On this week’s episode of "The Pub," longtime public radio host Diane Rehm discusses her impending retirement, her advocacy for physician-assisted suicide, and who might replace her in the host chair. And host Adam Ragusea shares his thoughts on NPR’s recent controversial move to conspicuously brand its hourly newscasts as “live.”
A food podcast, a short film about young men in a housing project, a Korva Coleman puppet named “Korvacita” — they’re all products of NPR’s new Story Lab, an innovation unit that started last June. On this week’s episode, we interview the Lab's Michael May before a live video chat audience via Shindig, and he even entertains a few pitches from the crowd. (Thanks to Shindig for sponsoring the episode!) Also, we celebrate The Pub’s first birthday!
Look out WNYC, there’s a new public radio station in play for top positions on the iTunes podcast chart. WBUR’s new show "Modern Love," a collaboration with The New York Times, hit #1 on the day of its debut last week, momentarily dethroning the mighty "Serial." On this week’s episode of "The Pub," we talk about how they did it with WBUR Managing Producer of Program Development Jessica Alpert and Daniel Jones, longtime editor of the NYT’s “Modern Love” column, on which the show is based.
Also on the show, host Adam Ragusea reads through some of Bill Siemering’s 1971 "All Things Considered..." launch memo to stations, a remarkable historical document that we recently digitized. "ATC" today bears only so much resemblance to Siemering’s idealistic vision.
PBS’s “Mercy Street” has two daunting jobs to do at once: A) replace “Downton Abbey,” the most successful drama in PBS history; B) prove that American public television can make great scripted TV instead of just importing it from the U.K.
Has this Civil War medical drama succeeded against that nearly impossible yardstick? We ask Slate culture critic (and native Brit) June Thomas. Short answer: No. This week, we hear Thomas’ take on where PBS’s big-budget effort went wrong, and contemplate the role of expensive dramatic series in public service broadcasting.
Also, Michigan Radio proves what public media is all about with its Flint water coverage, and host Adam Ragusea argues that news people should stop referring to Martin Luther King Jr. as “Dr. King.”
B.J. Leiderman was an underachieving student at American University in Washington — studying “shall we say, chemistry, wink wink,” he says — when a friend who worked at NPR helped him land the gig that would define his career: composing theme music for NPR’s then-new show, Morning Edition. Commissions to score five more national radio shows followed, and now “B.J. Leiderman” is a household name among the millions of people who hear it in the credits.
Leiderman sincerely relishes his public radio fame, but it’s been a tough high-water mark to try to reach again in the years since. He’s a delightful, charming and talented guy whose life and career have been hampered by mental health problems, chronic illness and his white whale of an album — a collection of pop tunes called “Natural Public Leiderman” that he’s been working on for decades, hoping to capitalize on his NPR fame.
This week on The Pub we hear some of that album, along with the story of how Leiderman got his big break with NPR and what he’s been doing since.
Also, we catch up on some of the public media news that broke while the show was on holiday hiatus, including NPR Silicon Valley reporter Steve Henn’s very public resignation, the release of a rap album based entirely on samples from public radio programs, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s excellent coverage of the ongoing armed occupation of a federal building.
Is there such a thing as excessively authentic pronunciation? If it exists, it has certainly occurred on public radio, where everybody from classical music announcers to news reporters seem to have a little too much fun pronouncing foreign (to them) words and names.
In this holiday encore episode of The Pub, we revisit host Adam Ragusea’s guide to finding the sweet spot between insensitively Anglicized pronunciation and pretentiously exoticized pronunciation.
We also listen back to an interview with veteran public radio host Celeste Headlee about the art of writing pronouncers — rough textual representations of how a word or name should be said.
Plus, we listen again to a talk with political scientist Patrick O’Mahen, who says his research proves countries that spend more money on public broadcasting have better-informed citizens.
“National Public Radio,” as Bill Siemering envisioned it in the beginning, would “not regard its audience as a ‘market’ or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals,” he wrote in NPR’s 1970 mission statement. Siemering was NPR’s first program director, though he didn’t stay long.
This week on The Pub, we’ll consider how public radio today does or does not resemble Siemering’s optimistic, aspirational vision. Also:
• A cavalcade of public radio stars attempt to read the most unwieldy sentence ever conceived by humanity — 92 words with 11 distinct clauses. John Hockenberry, Zoe Chace, Jesse Thorn, Bill Littlefield, Celeste Headlee, Jacki Lyden and Jeremy Hobson all try to wrestle this beast to the ground, with varying degrees of success.
