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All Programs Considered

Carl Kasell and Peter Sagal of NPR’s news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, 2000; from This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, just published by Chronicle Books

If there’s a next Ira Glass, it might well be Jad Abumrad, who has teamed with the veteran reporter Robert Krulwich to produce what may be the most- talked-about show of the moment, Radiolab. In an almost comic attempt to make their job hard, the duo take only the most difficult subjects from science and philosophy: “Time,” “Morality,” “Memory and Forgetting,” “Limits.” They’ll usually interview a few experts, but the beauty of the show is the interplay between the hosts, separated by several decades and by sensibility. A musician by background, Abumrad plays with the sound of voices to underscore points, to circle back, to undercut assumptions. “Jad uses a layered, jazzlike metric,” says Krulwich, “creating breadths and spaces and layers of sound that are new. Not new to Tchaikovsky or John Cage, but new to radio.”

Meticulously engineered, the soundtrack often repeats, stutters, returns. The recent show on “Numbers,” for instance, begins with Johnny Cash’s famous song about the last twenty-five minutes of a condemned man’s life and proceeds to an interview of sorts with a thirty-six-day-old baby and a Parisian neuroscientist who has demonstrated the early age at which children acquire numeracy. You can hear how infant brainwaves respond to a picture of eight ducks—and what happens when sixteen suddenly appear. “I remember when the show began, I’d get this comment all the time: ‘I really can’t wash the dishes when I listen to you guys,’” says Abumrad.

Meaning, there’s an expectation that when the radio is on you’re only using a quarter of your brain. But now that we’ve got podcasting, people will put it on iPods or whatever. People will listen to it many times, will appreciate the layers and the details. Before it was hard for us to justify the amount of labor we put into it. Because it was disposable, just out there in the world and then gone.

Tough as the show’s topics are, and demanding as the sound can be, it’s also remarkably intimate because of the interplay between Krulwich and Abumrad. “We knew we could make the material interesting to each other, and that if we did it in duet form and showed our affection to each other, it would be kind of a warm place,” says Krulwich. “That’s intentional, because the subjects are kind of cool. So we thought the mood should be warm and seductive. We’re not afraid to say ‘this is hard and we don’t get it either.’” Despite or because of the difficulty, the show clearly works. It’s already on about a third of NPR stations, and more than a million people a month download the podcast.

So in one sense this is the perfect moment to be a young radiohead. It’s like 1960s and 1970s cinema, with auteurs rewriting the rules. New technology lets you make radio programs cheaply: Pro Tools sound-editing software has now replaced much of the equipment used in big, expensive studios. Listening is even cheaper: the iTunes store has thousands of podcasts, including all the ones described here, available for free download in a matter of seconds. “It’s a transformative and exciting moment, a huge revolution,” says Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio.

But there’s one problem, and that’s the economics of this new world. Radio is now cheap to make, true, but the people who make it still need to live. And it’s very hard to get paid anything at all; in the early weeks of the fiscal downturn two years ago, NPR canceled two of the shows—Weekend America and Day to Day—that were consistently airing the work of new independent producers. Up-and-coming broadcasters are increasingly left to make their own way. Consider, say, Benjamen Walker, whose show Too Much Information airs weekly on New York’s independent radio station WFMU. It absolutely crackles—an hour-long mix of “interviews with real people, stories about fake people, monologue, radio drama.” It’s good enough that 240,000 people have downloaded some of the twenty episodes he’s made so far. That’s a lot of people, but it’s zero money, since podcasts, like most websites, are by custom given away for free. Walker’s previous show, a similar effort called Theory of Everything, was widely promoted on the Public Radio Exchange, and six public radio stations across the country actually paid for and ran it. “I think I made $80,” he says. “If I thought about it too hard, I would just quit. It’s much better not to think about it.”

Even with a big radio station behind you, the going can be slow. WBEZ in Chicago, home to This American Life, also produces a show called Sound Opinions, which has been airing weekly for more than a decade. It’s a show about popular music, in the vein of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s At the Movies, but much better. The hosts, Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, are the longtime music critics at the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times (though DeRogatis has just left the Sun-Times for a job at a Chicago website), and they began the program on a commercial station in Chicago.

The first time you hear it you think: Why haven’t there always been programs like this on the radio? Intelligent and funny discussion about music, interviews with articulate musicians who play on the air, long and careful dissections of classic albums. A show will begin with five minutes about the greater significance of current teenybop sensation Justin Bieber and proceed to a half-hour analysis of London Calling, the great Clash album that helped mark the punk era of the early 1980s. “When people hear it, what they hear is two excitable guys who are almost nerds about their music and aren’t afraid to let it show,” says Kot. Much of the pleasure is the interplay between the hosts, Kot understated and DeRogatis over the top—there’s an element of dorm room conversation carried on at the very highest level. And every week, for almost every listener, there’s the pleasure of discovering new sounds you didn’t know were out there. Their annual trip to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival shows you just what cultural reporting should really sound like, full of bias and brio and the joy of discovery. The show’s audience is almost as fanatic as Glass’s—its weekly podcast is one of iTunes’ most popular downloads.

And yet making it work economically has been a struggle. Its budget, which covers everything from a pair of producers to track down audio clips to the engineering required for regular live performances, is only $350,000 a year (for a weekly hour, with two hosts: you couldn’t do a single episode of network TV at that price), but Torey Malatia hasn’t yet been able to convince enough stations around the country to carry it to break even. “Stations get charged by their size. The very biggest would pay $4,000 a year to run it every week,” he says. “But we normally cut the price down. We usually let them run it for a year for free, just to get it before audiences. Once it’s on the air, program directors begin to understand how audiences are connecting.”

Malatia’s accounting underlines what may be the biggest problem for innovation on the radio—the role of program directors at all the public radio stations around the country. They are the gatekeepers for what gets on the air—and their default mode is clearly to say no. “I’m not a radio veteran,” says Kot, “but in my experience, program directors are conservative, afraid to rock the boat.” They depend on their listeners to ante up about half a station’s budget at pledge time, and local underwriters such as restaurants and bookstores to provide most of the rest, so they don’t want to do anything that might offend them.

But the result is all too often flaccid radio, and listeners who have no idea what else is out there that they might enjoy. There are public radio stations so hidebound that they run the not-that-hilarious Car Talk twice each week. It’s a waste of the precious hours in the broadcast day to repeat the program, and it’s not a good sign for the future that program directors aren’t taking more chances. If they’re not careful, NPR could wind up without a farm team of experienced new program makers, and with the same demographic problem now crippling public television (to see what I mean, check out your public TV pledge drive and try to imagine what age group they’re appealing to with overweight doo-wop groups squeezing into sequined suits). Sound Opinions is as good a barometer as any; if your local public radio station isn’t airing it, they’re not trying very hard.

Other countries solve this problem with one centralized, publicly financed, more or less independent service like, say, BBC’s Radio 4 or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National, where headquarters in London and Sydney simply lay down the law about what their local affiliates will carry. New programs appear regularly and for limited runs. It’s worth listening in on the Internet to get a sense of how literate and engaged the programming is, almost every hour.

But that outcome seems unlikely in a system as decentralized as ours. A better agent of change would be more program directors like Malatia, who takes real chances despite the fact that at WBEZ he has a huge station to care for. “You don’t want to experiment to the point where you put the entire thing in jeopardy,” he says. “But you can budget for a certain amount of risk, and to recover from that risk. The audience is forgiving of that, I think—maybe even admires it.”

You can, Malatia suggests, train an audience to be a little more daring, just as you can train them to be staid. “He’s never lost his enthusiasm for constantly pushing forward,” says Kot. “I think he wants to put in radio shows that a person like him would be proud to listen to. And he thinks everyone is like him.” He is, in other words, like a great film producer, book publisher, or magazine editor, and the country’s culture is richer for having him. But willingness to push the envelope, to try things that could fail—that, from the experience many recounted to me, doesn’t seem impossibly hard. Any station manager could do at least a little of it, and if they did then the prospects for new radio would be much better.

It seems churlish to criticize even mildly the flagship public radio news shows—their reliable excellence deserves lavish praise. In recent years, though, it’s started becoming clearer that, for all their polish, the big shows like All Things Considered suffer from some of the same constraints that plague other parts of elite American journalism. They aim for a careful political balance—one academic study found their list of guests slightly to the right of The Washington Post and “approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report.” That’s not a particularly interesting place to be, and it may explain why, especially in the Bush years, many left-of-center listeners defected to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, a highly professional but ideologically engaged daily hour on the Pacifica network.Others—particularly young listeners—are listening to The Takeaway, a morning news show that pairs veteran public radio voice John Hockenberry with Celeste Headlee. It takes stories one after another, and gives each a few serious but fast-paced minutes. It feels electric, alive—Web-paced journalism, purposely not as polished as Morning Edition but every bit as intelligent. “There ought to be something in the public radio idiom that delivers information live,” says Hockenberry.

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