Producers roll out weekend radio ideas: Anthem and Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me, among them

Originally published in Current, Sept. 30, 1996
By Jacqueline Conciatore

As currently conceived, NPR's new Saturday music and information program, Anthem, opens with Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner."

While that is a tentative choice, the guitar-solo intro does aptly signal what's to come, or at least what NPR is promising: "a celebration of popular American culture" meant to appeal to Boomers and 25- to 35-year-olds.

NPR sketched its plans for the new show Sept. 21 [1996] during the Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) conference in New Orleans. Asked by one p.d. to describe Anthem in a simple phrase, Alex Chadwick said: "We play rock 'n roll."

"American Pie," said NPR cultural programming Vice President Murray Horwitz.

One of the other creators, producer Margaret Howze, minutes earlier defined the program by musical genres: "Pop, rock, R&B, blues, some classical where there's crossover, traditional and regional. ... Focused eclecticism." While the featured music will be popular, it must also be "music that resonates and is durable," she said. The program will have, in any given hour, 40 to 60 percent music and talk about music.

Chadwick and Howze are two members of the team that won this summer's NPR contest to develop ideas for new Saturday programming. The network commissioned four in-house teams and one of station program directors, chaired by Scott Williams, of KJZZ, Phoenix.

At PRPD, NPR also presented more details about its forthcoming comedy-quiz show, which it is developing with Car Talk Executive Producer Doug Berman. In separate speeches before the Saturday NPR session, Vice Presidents Bill Buzenberg and Horwitz teased conference-goers about the quiz show title. "It has a name," said Buzenberg while at the podium, scratching his head as if he couldn't recall it. "What is it? Wait, wait, don't tell me...."

Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me in concept means to give NPR's "core" listeners a break from news and analysis. There won't be, for example, any reports on "the economics of Tibetan pygmy flute-playing," one of Car Talk's Magliozzi brothers offered in a taped introduction of Berman. You'll have to wait for All Things Considered for that, he said.

Berman goes to New York for laughs

The quiz show will feature a panel of guests who answer current-events questions posed by a straight-man host, Berman said. The panelists' "primary job is to be funny whether they're right or wrong."

Berman shared some of the questions he has used in New York auditions:

  • What was Bob Dole referring to when he said, "I do not need [blank] to refresh my soul." "Aqua Velva," one contestant replied. The answer is: the presidency.

  • What was the reference of this statement: "It has a tendency to roll over fairly easily." Bill Clinton's political conviction, said one panelist. Demi Moore, said another. The answer is: an Isuzu four-wheeler.

To develop pilots, NPR is using comedy writers who have worked for TV shows including Seinfeld, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Rosie O'Donnell's daytime talk show. For panelists, "our first impulse was to use existing personalities," said Berman. "Then we decided we wanted to mine the field for original talent, so as the show develops, it will really belong to public radio."

The one-hour show will feed at 11 a.m., Saturday, after Car Talk. NPR says it will work with stations to develop the program clock, as it will with Anthem. The quiz show will probably be recorded live with some postproduction, said Sandra Rattley-Lewis, head of NPR's Program Strategy Board. Anthem will probably be produced live, she said.

Anthem will feature live performances from NPR's Studio 4A, with such guests as Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman or Buckwheat Zydeco, Chadwick said. The producers drew up a jokey list of acceptable and rejectable bands to illustrate what kinds of music they'd feature:

Play Don't play
Bobby McFerrin
Professor Longhair
Don Was
Four Tops
Quartetto Gelato
Pearl Jam
Van Morrison
Hank Williams

Bobby Darin
Dr. Dre
Don Ho
REO Speedwagon
Anonymous Four
Guarneri Quartet
Pearls Before Swine
Van Halen
Hank Williams Jr.

They would play some country music, they said, but nothing like "Achy Breaky Heart."

While Anthem will offer musical selections that can be heard on commercial radio, the series won't be just spinning discs, Howze told Current. Music might be embedded in interviews with artists, or a segment might precede a song that's somehow related. The show will also follow the record marketplace, she indicated. "If a Roy Orbison big boxed set just comes out, you might hear some of the music."

Anthem's information segments will feature interviews, but no reported pieces. As envisioned, the show breaks out five information segments dealing with books, travel, sports and other interests. A how-to segment called "How Am I Going to?" will address listeners' big and little concerns: How can I figure out cell phones? Retire to Costa Rica? Convince my boss I really am working at home? Become mayor?

The "Rewind and Fast Forward" segment will cull NPR's archives for specials. The producers might replay Vertamae Grosvenor's old first-person essay about setting out for Paris to be a literary exile. (That's the "rewind" part.) Then they might insert a related piece of new tape. (That's "fast forward.")

As for format, Anthem's two hours will be discrete and flipable; it will have fixed underwritten segments, along with two two-minute breaks per hour for local insertions, plus a one-minute break at the end of each hour. It will feed at noon.