• Current’s Dru Sefton and Tyler Falk explain why it’s time to starting caring about the FCC’s upcoming TV spectrum auction, and why even radio people should be paying attention.
In this week’s episode of The Pub, we ask a self-identified public media lefty and a self-identified public media righty the same question: Are public media people generally liberal, and what — if anything — could or should be done about that?
Also on the show:
- A little quantitative analysis to explain why fans will miss Diane Rehm when she retires next year, comparing her to her midmorning talk competitor, Tom Ashbrook.
- The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, in breaking the news of Rehm’s retirement, once again makes substantive changes to an article about public media without acknowledging those changes on the page.
- A remembrance of veteran radio reporter Max Cacas, who died suddenly Tuesday at 61.
Public media audiences have always been subjected to an alphabet soup of brands: PBS, APT, NPR, PRI, APM, WXYZ. To an extent, this marketing nightmare has been necessitated by the organizational and technological structure of terrestrial broadcasting, in which networks with one brand identity feed content to local stations with their own brand.
But in the digital age, when national networks can serve people directly online, does it make sense to invest in all these hundreds of local public media brands on the Internet? Or should the whole public media community unite behind one brand — one front door online?
“The answer is both,” Bob Kempf says on The Pub. The former head of NPR Digital Services — a unit that exists to help local stations create their own digital products — is two months into his new job as vice president for digital services at WGBH in Boston.
This week on The Pub, we’ll ask what local stations are for in the digital age. Also:
- Barbara Sopato, director of consumer products at NPR, gives me a tour of NPR’s bricks-and-mortar store in Washington and discusses the network’s merchandising strategy — in time for holiday shopping season.
- Host Adam Ragusea argues that there is a growing rift between the people who make NPR and the people who listen to NPR, as public radio’s core audience ages.
When you listen to a public radio station, can you tell immediately whether you’re hearing local or national programming? If yes, that no doubt owes to many factors, but one is NPR’s signature mic sound. It’s bright, it’s clear, it’s crisp, and it cuts over the noisiest of cars/trains/planes or whatever is competing with NPR’s programming for the listeners’ ears.
On this Thanksgiving episode of The Pub, we reprise a pair of old segments we did about NPR’s secret mic sauce, including an interview with NPR’s chief audio engineer Shawn Fox, who gladly divulged the recipe.
Also, we revisit our conversation with former Marketplace Money host Tess Vigeland. Since we spoke, her book about quitting your job with no backup plan has come out, and she’s decided on yet another non-plan: traveling the world for who-knows-how-long.
Martha Little is only a couple months into her new job in commercial media, as senior producer for original content development at Audible. But she previously worked everywhere in public radio — "Marketplace," NPR, WNYC, WBUR, America Abroad — and she has a recommendation for her old field.
Public media workplaces work better when they are “feminized,” she says, meaning when workplaces are flatter and more collaborative, rather than being lorded over by an exalted boss, the conventional model she describes as more “masculine” (acknowledging that such gendered terms are merely a convenient shorthand).
Also on the show this week:
• Brooke Gladstone from WNYC’s On the Media helps me answer your random public media questions, including: Is it better to financially support your local station or the specific organizations that produce the shows you like?
• With the help of an excellent package of stories by Current’s Ben Mook about executive compensation, I argue that big-time public media leaders make too much money. Not way too much money, but too much.
In a live show at the American Public Television Fall Marketplace in Atlanta, host Adam Ragusea talks to travel host and guide Rick Steves about his business model (and why he thinks it couldn’t be replicated), whether he feels pressure to adopt a more “gonzo” style of presenting á la Vice, his advocacy for marijuana legalization and more.
Also on the show:
• Doc Martin actor Ian McNeice and Celeste Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s On Second Thought, compete in a special BBC-themed edition of our game in which contestants must identify parodies or other appearances of public media in the broader culture.
• British public television’s charming tradition of using live continuity announcers, and Channel 4’s daring 2013 experiment with temporarily employing announcers who have communication disabilities.
• The battle between Georgia Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting Atlanta for radio news-talk dominance, and whether head-to-head competition is a good thing for local public media organizations.
Does political polling fit with public media’s mission, or should it be left to commercial networks to follow the horse race? On The Pub this week, Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at WBUR-FM in Boston, responds to criticism of the practice.
Also, Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talks about his show’s new economic poll, the “Economic Anxiety Index.” While he has copious journalistic reasons for investing in polling, he admits there is promotional value as well in creating new data that other media might pick up.
• Mira Burt-Wintonick, producer of the recently discontinued CBC radio show WireTap, talks about how she and her colleagues transformed an old radio segment into a viral video that’s likely gotten more exposure than the entire 11-year run of their show.
• We open up Adam’s Gripe Bag, a collection of sundry media stories that made me angry in the last week, including Pandora’s botched announcement of an exclusive-but-not-really deal with Serial and This American Life, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple’s misguided criticism of the New York Times, and why the National Weather Service can’t come up with more intuitive terms for severe weather “watches” and “warnings.”
"This American Life" producer Stephanie Foo is dismayed by all subpar storytelling, but especially that which can be attributed to the lack of diversity in public media workplaces. This week on The Pub, Foo talks about her frank and funny manifesto for Transom.org, “What To Do If Your Workplace Is Too White,” and offers examples of how reporters of any identity can tell better stories about people of color.
Also on the show:
• Novelist and journalist Teddy Wayne describes the contrived informality he hears in the voicing of narrative radio, which he decried in his New York Times piece, “ ‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves.”
• We’re at the dawn of a glorious new era! I talk about exciting emerging technologies for recording high-quality remote interviews, from VoLTE to Ringr, while NPR chief audio engineer Shawn Fox predicts the death of ISDN and its replacement.
• What the backlash to a "PBS NewsHour" story about charter schools and the backlash to the New York Times’ exposé about Amazon.com have in common.
Everybody has a new podcast these days, but "Marketplace Tech" host Ben Brock Johnson is launching a show that does something quite novel with the medium, and it’s inspired by premium scripted television series on Netflix and HBO. But there’s a catch. To access the next episode, listeners will have to solve a puzzle embedded in the previous episode. New installments will post for general consumption every week and can be downloaded like any other podcast, but anyone who wants to binge all at once will have to break the code.
This week on The Pub, Johnson debuts some of Codebreaker for the first time in public, anywhere. Also:
• What shotgun microphones have in common with time machines, and why host Adam Ragusea thinks they are overused by public radio reporters.
• Listeners to The Pub share some of the crazy, stupid and/or threatening negative feedback they’ve received, featuring stories from Bullseye, Louisville Public Media, WFYI, KUT, Marketplace, WESA, St. Louis Public Radio and more.
Chris Satullo had big, somewhat unorthodox plans for news at WHYY, Philadelphia’s dominant public radio and television station. Then in September, Satullo abruptly resigned his position as v.p. for news and civic dialogue. Subsequent reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests he was forced out over conflicts with fellow senior managers.
On this week’s episode of The Pub, we listen back to host Adam Ragusea's conversation with Satullo. Also:
- A reprise of our February interview with former NPR host Jacki Lyden about her new venture "The Seams," an independent news organization and podcast dedicated to covering fashion intelligently.
- In a commentary we first ran in April, Adam explains his catchphrase: Authenticity is the new authority.
Radio researcher and consultant Fred Jacobs noticed something as he conducted his latest Public Radio Techsurvey.
“What the data are telling us is that, to a great degree, public radio has two audiences,” Jacobs told me on The Pub.
“There are the traditional listeners who have been with the space for maybe decades, but then there’s this emerging audience that, really, is smaller — I mean it is younger, it is smaller — but they are fascinating.”
What the latest Jacobs Media research shows is that baby boomers and millennials are not only listening differently — the latter being much more inclined toward digital outlets — but also listening for different reasons.
On this week’s episode, Jacobs does the numbers. Also:
- PBS VP for News and Public Affairs Marie Nelson reflects on her first year on the job, the future of independent film on public TV and the perpetual challenge of diversity.
- Host Adam Ragusea decries the pervasive Auto-Tune used by the producers of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, the PBS show for preschoolers that is otherwise a worthy successor to Fred Rogers’ legacy.
If you want to know how to impress the likes of WNYC, pay attention to how Robin Amer did it. Out of a global pool of 370 applicants, she was one of two winners of WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator competition last week and will now have the opportunity to pilot her show idea, "The City."
This week on The Pub, Amer talks about her big plans, also:
• Evan Smith, c.e.o. and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune dishes his nonprofit’s secrets to raising money with live events (from a panel at the 2015 ONA conference moderated by Kai Ryssdal).
• Sabrina Roach talks about her job, which is quite possibly the most interesting and unusual in public media: a “doer” at Brown Paper Tickets. The ticketing company pays her to do nothing other than work to make public media stronger.
Anna Sale had three attributes that made her an ace political reporter in New York: a disarming demeanor, phenomenal listening ability and little respect for personal boundaries. Now she’s using those skills to do what she was born to do — getting people to talk about “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Host Adam Ragusea interviews the "Death, Sex & Money" before a live audience after hours at the Online News Association conference in Los Angeles.
