It's been off the air almost nine months, but Heat is still a hot topic
In early May, Executive Producer Steve Rathe accepted the George Peabody Award for the late-night talk show. Research commissioned by CPB reveals that Heat potentially could have had a very large audience for a public radio program. At the NPR programming meeting in New Orleans last week, Peter Pennekamp, NPR's v.p. for cultural programming and program services, gave the NPR Board a post-mortem of the program. Here are some excerpts:
"In March 1989, NPR Cultural Programming initiated an extensive renewal of mission, policy and programming. Key conclusions were that (1) the cultural transformations of the United States, as most vividly signalled by changing demographics, will profoundly affect the cultural mandate of the system over the next decade; (2) the separation between the disciplines of "news'' and "culture'' is artificial, serving to leave "culture'' without a context and "news'' with inadequate depth; and (3) the issues of culture are partially manifested through the arts, but encompass the full range of human beliefs, values and identities, and their expressions...''
"In order to provide an important station service, Heat was designed as a five-day, two-hour, late-night strip that presented a format which broke the familiar public radio "magazine'' mold. Heat's purpose was to attract a regular late-night audience to public radio; to extend time spent listening by NPR News fringe listeners; and to bring new audiences to public radio — which, with their radios set — might be delivered to Morning Edition the next day...''
"The initial format idea of a low-cost national "roundtable discussion'' was discarded because the format did not suit the talents of the host [John Hockenberry], nor did feedback from stations indicate that it was of interest to them as they heard the early shows. The more highly produced segments did match the host's skills more effectively, and proved to be the heart of the show. However, they required increased research and staff pre-production. Production costs mounted, each one approved by NPR, generally on a weekly basis. ... NPR Development relentlessly pursued funding, finding many potential underwriters; all of them wanted to see the program further developed ... the timing of the Mapplethorpe/NEA fiasco was deleterious...''
"Over 40 stations, including most major markets, carried Heat almost from its inception. They represented approximately 50 percent of the available audience. As a result of early Arbitron data and CPB-sponsored research by FMR Associates Inc., many more stations were actively considering adding the show. The FMR research [results] ... were summed up as follows: 'Based on the findings of this study, Heat tests as positively as any spoken-word program we have ever evaluated with public radio listeners. What's more, the higher level of appeal indicated by 'occasional NPR samplers' as well as the strong appeal among women and Hispanics (who do not fit the standard profile for news-oriented listeners) suggests considerable potential for this program if further developed and positioned in an appropriate programming day part (either morning or afternoon drive)...''
Heat was a large undertaking, over twice as expensive as the next largest project under development by NPR Cultural Programming. It far exceeded NPR's ability to sustain it purely through innovative funds, yet it was too innovative to attract underwriting quickly. But it should be pointed out that Heat had the lowest cost-per-hour of any nationally produced news/cultural affairs program in public radio — about half the cost of Fresh Air and only a small percentage of the cost of NPR newsmagazines.''
"Two factors conspired to foreshorten Heat's broadcast life:
(1) The economy of public radio is such that new, moderate-to-large-scale ventures cannot rely on resources within the system for adequate ongoing support. (2) The policies of funders make it difficult to start moderate-to-large-scale innovative projects which, by their very nature, do not initially serve the marketing needs of corporations and yet exceed the capacities of foundations to support such projects.''
"Overall, we believe that the system and NPR benefited from the Heat experience. The courage and insight that motivated the Heat partnership, with special credit going to Executive Producer Steve Rathe, continues to influence NPR thinking through a variety of efforts, most notably the effort to develop a 'cultural desk' within News.''
Web page posted Sept. 28, 2007
Copyright 1992 by Current Publishing Committee