Uncomfortable with mixing

Programmers at the Saturday PRPD session expressed some concern that Anthem would have a split identity. "I've seen other shows that mix music and information, and are neither fish nor fowl. What's going to make it work?," asked Neil Best, station manager at KUNC, Greeley. The program will have NPR's sensibility, said Chadwick. While it is a risk to mix the two, "in our normal lives we cross over those lines all the time." A Prairie Home Companion and other shows mix music and talk, he pointed out; "It's not a question of can it be done. It's a question of how to do it well." Horwitz added: NPR has had proven success with music and information series such as Wade in the Water and Making the Music.

Other p.d.'s worried that listeners will be repelled by the musical eclecticism. Said Jon Schwartz of Wyoming Public Radio: "I haven't heard any examples of wildly successful mixing of [musical] genres on mass media." How will Anthem avoid sifting out listeners each time a different kind of music comes up? The assumption, replied John Sutton, NPR's research director, is that listeners will stay for the ride so long as they're with NPR personalities they know and trust, just as they do with NPR news hosts and commentators. Plus, said Ben Roe, another co-creator and Performance Today's director, musically there will be an overall cohesive shape and sound to each week's program.

Though the program development won't be hampered by research, it will undergo audience testing prior to launch, said Sutton. "One primary purpose of program testing is, a disaster check. If this bombs, it's not going to make it to market."

NPR has said it was looking mainly for station reaction at the PRPD conference. While the Program Strategy Board has yet to decide if it will proceed with Anthem, "all indications seem to be that they are," says Williams.

P.d.'s at the conference didn't ask any questions about Wait, Wait. That might be because they've known about the quiz show for over a year, says Williams. Also, as the brains behind Car Talk, "maybe [Berman's] got a little more trust built up in the bank."

NPR incentive "unfair"

NPR hasn't entirely determined how it will pay for the start-up of these programs. Buzenberg and Rattley-Lewis say some of NPR's MacArthur grant will go to the Saturday shows. That award gives NPR $275,000 over three years. Altogether, as much as $400,000 will go to the project, Buzenberg said. NPR has also submitted funding proposals elsewhere, Rattley-Lewis said.

Sources have said Anthem and Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me will likely be bundled with existing weekend programs such as Living on Earth and Best of Fresh Air. Whether either of the newsmagazines would be part of the package is unclear.

NPR Program Marketing Director Leslie Peters told p.d.'s that the network would offer pricing incentives for live carriage of Anthem. This brought objections from some directors, who don't want to move or give up PRI's comedy/quiz program, Whad' Ya Know?. Many stations follow or precede Car Talk with that two-hour program, and are happy with its performance. But Peters didn't back down, saying said the show would be priced reasonably without the incentive for live carriage. Michael Lazar, new g.m. of KXPR in Sacramento, later told Current: "I'm concerned that this is the first time any public radio organization has openly offered a discount as an incentive to drop someone else's program. It's unfair to stations that are doing well with the programs they have on now." And, it's unfair to the producers of those programs, he said.

Running Whad' Ya Know? and Car Talk back-to-back is a proven combination, said PRI spokesperson Janet de Acevedo. "It seems counterproductive to stations' interests to try to break up and compete with a strategy that is clearly so successful."

In addition ...

There are other new weekend programs from NPR:

  • A weekly science program with Talk of the Nation Science Friday host Ira Flatow should be launched in January. Flatow told p.d.'s it would be a "cutting-edge, news-oriented" program that will use the everyday world to illustrate scientific concepts. It might, for example, have correspondent Joe Palca explain the physics of a roller coaster while riding one. There will also be an "ask them" segment featuring funny scientists, and unbelievable-true-stories debunker "Amazing Randi" will talk about UFOs and other mysteries, Flatow said. "We will try to create personalities who people want to tune in to listen to, and cover the news of the week," Flatow said.
  • NPR will distribute WBUR's half-hour weekly sports program Only a Game. The program, hosted by Bill Littlefield, also known for years of Morning Edition commentaries, will probably feed at 7 a.m., Buzenberg said.
  • The cultural programming department is developing programs to precede and follow the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, said Horwitz.

Also, NPR and PRI are negotiating with Marketplace Executive Producer Jim Russell for distribution rights to a new travel program featuring Rudy Maxa, the Marketplace travel commentator. Russell's unit at KUSC has already won a $450,000 CPB grant for Savvy Traveler. Russell is seeking a $250,000 commitment from a distributor. He continued negotiations with NPR and PRI at the PRPD conference, but would not comment on their status.

To Current's home page
Earlier news: Public radio looks for Saturday programs to go with Car Talk and Garrison Keillor.
Earlier feature: A visit with the Magliozzi Brothers of Car Talk.

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