Murray Street Productions is reintroducing Heat, a short-lived late-night pubradio series from 1990 that was hosted by John Hockenberry. Many pubradio fans who never heard the show have heard about it from those who remember it fondly.
“It’s one of those programs that lingered, like The Great American Dream Machine, in people’s imaginations,” says Steve Rathe, Murray Street founder and creator/producer of the original series.
Rathe collaborated with old colleagues to create a “best of” collection from the Heat archives. Eleven hour-long episodes, assembled from some 80 hours of the original series, are being offered to broadcasters via Public Radio Exchange (www.prx.org/series/17060).
Distributed live for eight months by NPR, Heat developed a loyal following among hipsters for its sense of humor and mix of news coverage, literary readings, storytelling by Lynda Barry and live music. Hockenberry, who recorded new intros and other material for the repackaged Heat, “could really skate between” public affairs and cultural topics and weave them together, Rathe says. “We really stretched across the idea range of public radio.”
Some of the new programs have much the same content as in their original run, and others draw segments from more than one episode. Aiming for a package with evergreen appeal, Murray Street drew most on cultural material, including musical performances by Loudon Wainwright III and Dr. John, a seductive poetry reading by writer/enchantress Vertamae Grosvenor and interviews with, among others, comedian George Carlin, songwriter Doc Pomus and author Joyce Carol Oates.
Murray Street created the concept for Heat during a 1986 collaboration with Boston’s WGBH, and the resulting proposal was one of the first series to receive funding from CPB’s then-new Radio Program Fund, Rathe says. “It took three years to get it funded,” he recalls. Five big-city stations put up $10,000 in cash, and the National Endowment for the Arts gave Heat $295,000, its largest media grant at the time, Rathe said. NPR picked up the series and agreed to back it financially. But carriage never topped 40 stations, and Heat couldn’t attract the corporate sponsors needed to stay on the air.
“Because it was designed as a late-night program, it was not a mainstream or drive-time context and not attractive to underwriters,” says Dave Kanzeg, p.d. at Cleveland’s WCPN, whose 1990 letter expressing dismay about the imminent cancellation of Heat is among the mementos that Rathe kept over the years.
Although Kanzeg gladly aired the show, he speculates that programmers at many stations, especially in small markets, may have been put off by its “avant feel” and considered it too risky to break from established music formats for the daypart. “The system wasn’t prepared to deal with Heat, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since,” Kanzeg says.
Just a few months after Heat went off the air, the series received a 1991 Peabody Award citing it for “establishing a benchmark that will be difficult to approach, much less surpass.”
“It was as if an exciting new toy had been taken away by an evil aunt,” Kanzeg says, recalling Heat’s cancellation. “It had, in a very short time, made such a strong impression that it was very difficult to remove it, in terms of the public reaction.”
He plans to schedule encore broadcasts of Heat in a time slot designated for specials and limited series, Friday nights at 11.
Web page posted Sept. 28, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee