If you were starting a public radio station, what would you put on the air?
There are now enough public radio stations to reach more than 90 percent of the American public, and pubcasters have adding specialized stations to increase listening options in areas where pubradio already exists.
So it's rare that all-new stations arise, especially in the East, or can afford to get going with sparse populations. An exception: the twin stations of Cape & Islands Public Radio, WCAI on Cape Cod, Mass., and WNAN on Nantucket Island.
Founder Jay Allison, a nationally prominent independent radio producer, surveyed colleagues nationwide for advice on the stations' sound. A selection of the responses:
Jeffrey Dvorkin, [then] v.p., news, NPR, Washington, D.C.
This is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often. So how do we do this so it works both as a wonderful public radio station and as a model for how to do new things as well?
We need to remember that people who will listen want to be astonished. Not all the time. But regularly. They want to be able to say, "Did you hear that?" I think you would start to build a cult following for the kind of sound pieces that would really echo with the people in the area. I'm excited, just thinking about the possibilities.
Tony Kahn, original host of The World, panelist on WGBH's Says You!, writer, Boston
Let the listeners broadcast to the station. Set up kiosks, recording sites, microphones in various public places where residents and visitors can tape performances, read original work and favorite passages from literature, criticize and comment on local politics and programming, offer tips and suggestions for things to do, places to see, etc. You can't have microphones sprouting like wild asparagus, but good locations might be inside libraries, outside churches, near supermarket check-out counters, parks.
Some topics that might elicit interesting/usable comments and convey a sense of local color and atmosphere could be:
I also am a big fan of "process" pieces — reports and stories that illustrate how something happens, how an institution really works, the details of how people go about their business. One of the most unforgettable pieces of public radio programming I ever heard (it not only had "driveway potential," it had a "kitchen component" — after staying in my parked car to hear it, I rushed into the kitchen to tell my wife about it) was about how to design and run your own restaurant. I think it was an eight- or nine-part series on All Things Considered that followed a Chicago couple through their failed attempt to make their restaurant dream come true. Process is incredibly radio-visual; the images that it makes you conjure, like those of any great story, seem to stay with you forever. Show how a local piece of legislation passes, how a fisherman fishes, how a cop does his beat, how a retailer hires and prepares for the summer rush, how a teacher prepares for her class, how the local medical service handles an emergency, etc. It could be a nice dynamic way of letting the community experience itself as a series of people and processes.
Ellen Rocco, North Country Public Radio, Canton, N.Y.
Lots and lots of outreach. Time-consuming, staff-intensive, absolutely essential. We work with schools, libraries and community organizations. We go to Rotary Clubs and college forums. We serve as media sponsor for dozens of cultural events each year. We hang our banners wherever there's an audience and a hook. We stamp our logo on everyone's literature.
Jim Metzner, independent producer, Pulse of the Planet, New York
A sound suggestion box, a way local sounds and characters can be heard: local mom and pop store, local craftsman, local cross-walk guard; "ordinary people" — maybe they could be asked extra-ordinary questions, like what they dreamt about last night, or what the title of the story of their life would be.
Brenda Pennell, g.m. of KUSC, Los Angeles, and NPR Board member
When I was in Cincinnati, a senior executive from Procter & Gamble was on my board and he developed a list of questions that P&G uses in defining brand identity. [This is an adaptation of that list.]
What is our target audience? What constitutes our services of superior quality and value? Are we confident that we have the right mix of music, news and local information? Who are the competitors we must surpass in order to deliver true superiority? What new classical music/news sources are we likely to face? Why will our service be superior to them? How can we reliably measure the extent to which we're delivering superiority against these competitors? What is our character? What are our principles? How are they demonstrated to our listeners? What is our personality?
I have found these questions to be helpful in getting everyone on the same page.
Jeremy Lansman, community radio station founder, now working in Anchorage, Alaska
What about a live day, or days? Local news, music, drama, poetry and book readings, remotes from various places. Plenty of pre-produced short items explaining to the listener what they are listening to and what they can do to participate.
Susan Stamberg, special correspondent, NPR
I want my local radio station on Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket to be good company . . . a good companion through my day. NPR gives me dense, sometimes too intense, too thick, even dull information. But my local station should sound local. One person through the daylight hours, another in the night . . . a controlled schmoozer (no rambling please) who plays music the other stations don't play . . . maybe reads me a favorite story from that day's paper (or one he/she clipped from last week and never got around to reading — or from a magazine, book of poems, whatever) . . . then more music . . . then gives me news I can use — a phone call to local pediatrician about fixing diaper rash . . . a call to a Boston hospital about getting ready to have chemotherapy . . . a call to two sisters for advice because the mother-in-law is coming to visit, or you need to write a thank you note for a present you hate.
I don't want anybody authoritative sounding — NPR gives me plenty of that. I want people I can count on — who I'd talk to at the Stop and Shop cashiers' (and call him/her for tips on what's fresh this week — or recipes) . . . Car repair. Washing and washing machine tips. Practical stuff — one practical computer tip a day, maybe . . . housekeeping . . . children . . . money-making/saving . . . real-life help. Make the radio station a community of people looking out for one another.
David Greene, producer, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, WBEZ, Chicago (about to start work as broadcast director of WCAI/WNAN)
One approach, which I used in finding panelists for Wait, Wait is to call someone . . . anyone who's in a position to come into contact with people who have some creativity. If you're looking for people who can write essays, contact a creative writing teacher . . . get names of some really good students they've had. You say, "We got this radio station, and we're looking for people who can do interviews, or write material, or whatever," and you get three or four names. You then talk to these people, and whether or not they're interested, you get names of three or four more people from each . . . so, you're creating a tree.
David Kanzeg, [then] programming director, WCPN-FM, Cleveland
Sustainability over time (and that means over years, if it is truly to have impact) is the most important question faced by any programmer about any program endeavor.
Whatever the ultimate mix, one must be prepared to trade off certain immediate interests for other farther-off realities. Too many stations (my own included) have made early-on decisions that have ultimately taken lots of time and great effort to back away from or change or reconfigure in light of a few years of operational perspective. Usually they involve "special interests" who are covetous of airtime. Usually they appear benign and useful at first . . . until they have a few seasons under their belts, after which they become, thereby, experts — vested, immovable and un-controllable. In the end, once put in place, a radio station is like a runaway train whose speed must be maintained, whose controls are somewhat faulty and whose destination is constantly changing. After it's started on its way, it's substantially more difficult to redirect or modify than prior to firing up the transmitter for the first time.
Davia Nelson, independent producer and co-executive producer of Lost and Found Sound, San Francisco
Have a show called Chowder.
Offer special shows to veteran journalists who have been put out to pasture. Old timers and the legends of TV and radio. Make it a summer home for producers. Don't forget food. Talk about it. Cook it. Serve it. Make science compelling on radio. Good luck.
Make Chowder compelling on radio.
Ross Reynolds, program director/news director, KUOW-FM, Seattle
What if you have local people do the forward promos by introducing themselves by name and job and then saying a word about why they like an upcoming program? It will serve forward-promo goals and link to the community ("Hey, I heard you on the radio!").
On a similar line, get everyone to do i.d.'s for you. Suggest scripts, but encourage them to ad-lib, make up slogans, have fun. People love to be on the radio and hear their friends on the radio.
Barrett Golding, independent producer, Bozeman, Mont.
You have the opportunity to become The Voice of Community; all you need do is outdo other stations' public service efforts. And that is most easily done with PSAs — 60-second public service announcements.
PSAs also offer aspiring audio artists an unlimited palette of expression, stripped down to the basics. Being short, the PSA is not an overwhelming chore for volunteers/employees to accomplish. Brevity forces another vital radio element: good writing.
Also, you'd be amazed at the range of voices that sound good on your station. Public radio can look for vocal qualities that other radio overlooks, things like intelligence, ability to communicate and inspire. I do a weekly volunteer music show at a station in Montana. For several years we used a young woman, who also did a show, to announce and produce a lot of our spots. She had a high-pitched, squeaky, downright different (non-radio) voice. But we liked the sincerity in her reading and writing. When she moved to Chicago, one of public radio's most popular programs, This American Life, also admired those same qualities, and made the woman, Sarah Vowell, a regular contributor to the show.
Steve Robinson, [then] station manager, Nebraska Public Radio, Lincoln, Neb.
My idea is based around a now-mythical (in my mind) concept, developed at a new public television station in St. Louis that was started many, many years ago by one Lorenzo Milam. Milam got the construction permit, as the story goes, had a signal and a tower, but little else. He had an office and a desk and a telephone, and that was pretty much it. So he bought a camera, pointed it at the desk, and went on-the-air. The "show" was Lorenzo working to set up the television station. Broadcasting began when Lorenzo got to work. The show was Lorenzo on the telephone, having meetings, and whatever else one did to put a new noncommercial station on-the-air. Viewers would tune in to watch the process unfold. I've never forgotten that idea.
Lorenzo Milam, founder of numerous community stations, and author of Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Building a Radio Station for the Community
You can anticipate too much. You can fry your brain trying to think of things to do before you go on the air. But, I guarantee you, if you get the right people around you, these things will take care of themselves.
If you have doubts, ask your listeners — once you are inside their radios. Ignore the ones who want you to duplicate the other stations in town, or NPR. That's not your job. What you should do is create a model of original radio. The listeners will catch on quickly — and will be part of your ongoing works (if you let them).
Alan Weisman, writer and journalist, Sonoita, Ariz.
My favorite radio program of all time used to air on an arts station in St. Paul, Minn., back in 1971-72. At the time, I was living in an old wooden house on a lake west of Minneapolis, scratching my living as a freelance photographer, keeping starvation at bay by fishing for most of my meals. My plumbing wasn't modern enough to sustain both a bathroom and a darkroom, so I used an outhouse for the former —interesting at minus 15 degrees.
What did warm my soul through those frigid times, however, was the aforementioned program, which ran, I believe, from 9 to 12 each morning. It began with a classical music format, except the host also delved into folk and blues, and the music was interlaced with poetry and literature that he would read, quite movingly — all of which was thematically related to our Minnesota surroundings. Sometimes local poets or musicians would join him and they'd read or sing together — always comfortably, low-key and folksy. And gradually he began to tell his own stories, weaving fresh-but-familiar yarns about the region where we all were raised, stories humorous or informative or both, and always good-hearted, even when they'd occasionally turn dark as the storms over the plains. The radio show was my constant companion through two of the coldest winters of my life — appropriately, he called the show A Prairie Home Companion.
Garrison Keillor is a gifted storyteller, true, but the strength of his program was how grounded it was in place: Minnesota. He loved the state, loved to reflect on its people and land, and could turn a simple geography lesson into something memorable just by reading it evocatively on the air. His secret, I think, was to never aggrandize the environs with overblown tourism-promotion language — which is what has been used far too much to describe Cape Cod and the islands. He simply looked for the humanity of the place, which can be done anywhere.
Neal Conan, NPR journalist and [then] host of Weekly Edition
I remember, when I used to produce All Things Considered, if we could get two to three moments per show — they might be gasps or laughs, sad or pretty, but affecting moments — they could illuminate the entire show and bathe otherwise OK material in their special light. Easier said than done.
One suggestion I might put forward is to incorporate e-mail throughout the day, in unexpected spots rather than lumped into a letters segment or show. It lends the impression that you (the listener) have company. E-mails tend to be a lot shorter than letters, are easily edited, and they tend to have a good variety of tone. I think this might lend a nice texture, certainly a different texture — to the day, break up the chain of network material and draw folks in as both listeners and contributors (hopefully in both senses of that last word).
Christof Migone, Department of Performance Studies, New York University, New York City
The most dangerous thing is self-censorship. Letting the finances haunt you can curtail some wonderful experiments. When radio becomes predictable it ceases to be. As a former program director, I am fully aware of the impossibility of this call.
Doing radio is about unlearning radio, both as listener and producer.
Roger Johnson, station manager, Northwest Public Radio, Pullman, Wash.
Your approach of relying primarily on national programming is the right one. Not only is it the strength of public radio, it allows you to concentrate on strong local content, building it slowly rather than rushing something that is not ready.
Create the vision and stick to it. You'll get a lot of well-intentioned but ill-advised ideas from people in the community who think they know what the audience wants. Know when to say "no."
Gregory Whitehead, radio artist and co-founder of WCAI/WNAN.
Notes for creating a community sound signature for WNAN, Nantucket.
Collect the voices of both the Old Nantucket (remnants of a dialect salted by contact with the sea) and the New Nantucket (the language of tennis, cocktails and real estate). Do not shy away from either: the conversation between them will shape the future, and WNAN must be shaped by the inflections of both.
What's in a name? Consult the harbormaster for listings of the names of moored boats from 1959/1979/1999: create sequences of names that encapsulate changing island identity, like (real names, from my own notebook): Oystercatcher, Fishfinder, Last Resort, Dowmaster and Gottahavit.
Ask 20 people to impersonate the harbor horn buoys and the steamship foghorn: create a human harbor from them.
Collect testimony on why the bay scallop is disappearing, and what must be done to bring the species back. Intercut with detailed instructions on how to shuck a scallop.
Record the "Nantucket Chapter" of Moby Dick, using a wide variety of local voices. Then cut together a composite reading.
Fully integrate the gears and bells of the Town Clock into the broadcast day.
Visit a dozen chefs in a dozen kitchens. Ask them to describe what for them is a Nantucket Signature Dish. Record preparation, presentation and ingestion.
Talk to local architects about favorite variations on the theme of the Nantucket Dream House.
Weave with the voices of professional housecleaners talking about how to clean a Trophy House.
A significant number of domestic pets are abandoned on Nantucket following the summer season. Perform an open-mike walk-through at the SPCA, a.k.a. The Pet Palace. Other Nantucket animal stories: the white whale, the albino deer, the calico cat.
Ask a random sample of 50 people to provide an impromptu thumbnail history of the island, in two minutes or less: do not edit.
On a calm day at a crowded beach, roam the crowd and find voices willing to perform the song they most associate with Nantucket summer: edit without mercy.
WNAN: radio station of the night sky and the housing crisis, of cranberry harvests and conspicuous consumption, of lazy swims and high-speed ferries, of children building castles on the beach and junkies shooting skag in the parking lot, of blueberry bushes and bull markets.
Stephen Hill, executive producer, Music from the Hearts of Space, San Francisco
The Internet — I can't think of a better way either to extend the overall service mission of the station, add local content, or to provide a fertile ground for finding, training and exposing the work of fledgling local producers.
Kids in their early teens with the motivation and a computer are producing multimedia and video, as well as audio and music, with little or no external encouragement or funding. These are the kind of young people you should try to provide a haven for — both on the air and on the station's web site. The best way I know to keep the standards high is for the station to stay in control of all content that gets broadcast over the air, but have a looser standard for stuff that goes out on the web site.
Larry Josephson, independent producer, New York City
I don't have a ready format or formula, except a slogan that you might try to implement: expect the unexpected. These days, public radio is under a suffocating blanket of sameness. All ATC and ME pieces sound alike; the clone sound, I call it. Local announcers sound like they've had all the human juices squeezed out of them by a vegamatic. The happy-yuppie format is in power at classical music stations, fueled by consultants who make a very good living blanding our dreamhouse.
All I can tell you is be open to people who don't fit the mold. Being open to something completely different is not easy to do. Be open, and they will come. Get some serious money for a radio lab, a Yaddo/McDowell-type [writers' colonies], all-expenses-paid residency that would also come with prime airtime to do anything the radio resident wants to do. Buy an old house, fix it up with ProTools-equipped living spaces, and lines to the transmitter, complete with old hands available to instruct and criticize. Sort of a perpetual Airlie — sans sex, since we live in a P.C. age!
I hope I live to see the dream realized.
Bill Buzenberg, senior director of news and information, Minnesota Public Radio, St. Paul:
Having moved from NPR to MPR, I've thought about the mix of local and national programming a great deal over the last 12 months. My ideas today are different than they were when I worked in Washington. For most of the 18 years I worked at NPR, I thought the strongest possible programming service in public radio news was simply one that replayed the most national network material from NPR and PRI. I now believe the best programming service is the one you create and adapt locally to your local market — with strong local and regional material — mixed with the national network programming services.
The mandate of a local public radio station is much more than merely being an outlet for national programs, along with local weather and underwriting.
There are two things almost any local station can do, at relatively low cost, to provide an important local news presence and local identity.
Martin Spinelli, professor of radio at Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Don't be hemmed in by the formal constraints of the news and information programming we are all too familiar with. Be bold, be ambitious, be brave, be confident, break with convention, melt down the format. (People will listen because of an overall style, not because they know they can get stock quotes at precisely 6:06 every evening.) Interrupt liberally. The key to truly riveting radio is toying with expectations, fulfilling them in unexpected ways, reinventing them, even thwarting them in loving ways. Consistency (or homogeneity) in content is not the way to develop an engaged audience; instead, listeners will commit themselves to consistently high production values.
Instead of imagining you and your small staff as an elite squad of hot-shot producers, think of yourselves in terms of community liaison officers. You could run seminars at local colleges, open to the general public, in which you would teach people how to produce radio essays, features, soundscapes, etc. Don't be precious about your own role in front of the microphone, open it up to a diversity of people. Be less precious still about the sanctity of your satellite programs. Give your local segments space to impinge on the national ones; let regional voices step on Daniel and Nina without regret. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the genuinely democratic quality of radio has always been precisely this: Radio is a means by which people can communicate with other people, not an institutional means for the dispensing of high or mass culture from a centrally located cadre in a strictly one-dimensional manner.
David Freudberg, independent producer, Boston
Words of Wisdom: This would consist of a continuing series of thought-provoking, inspiring, brief quotes (say, one or two minutes, max) drawing from a broad range of wisdom sources: religious traditions, democracy movement, profound poets of all stripes, etc., sprinkled throughout the broadcast day, popping up in between network shows, following a newscast, as a bridge between two songs, etc. The purpose is to offer us gentle reminders of what really matters. The criterion for selecting a quote is that it rings true.
A Better Future: I propose this as a vehicle for bringing young voices — and therefore young listeners — to your air. Here, kids would be invited to give their vision of how our society could be improved. They would write their message (again, just a minute or two) and, if selected, would be heard voicing the segment. You could even go school-by-school, have someone do a presentation to each school about the project and the station — as a way of planting seeds of listenership — and then return a month later to tape the finalist; or have them visit your studio.
Art Silverman, senior producer, All Things Considered, NPR
I have a very simple notion for a radio station I've been carrying around in my head for ages. It is "The Best of Everything in Small Doses."
It is the absence of format and rules. It is music of all kinds, spoken word of all kinds (humor, stories, found sound), and live continuity.
Between the network material, you have no "programs." You have four- or five-hour shifts of personalities who have very catholic taste. They ad-lib, read news and weather, tell stories, jokes and play items on tape, record, CD, MiniDisk, off the telephone, in no particular patterns.
The constant is one thing: surprise.
The idea is: "Come into My World." During the daytime, the continuity can include important community information, and concrete ideas and linear storytelling. Late night versions can be more erratic, more dangerous.
The format works best if — whatever strange path the programming goes down — it does not become pedantic and overlong in its detours. Above all: fun, adventure, juxtaposition, fearlessness. And there must be a sense that the person on the air is in the same time and space as the listeners. Changes in weather, and on the national stage, must be reflected in the sounds being played and the words being said.
You will have your solid blocks in the morning and evening, when listeners will know NPR will cover the world. What will make them listen between the "tentpoles?" I think it will be the curiosity to wonder: "what are they doing now?"
Ron Kramer, executive director, Jefferson Public Radio, Ashland, Ore.
When you're starting with something very small, for which there is little advance public image, little things mean a lot. I wrote a thumbnail "bio," just like one might for a person, in which I recounted the qualities and character I wanted the station to have, that might work well in many small-market settings such as:
Pay attention to your printed materials. They are critically important in setting the tone of public perception. Don't think of yourself as just a radio station. You're not. You're a public institution. Make formal alliances. Local colleges, schools, libraries, historical societies, should be able to see themselves in your station.
Which brings me to volunteers. Use them. A lot of stations don't do that and feel that volunteers reduce the station's potential professionalism. Especially for a small, emerging station, volunteerism is essential and will help you leverage larger enterprises than you could otherwise mount. Within your resource, do special things. Whether it is election coverage, an in-depth series or a call-in special about a burning local issue, do special things that make you something more than just a radio station that people can play in the background.
Regarding basic programming philosophy, don't be afraid to do things "differently" than the industry "standard" approach. Define the professional standards under which you will operate and don't ever compromise them — for anyone. You may take your lumps along the way, but everyone will respect you for standing up for your station's core values. Have fun. If your staff is enjoying what they do each day, it comes out through the speaker and is contagious. Keep growing.
Commercial radio is a business and its growth is measured in the bottom line. We're not in that business. Keep asking yourself, and your staff, about their own professional goals, and help them grow in directions that are consistent with the station's own broad objectives. Small stations can't afford to do everything well so they need to "play to their strengths." Their strengths are going to be defined by what the individuals who work there each day are good at and excited about.
Nannette Drake Oldenbourg, public radio listener and resident of West Falmouth on Cape Cod
By starting a new station, you are defining a new geographical/social region. If that isn't enough, you are actually starting a subculture. When avoiding commercials, public radio honors the quiet awe of the campfire rather than handing it over to the aural chaos of a carnival. This makes possible real listening and real communication . It has the quality of being "live" and therefore somewhat risky and exciting. Public radio has the head and heart in balance.
Bill Siemering, founder of public radio programming, including All Things Considered, Fresh Air and Soundprint
I just returned from assisting in the development of community radio in Swaziland and Mozambique. In March I was doing this in Mongolia. I've worked in South Africa since 1993. From all these experiences, this is what I've learned: The mission must be clear and is the foundation upon which everything else rests. It grows out of the community itself. No one from outside can impose it. The most successful community radio station in South Africa is Radio Zibonele, which serves 700,000 residents living mainly in shacks on a sandy plain near Cape Town. The mission is to improve health in the community — and by "health," they mean social, environmental, cultural as well as physical health. "Zibonele" means "See for yourself," as in, "Here are the facts, see for yourself." The underlying philosophy is of self-help. The manager said, "No one from heaven is going to come and develop it." So instead of complaining about the trash and litter, the station sponsored a clean-up campaign, and 8,000 youngsters turned out on a Saturday morning to pick up trash. They sponsor tree plantings and health awareness days and celebrations of Xhosa culture. Many of the programs deal with the very practical: how to care for a child, how to start a small business; for children, how to speak properly, how to help Mother when she is sick. At the end of the school year, the best teachers provide a summary of the course and give tips on how to pass the final exams. They sponsor local concerts. Strength lies in the intimate knowledge of the community. As one volunteer presenter said, "If there's a shot, we hear it, too. If the power goes out, it goes out for us, too." Oh, and by the way, Radio Zibonele operates out of a truck container and is self-supporting. In each community, in each country, people have for the first time a voice of their own. They talk about what is important to that community. They are more than a passive transmitter; they are a catalyst for development and change. They have a community board of directors or program advisory committee, so they are close to the people they serve. In rural Mozambique — one of the poorest countries in the world, where most people are subsistence farmers — listeners contribute to the station. Radio literally saves lives with health information. In Lesotho, it prompted the government to change a policy and is a forum for women helping children in the community. In sum, the benchmarks of a successful station include:
This is what I've learned working in new democracies and developing countries in the last six years. It has been a gift to me to work with people discovering the power of radio for the first time, and to see their creative response. They may have few material resources but they are rich in what we now call social capital. And they have something to say to each other that makes a significant difference in the lives of the listeners. Maybe some of these experiences in the poorest countries can apply to the most developed country in the world.
Jay Allison, again
That's a fraction of what was sent to us. The heartwarming thing about this process has been encountering the undiminished enthusiasm of our colleagues for this profession. With die-hard romanticism and hard-won pragmatism they took on the challenge of wheel re-invention. Though all were offered reimbursement for any time spent in this exercise, none requested it. They freely offered their creative thinking. They interupted their busy schedules just to imagine. How fine that is. And, the question finally remains: If we can imagine it, why don't we do it?
Station founder Jay Allison is a prominent independent radio producer and a past winner of CPB's Edward R. Murrow Award, based in Woods Hole, Mass., who is now serving with Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson as an executive producer of Lost and Found Sound segments [earlier article in Current] airing Fridays on NPR's All Things Considered.
Web page created Sept. 21, 1999
Current: The newspaper about public television and radio
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Copyright 1999 Current Publishing Committee