriend alerted Mertz and his producers to the contest after hearing a promo for it during her morning commute. “I wrote the script and it took about 15 minutes,” Mertz said. “It only took three takes and editing out some loud breaths that I took.”

Mertz, who prides himself for being hard-to-peg politically, didn’t think he had a chance as a finalist. “A politically and philosophically independent point of view is not something that commercial or public radio is interested at this time,” he asserted. He figured his entry would promote his talk show, and indeed he noticed an immediate spike in podcast downloads.

“I can see that our show might ruffle some feathers at NPR,” Mertz said, “but I know a lot of people who aren’t happy with where NPR is going right now. I don’t think that one show that has a different tone from the rest of broadcasting is bad for public radio.”

PRX's Shapiro had hoped the contest would be taken as an invitation to outsiders. “We feel strongly that this is just scratching the surface of enormous interest of people out there who want to be part of public radio. There’s a huge appetite out there and very few ways in.” PRX was created to open the door, too, though at a more professional level. “This is inviting them in a different way.”

Web page posted June 13, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

Of the two talent-hunting teams sponsored by CPB, PRX has taken a public route and a team of producers, Launch, is using more traditional search methods, May 2007.

Challenge for pubradio: inspiring, hiring, keeping talent, 2000.

Veteran producer Jim Russell says there's a downside in relying on personalities as hosts, 2005.

CPB announces competition, February 2007.

LINKS

CPB published an FAQ explaining the Talent Quest.

The talent-questing teams' websites:
BULLET Launch
BULLET PRX

Personal and other websites of finalists:
Bee Jellyfish
Carrie Kaufman
Al Letson
Chuck Mertz
Komal Trivedi
Glynn Washington
Rebecca Watson
No personal sites found for April Baer, Chris de Ville and Anne Glickman.

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PRX finalists for Public Radio Talent Search Click to go to finalists' pages on PRX contest site. Top row: April Baer, Chris de Ville, Anne Glickman, Bee Jellyfish, Carrie Kaufman, Lower row: Al Letson, Chuck Mertz, Komal Trivedi, Glynn Washington and Rebecca Watson.