Also on the show:
• "Reveal" host Al Letson and Curious City creator Jennifer Brandel compete in a quiz game we call, “No one can resist my Schweddy Balls,” in which they identify appearances, references or parodies of public media in movies and TV.
• In the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, Ragusea argues that that public media could learn a thing or two about developing new hit shows from the commercial entertainment industry, with the help of Kim Masters, host of "The Business" on KCRW.
Public radio has historically had a well-documented problem: Some programs have tended to be WAY LOUDER than others. It’s still a problem, but thanks to a technological breakthrough, it’s getting better. Audio engineer Rob Byers tells us about new tools producers can use to address the problem. It's our sole topic on The Pub this week, and while it may seem nerdy, we promise that an hour of listening will equip you to produce noticeably more listenable audio for a lifetime.
The most famous general manager in public radio, Torey Malatia, is going to try again with another station.
The former longtime head of WBEZ in Chicago, who resigned from the position under pressure in 2013, starts Monday as the new president, c.e.o. and general manager of Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence. Malatia tells us he still wants to experiment with new models of reaching different audiences and building community, and a smaller station like RIPR might be the ideal place to do it.
Also on the show:
- A conversation with two of the youngest general managers in public media: 30-year-old Michelle Srbinovich of WDET radio in Detroit, and 32-year-old Emily Martin Loya of KCOS-TV in El Paso, Texas.
- Host Adam Ragsuea's thoughts on the BBC’s new plan to offer free content to local newspapers.
NPR's "Weekend All Things Considered" is about to get a new host as Michel Martin takes over from Arun Rath and production moves back to Washington from NPR West. As NPR reboots its most-tinkered-with show yet again with a new host and a new executive producer, we talk to outgoing EP Steve Lickteig on The Pub about the unique production ethos that he says boosted ratings over the last two years.
Also on the show this week:
- Classical California president Brenda Barnes mounts an impassioned and data-driven defense of classical music radio, following American Public Media and Houston Public Media’s recent sales of all-classical stations. She also responds to Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson’s recent assertion on The Pub that classical radio “is not an appropriate use of public funds.”
- What the tiny French Polynesian island of Rapa Iti and media workplace culture have in common.
Scoring, sound effects, scene, narrative — they’re the hottest tools in the hands of today’s most innovative audio journalists, and yet they come from the very non-journalistic world of fiction.
“We have the popularity of narrative nonfiction. Well, that’s just us as journalists pulling concepts from fiction and putting it into nonfiction,” veteran independent producer and audio fiction evangelist Ann Heppermann told me on The Pub. “So, in a way, it’s like fiction is going to take it back, you know?”
On this week’s episode, Heppermann plays us some of the exciting, genre-bending fictional work she commissioned for the website of The Sarah Awards, a new international competition she has co-founded with the support of Sarah Lawrence College to spur a new generation of audio-fiction creators.
Also on the show:
- Host Adam Ragusea and Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton discuss the ways in which public media’s internal values might not jive with those of the audience.
- A conversation with Dave Dickey, the recently retired head of Illinois Public Media’s agricultural service, about public media’s ongoing role serving rural communities.
Also: We’re doing a live show in Los Angeles Sept. 25! Seats are very limited, so go here to register for your free tickets.
On this week’s episode of The Pub, host Adam Ragusea offers his thoughts on the "Sesame Street" news. We also revisit an old conversation with PBS Vice President for Children’s Programming Linda Simensky about the thus-far futile search for the next Fred Rogers, Sesame Street’s role as an emblem for all of public media, and the new kids’ shows on PBS that are trying to honor the legacy and values of the classic programs.
Also on the show:
- In another encore segment, Deanna Garcia of WESA in Pittsburgh takes us to an exhibit of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set pieces on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
- A guide for how to pick theme music for your show, and how not to.
Probably no one knows as much about both public radio and economics as Adam Davidson does. So when he emails us and says he’s been developing a grand economic theory about how podcasting is (or should be) changing public radio, you can bet we’re going to give him 45 minutes to talk about it. Davidson compares public radio’s current market position to that of the big three American automakers — Ford, GM and Chrysler — in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Also on the show:
- We consider "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" and the magic of Britain’s Channel 4, a public media entity that exists to commission daring work from independent producers.
- What is this “public benefit corporation” thing that Ira Glass is forming to run "This American Life"?
- Michigan Radio p.d. Tamar Charney and host Adam Ragusea disagreed over podcasting but without getting disagreeable. NPR CEO Jarl Mohn and reporter Zoe Chace? Not so much.