Public Radio Talent Quest
Six fished from talent pool: a poet, an activist, a foodie . . .
The two scouting teams in CPB’s Public Radio Talent Quest have zeroed in on six candidates who want to be the next big thing on public radio.
“This year has truly been a dream search, a quest for charm, depth and humor, and the emotional and intellectual horsepower that a host really needs,” said Marge Ostroushko, a member of the team Launch Production LLC.
The competition, intended to bring new voices and ideas to pubradio, will continue as the six would-be hosts complete pilot shows by January. CPB will pay for the pilots and then “pick one or more to fund for development,” said President Pat Harrison Sept. 26  during a reception that opened the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in the Twin Cities.
Launch, a threesome of accomplished producers, put forth three talents who are known in national media:
- food writer Mark Bittman,
- activist and speaker Majora Carter, and
- actress/comedian Julia Sweeney.
Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the online bazaar for public radio producers and programmers, started with 1,452 applicants, ran four web-powered competitive rounds and chose three finalists:
- poet and actor Al Letson,
- nonprofit manager and storyteller Glynn Washington, and
- blogger/podcaster Rebecca Watson.
Not all of the Talent Quest finalists were on hand for their official introduction to pubradio managers and programmers at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, but the two who couldn’t make it, former Saturday Night Live cast member Sweeney and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Carter, participated by two-way audio link.
While PRX held its wide-open competition in public, the Launch trio — Mary Beth Kirchner, Julie Burstein and Ostroushko — worked behind the scenes, prospecting for hosting aptitude among people who had already made names for themselves in other arenas.
Early this year, the Launch team cold-called 63 promising candidates to gauge their interest in creating a public radio program. All were receptive to the idea. The scouts narrowed the field through a series of one-on-one phone calls and meetings, assessments of their availability and commitment, and studio “screen tests.”
“To me it speaks to the power of the public radio audience and what the stations have done to build such listenership,” said Kirchner, that “people who could do anything — write more books, do a TV show or a movie” — were all interested in working in public radio.
PRX’s online Talent Quest competition, at publicradioquest.com, not only invited applicants but gave pubradio listeners a role in the process. “We tapped the idea that public radio was wide open to new ideas,” said Jake Shapiro, PRX executive director.
PRX’s panel of Talent Quest judges picked most of the contestants who demonstrated their radio skills through a series of challenges and advanced through four competitive rounds over the summer. Judges picked Letson and Washington as finalists.
In each round, the contest empowered the registered online participants — who numbered as many as 139,000 — to choose one contestant (who was also deemed viable by the judges). Each time, Watson got the highest rankings.
Watson, a former magician who blogs at skepchick.org and co-hosts the podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, used both to plug the contest and enlisted her friends and fans for help with viral promotion. “Web 2.0, baby,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“I see a big part of my job as getting people excited about really doing something for science and critical thinking, so this contest fit in pretty well with all that,” she wrote.
Watson hopes to bring her approach to scientific inquiry to public radio with a show that examines subcultures and the paranormal with skepticism, she said at the Talent Quest reception in St. Paul.
Letson, an African-American poetry slam veteran and teacher from Jacksonville, Fla., told the audience he plans to visit different cities to examine issues that bring communities together and pull them apart.
Washington, who runs a mentoring program for young entrepreneurs at the University of California at Berkeley, will pilot an interview program called Snap Judgment that will reveal “the decisions people make that change their lives.”
Each of PRX’s PRTQ finalists received $10,000 and will be paired with an experienced producer to create their pilots.
Launch draws back the curtains
Early this year, producers on the Launch team met in New York to share their lists of candidates. “We really started with the ideal—who are the people that ideally you would love to bring to public radio—the smartest, funniest, most thoughtful, the biggest thinkers,” said Kirchner, a Los Angeles-based indie radio producer and e.p. of American Routes.
Contributing their ideas were Lori Leibovitch, an author who has written for Salon.com and Talk magazine, among other publications, and Keri Wachter, a recent Columbia University graduate who teaches guitar at a rock camp for girls, Burstein said.
In its search for new hosts, Launch aimed for the caliber of talent that “you really have to go in search of to pull them in,” said Kirchner. “For the most part they’re too busy, and they’ve got other options going. Most of them needed and wanted to be courted.”
“We were looking for people at a place in their careers where this would be a natural next step . . . ” said Ostroushko, a producer who helped create A Prairie Home Companion, This American Life and Speaking of Faith. Trying radio would be a challenge, allowing them to use their knowledge in a new way.
By early summer, Launch narrowed the field to 10 and asked the candidates to do studio tryouts. In August, the three producers met again in New York, each with notecards naming whom they liked best and why, said Burstein, e.p. of Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s show from New York’s WNYC.
Of the three Launch finalists, Majora Carter has the least media experience, but she’s increasingly in the public eye. Her work as founder and director of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization concerned with environmental and economic development of the New York City borough, attracted a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2005. This year, Newsweek included her in its list of People to Watch.
Burstein learned of Carter’s work from a feature in Wesleyan University’s alumni magazine. “Even on the page, you could sense this amazing spirit,” Burstein said.
Carter could participate in the St. Paul reception only by audio link because she was attending former President Clinton’s Global Initiative summit in New York, but she commented over the wire: “Public radio totally shapes the way I look at the world.” She reported that she was already scouting guests for her pilot at Clinton’s summit.
Sweeney, creator and performer of the one-woman show, "Letting Go of God," that was featured on This American Life, also joined the reception via two-way audio link. She’s an avid listener to pubradio and considers public broadcasters “my peeps.”
Sweeney earned renown with her Saturday Night Live performances as Pat, the sexually ambiguous character with a nasal whine, but her real voice is so warm and engaging, it sounds like a smile.
Sweeney wants to create a show about science, which she reads about voraciously, she said during the Launch presentation.
In her studio test, Sweeney interviewed Michael Brown, the astronomer who was instrumental in demoting Pluto from the rank of planet, and the resulting tape amazed Burstein. “She was completely willing to ask very basic questions, and because of her interests and personality, scientists are willing to talk with her in a way that they don’t talk to anyone else.”
Bittman, who did appear at the reception, pointed at his gray hair and noted he’s not exactly “young talent.” Indeed, he has a popular New York Times column; a book, How to Cook Everything, that has sold more than 1 million copies; and two cooking shows distributed by American Public Television.
“I am completely and totally honored to have this opportunity,” Bittman said. He’s aiming for a show that’s “exciting and a little more frenetic than what’s on the air now” and that will build from his food expertise into unexpected territory.
“We will start as a food show and turn it into all-sports,” he said.
Moving into the next step of the CPB-sponsored Public Radio Talent Quest, the Public Radio Exchange team named experienced radio producers as mentors for its three finalists. The contestants and their mentors have two months to develop episode pilots for shows that the contestants want to host.
Ben Manilla, a San Francisco producer/distributor who produced the 13-hour doc The Blues and The Putumayo World Music Hour, will work with Bay Area resident Glynn Washington.
Richard Paul, producer of Shakespeare in American Life, former reporter for WAMU in Washington, and a longtime member of the Capitol Steps comedy troupe, will work with Rebecca Watson of Brookline, Mass.
Taki Telonidis, a former NPR producer who is media producer for the Western Folklife Center in Salt Lake City, will work with Al Letson of Jacksonville, Fla.
Web page posted Nov. 27, 2007, updated March 26, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee