Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Is this the future of public radio?


The Public Radio Talent Quest has announced the winners of round one. 1,442 entered, 10 move on to the next round. This is actually more brutal than American Idol.

And of those 10, does any really have what it takes to host a public radio show? Eh, odds are they could all do it. Would anyone listen? That remains to be seen.

As I listen to these ten entries, a few thoughts occur to me. Actions speak louder than words, even when those actions involve words. I could probably have phrased that better. What I meant to say is that most of these ten entries consist of people talking themselves up or explaining the radio show they would like to do.

It's all well and good to say you'll interview voices that aren't often heard in mainstream media from undocumented immigrants in America to citizens in Iraq. But you get no sense of how you'll book these interviews, or in fact what kind of interviewing skills you've got. These folks are all fine storytellers with pleasant voices. But a good host has to listen as well as he or she talks.

I still think the goal of the Talent Quest is worthwhile. Nobody's really shaken up the public radio scene very much since This American Life went on the air over a decade ago.

There are some original voices in there. I love Carrie Kaufman's energy. I'm also partial to people who speak really quickly about technology (although transcribing their tape can be a real chore). I find Chuck Mertz's sarcasm appealing as well. And Glynn Washington can certainly build suspense, but I'm a bit dubious that the topic of his proposed show is sustainable.

But looking at all the semi-finalists, I'm a bit skeptical that we're about to find the next Ira Glass.

That's certainly what round two of the contest is for. Details of round two haven't been announced yet, but this contest ain't over yet. However, it seems to me that if you've got 10 good talkers, the odds of one of them having all the skills you're looking for in a great radio host are... well, I'm not a statistician, but I'll say so, so.

I'll bet you could find the next Bob Edwards or Steve Inskeep in this crowd. But can you find the next Ira Glass ready to shake up the landscape? I think I'd have cast a slightly wider net and moved a few dozen entrants on to the next round. But I think the organizers might be getting ready to throw some money at the remaining contestants to help fund their round two projects, so as is always the case in public radio, there may have been some financial constraints involved in the selection process.

9 comments:

Jake Shapiro said...

Thanks Brad, very insightful post. You're exactly right that we wish we could bring a broader swath of the contestants along to the next round - there are definitely plenty of talented and promising voices beyond the 10 we chose - but the financial constraints of the original CPB budget and the overstretched capacity of our small staff at PRX make that really difficult to do.

The judges easily had several dozen contestants they thought were outstanding, and there were plenty more that might not have had the strongest entry but whose talent was definitely there.

We are brainstorming ways to create more opportunities and make the most of this new talent pool and hive of energy and enthusiasm it's created, and I welcome any suggestions you might have too.

Best,

Jake
PRX

Tracy said...

Brad,

Glad I caught your blog. I agree 100% of your assessment. I listen to all the entries and they're great speakers, but are they great hosts? To be honest, this was a different top 10 than I expected. I do hope they find the next great talent, but time will tell.

Doug Mitchell said...

Good points. Finding and encouraging talent is an extremely in-exact science experiment. We can fail and will fail but we don't stop trying do we?
We judges discussed each of Mr. Linder's points in great detail. It's very hard and yet revelaing, to decide who is the next big thing.
I think what Mr. Linder is asking is what happens to talented people once they get inside the bowels of a large media organziation? What will happen to the person who is chosen #1 in the TQ? Will that talent be swallowed up and/or discouraged by the editing and production processes big content distributors? Well, we don't know.
However, we have more control over own abilities and ideas then is generally believed. This is the big message of the work I do with young people. We build skills first. But, we leave a sense of empowerment. Good self-management and intelligent mentoring by experienced, well-intentioned professionals I think will keep our talent from disappearing.

Brad Linder said...

Not to mention the fact that it takes a lot more than a good host to put together a good show.

When I first started listening to podcasts, I found a great program called "The Small World Podcast." The idea was pretty simple, and one we've all thought of doing: interviews with ordinary people, sometimes doing extraordinary things, but sometimes just doing something interesting.

But over time, most of the interviews featured on that particular podcast have started gravitating towards people who run websites, write books, or do something else to make themselves knowns. Because the truth is, it takes a lot of work to go out and find the voices that aren't being heard in mainstream media every week. If they were easy to find, they probably wouldn't be unheard voices.

When I briefly pondered entering the Talent Quest, one of my ideas was to just camp out in Central Park for a day and interview as many people as I could until I found a few people with compelling stories to tell on whatever topic mattered most to them at that moment. But it's a self-selecting crowd, and more importantly I was too busy to try this experiment out at the time. :)

As for the talent that's moved on to round two, I hope they can host as well as they can self-promote. Because my main fear is that you may have discovered 10 articulate speakers who limited ability to conduct engaging interviews. I doubt this is the case, but it's possible, which is why I would have liked to see a larger pool of talent advance to the next level, which would increase the chances of finding a truly exceptional talent.

Al Letson said...

Brad,
Well thought out post. As one of the ten, I think your concerns are spot on, as to whether any of us are the next Ira Glass. Who knows? I think that's what this competition is about, seeing how’s got it and who doesn’t. There were a ton of great entries, I feel privileged and lucky to have made it to the next round.
As for myself, I've made a living by listening to people. So I think I've got that part covered. Whether I can shake it up like "This American Life" remains to be seen. I love Ira, but I think I'd like to create a different kind of buzz then Ira did, something more along the lines of who I am. I hope that in itself will be interesting, because everyday I discover a little more about who I am, and who I want to be.
I hope I can engage people through the medium of radio, as I have with other mediums. What I do know is that it's all in the journey. Whether we succeed or fail, I think you'll find the trip worthwhile.

Light,
Al Letson

Brad Linder said...

Thanks for commenting Al.

Yes, I certainly hope we don't hear a TAL clone come out of the Talent Quest. This American Life is an amazing show. But it's main contribution to the public radio scene is that it didn't sound like anything else on the radio when it first hit the airwaves 12 years ago.

Now there are a lot of people trying to sound like Ira Glass. I'm hoping that the Talent Quest will help uncover some new ideas and some new voices who don't sound like anybody on the air today -- including Ira Glass and the generation of radio producers he inspired.

Glynn said...

Don't you worry none, Brad. I personally PROMISE you will hear some entries out of this group that will turn public radio on it's ear.

Keep listening!


Glynn Washington

Glynn said...

Don't you worry none, Brad. I personally PROMISE you will hear some entries out of this group that will turn public radio on it's ear.

Keep listening!


Glynn Washington

Al Letson said...

Brad,
Well thought out post. As one of the ten, I think your concerns are spot on, as to whether any of us are the next Ira Glass. Who knows? I think that's what this competition is about, seeing how’s got it and who doesn’t. There were a ton of great entries, I feel privileged and lucky to have made it to the next round.
As for myself, I've made a living by listening to people. So I think I've got that part covered. Whether I can shake it up like "This American Life" remains to be seen. I love Ira, but I think I'd like to create a different kind of buzz then Ira did, something more along the lines of who I am. I hope that in itself will be interesting, because everyday I discover a little more about who I am, and who I want to be.
I hope I can engage people through the medium of radio, as I have with other mediums. What I do know is that it's all in the journey. Whether we succeed or fail, I think you'll find the trip worthwhile.

Light,
Al Letson

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