Part II
"Defining Public Radio's Core Values"

Copyright© 2000-2002 by Public Radio Program Directors Inc. - Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Presented by PRPD President Marcia Alvar at the 2000 PRPD Conference in San Diego, CA

Editor's Note: During her conference keynote address, author and media scholar Susan Douglas made comments that are referenced at several points in this article. Douglas said that friends of hers were becoming critical of "NPR on a national level", and that among the observations they had were:

  • "It's now become the establishment
  • All Things Considered is too bland and mainstream
  • Terry Gross interviews too many celebrities, and not enough new or lesser known but vastly more interesting writers.
  • Too many topics on the talk shows are about self-help and self-discovery.
  • It's too focused on elites and not enough on everyday people
  • With few exceptions, it's just too safe, cautious and predictable"

Deconstructing the Decision-Making Process: Three Filters

Alvar: Danny Miller sees Fresh Air as a program that is "on the lookout" for its listeners. That's its' purpose. It's trusted to find and share what's new, important, and meaningful. So I've asked Danny, and he's agreed to talk a bit about how Fresh Air finds and selects material, how it selects content, and how it is shaped to fit the personality and the style of the show.

Danny Miller: The Selection and Shaping of Content.
I'd like to concentrate on the notion of editing, because everything we do as producers, and what you guys do as program directors, involves editing. Listeners have trusted us to respect their intelligence and curiosity, and to make interesting choices on their behalf -- not to waste their time, but to enrich their time while they're listening. They depend on us to sift through all the "run of the mill" talk show possibilities. In other words, they depend on us to find the distinctive people, ideas and stories, which distinguish public radio from most of the dreck on the dial.

For Fresh Air that process begins with us producers inhaling as much music, books, magazines, movies, television, all that stuff, as much as we can, and debating among ourselves which one of those possible ideas merits an interview segment. Then you toss in about a gazillion press kits, CD's, videos, books -- all of them pitching an interview idea.

Now as we all know, the initial step of editing can very well begin with that decision of whether or not to read a press release or return a phone call to a publicist, unless of course it's a phone call from a movie publicist and we'll call them back! Let me digress for a second. That wise crack was just a small- minded defensive way of acknowledging Susan Douglas' friends who think that Terry interviews too many celebs and not enough emerging, unknown, or just regular, interesting people. I thought that was an interesting notion and it relates to a lot of what Marcia was talking about. Those friends actually really count to us, and I'm grateful for their feedback. The balance between the celebs we figure our listeners are most curious about, and those emerging artists and writers we think our listeners don't know but would be glad to meet – well, that balance has been the topic of many conversations among us Fresh Air producers, and I thank Susan for her insights and the challenges she threw our way this morning.

Okay, editing my own presentation, I'm going to talk about how we record and shape our interviews, which are always prerecorded and edited. Terry is just a dream to edit because she organizes the interviews in a way that impose an initial structure and the direction on the raw tape. Now the unedited interviews usually run about fifty minutes, give or take. It's the job of the rest of the staff to take that generally interesting and coherent conversation -- at least interesting and coherent if it's going well -- and then we boil it down to the most intriguing ideas, the clearest explanations, the most vivid descriptions, and still have it sound like a relatively, effortless, completely live and unedited exchange.

Now of course, before we roll any tape, Terry has done her homework. She's prepared an interview, which is organized into chapters. And each chapter would be about the different facets of her guest's work, the guest's life, and how one's life and one's work interrelate and sometimes cause conflict with each other. Now as a mini case study, a couple of weeks ago we featured an interview with Mary Robinson. Here are the basic bullet-points about her:

She is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
She's the former President of Ireland
She's Catholic
She's married to a Protestant
She's a woman

And also, we spoke to her just a couple of days after the killing of UN aid workers in East Timor. So those are the basics on Mary Robinson. And logically they provided a guide for the different chapters, which were incorporated into the unedited interview.

The chapters in the first part of the interview covered the latest news in East Timor, a general overview of human rights issues around the world, explored human right's problems where the impact was greatest on women. That particular chapter happened to focus on female genital mutilation.

In the second part of the interview, Terry got more personal. She asked Mary Robinson about being the President of Ireland. She was Catholic, married to a Protestant – how did her family react? Well they weren't happy. How did her complicated family history affect her approach to her duties as President? Well that was something that was never far from her mind, and these were the things that Terry and Mary Robinson talked about. And then in another chapter, being the President of Ireland, which after all is a secular job, what did her church expect of her in terms of her public and personal beliefs, especially when it came to issues like birth control and abortion? Well, you get the idea – lots of chapters that we editors could choose from.

To make a long story short, she was kind of dull on what you might consider the most important and timeliest stuff. Talking about East Timor and human rights generally, she kind of sounded on autopilot, like she said it a lot before. She kind of sounded bureaucratic, whereas you could really hear the conversation pickup when Terry led her into the more personal territory -- personal stuff, but of course, issues which had huge political dimensions, and that's how we cut the tape. We needed to jettison a lot of what you'd think would be the "meat and potatoes" stuff about East Timor and human rights. Not all of it, but that's the place where we got most aggressive. And a lot of that tape was generally interesting, and all of it dealt with important issues, but the point is the generally interesting tape was standing in the way of the really compelling tape, the really great parts of the conversation.

So we cut most of our tapes twice, or sometimes even three times. That is, the first cut is usually the "responsible" cut. It addresses all the issues, it cuts away the dull, verbose stuff, it dispenses with the self-serving BS, and there's plenty of it when you're dealing with a bureaucrat, although I wouldn't say there was a whole lot with Mary Robinson. The first cut keeps the stuff that's reasonably interesting, but it's usually too long because it doesn't move quickly enough to the most compelling, memorable, and ultimately valuable tape. You have to go at the tape again, and it's the second cut that can shape an okay interview into what we really want -- a deeply satisfying and memorable interview that listeners are grateful to hear, and that we producers are really proud to put on the air. I think that's one of the real virtues of pre-recording and editing, and not just one edit, but really two or three successive edits. You have the opportunity to continually assess and measure the reasonably okay tape against the really memorable tape till you find the most satisfying distillation of the conversation; at least that's what we do on a good day. Thanks!

Alvar: Thanks again Danny. Terry, I think, represents sort of the ultimate living human filter. Terry works incredibly hard and sets very high standards for herself. You begin to get a sense of what these filters are. They're not flimsy, gauzy, things through which some things pass and some things don't. They're made of very tough metal. It's a lot of hard work; there's a lot of decision making involved, as well as a strong sense of purpose and very high standards.

The second filter that we're going to talk about has to do with the selection and shaping of talent. One of the interesting exchanges in the conversation that we had in Washington last June was how somebody described the three stages of talent development:

When you start out, you're not very good. Very few people can get on the radio the first time and be very good at all.

The second phase of a talent's development is that you become good enough to sound like everybody else; in a sense, you can "pass" as a radio person.

The third is when you find your own voice and you have the confidence to speak with that voice.

Doug Berman described his job, during our discussion as, "finding talented people, placing them in situations where they come across well and have a purpose, and editing the hell out of them." I asked Doug because I think again, like Terry, when you listen to Car Talk it sounds effortless. Doug has proven himself as someone who knows what talent is, what talent works, and how to get the best out of them, and I wanted to ask him to come up and talk a bit about how he does that.

Doug Berman: The Selection and Shaping of Talent
The thing I should first say is that I do a very specific type of program, which doesn't apply to everybody. I work in this hybrid area of information and entertainment, which is what suits me. But I think Marcia said it right that you look for people who are genuinely interesting and entertaining, build a format around them that brings out what they do best, and hides what they don't do well, and then edit the hell out of them. That's the model that I use for the shows that I produce. But I want to say there are other models as well.

For instance. Chris Tschida's here from A Prairie Home Companion, and you may say, "That's not an edited program." I guess I would argue that the editing in that program really goes on beforehand; in the writing, in the re-writing, in the planning that happens before they even get to the performance. So I think that editing and filtering, in some form, is one of the things that creates great talent, that the talent does not simply exist on its own, that it has to be produced and created. I have yet to meet someone who's so interesting that we can just run whatever happens to come out their mouth for an hour and have it be great talent and great radio.

Danny just spoke about the editing process on Fresh Air, and I happen to agree with him one hundred percent, that it's the second and third pass, and, you know, someone should write that down and distribute it, Marcia. It's separating the ordinary from the extraordinary that really makes the difference between good stuff and great stuff.

When we're talking about talent, one of the good things to keep in mind is that talent is any person who's on the air. You listen to an interview on Fresh Air and Terry Gross is the talent, right? Well in that case you actually have two talents on the air. You have a guest who is talent as well. Anybody who's on your air is, by definition, talent. So you want to shoot for A+ talent in your host, or hosts, and whenever possible, you want to shoot for A+ talent in your guests, or your callers, or whoever else is on your program – they're all talent.

To me, talent cannot really be separated from content and format – it's sort of the holy trinity. The talent has to embody the content, the talent really has to be the content, and then that talent has to also be in a format, which brings out the best part of that person, so they're sort of inseparable. But let me focus on talent as much as I can, and I'll sort of focus on "host" talent in this case, although, keep in mind, that whenever possible you want these things to apply to anybody on your air.

The things that I look for when I'm evaluating talent (and these are not in priority order) Number 1, are they content? Are they the content? Do they live the content? Do they embody the content? And what that speaks to is depth. Is there something there? Does the person have something to say? Is the person interesting? Is the person authentic? Are they really who they seem to be? And one of the interesting ways I realized that I judge this is, are they who they seem to be in person, as well as on the air? To me, I've yet to meet someone who can be completely boring, sitting across the table from you, and be fascinating on the air everyday or every week. So that's one way you can judge when you're looking for talent is, are they genuinely interesting?

Two, are they personally, for lack of a better word, attractive? And I mean that as an attractive personality, somebody you want to be around. People like to hang around people who are more interesting, smarter, and funnier than they are. And I think the same is true on radio. Is this person – do they have some sort of magnetism, is it someone you want to spend time with? Does the person have warmth and humanity? In my mind, and we talked a little bit about this at the session, when you're talking about a long-term relationship, which is what you're trying to develop, generally speaking, when you're working with talent and developing talent, you want someone with a positive worldview, somewhere underneath that. You know, I think cynicism can be funny, and it can be entertaining sometimes, but as the basis of a long-term relationship with someone, I don't think it cuts it. So I think that's one of the things that public radio talent needs to have. Solution oriented, I think was the way we referred to it, somewhere underneath. You look at Tom and Ray, and you say, "Where is it there?" Well, I think -- really, underneath -- everybody knows that they're looking for goodness, they're enjoying the goodness in other people, they're interested in solutions – they're nice people, you know. And I think you could probably say that about any other talent that we consider A+ talent in the system.

Does the person write well for him or herself? Since writing and communicating is such a key part of what's important. Can the person express him or herself well?

And I think, finally, is the person distinctive? Will people recognize him or her? Will people remember him or her?

So, if you find these qualities, you build a format that brings out the best in a person, plays down the worst, then edit the hell out of them – I guarantee you, you will develop star talent!

Alvar: You mean it just doesn't happen? Finally, the third filter we're going to talk about is the selection, and the shaping of craft. I thought it was fascinating to hear the piece of tape Susan (Douglas) played this morning from the very first edition of All Things Considered. One of the things I heard as I was listening was how far we have come since that day. The heart is still there, thank God! The intelligence is still there. But I think one of the things that we can all recognize with our ears is that the craft of our programming has grown in a really wonderful and sophisticated way.

Ellen Weiss, who is the Executive Producer of All Things Considered, is going to join us and talk a bit about some of the work that's being done with her show. This is a living process, it's something that just goes on and on. It never stops and you never hit the top, and she has agreed to come up and talk a little bit about just some of the work that they're doing in that area.

Ellen Weiss: The Shaping and Selection of Craft
I have to tell you that Doug, Danny, and I somehow congregated after this morning's session with Susan Douglas, and we looked at each other and we said, "Okay, Danny, you're predictable, I'm boring, Doug's irrelevant, and this afternoon we'll tell people how they can be that too!" Just kidding! Actually, I really appreciated hearing that clip from All Things Considered; it was nice to know that we had that kind of start. I want to thank Marcia and the PRPD, because I have to tell you, I've been to a lot of public radio meetings in my life, and the one that happened in June was probably the most surprising for me, and also the most interesting. I did go into it wondering what we had in common, but it didn't take very long for me to realize that we really all did share something.

I'm not here to lecture you about how you should be doing your programming, but I want to talk a little bit about the kinds of discussions that we're having at National Public Radio now, which are kinds of discussions we haven't had in a long time. And it's not as much about what we're putting on the air as how we're putting it on the air. What I want to say is, how are we sounding? Are we sounding as good as we can?

For the past eight months we've been having listening sessions, and they've been great. They've involved reporters, and editors, and producers, and hosts. They involve listening to pieces that people have produced, to different styles of production, to writing, to introductions, and to how you do an interview. They've taken entire versions of All Things Considered and asked everybody to listen and come in and give us their comments. And that process has created a kind of consciousness and dialogue about whether we're sounding the best that we can, and caused us to ask ourselves what things we should be thinking about before we even begin to put a piece together.

Listening to Danny and Doug talk about going over an interview and editing, and re-editing it two or three times -- sometimes we have the luxury to do that. Often we may not get to do a single edit, or even hear the piece before it's been mixed. So it's really important that we build a kind of consciousness, a common knowledge, and a set of common questions, to ask ourselves before we go out, and when we come back with our material.

So, what I want to play for you is one of the topics from the listening session. It happens to be one of my pet peeves, and it's, "How do you start a piece?"

I guess I was getting kind of tired of hearing pieces start with the sound of wind, or gravel, or computers, or starting with sound at all. Because I didn't think that people were asking themselves, "What is the purpose of the sound?" It's not that you should never start a piece with sound, but they weren't thinking about what was coming before the sound, what was coming after the sound, and was that really the way you should start a piece? Obviously it was predictable, and it wasn't very interesting. So I want to play a tape now, and what this is, is really different ways of how you can start a piece. I've left parts of the introductions on, and I'd just like you to listen. Some of these, I think, are examples that are not the best way. They're lazy and some of them, I think, are trying new ways to start a piece, but again, it's just trying to raise the consciousness of, what is the role of sound, and writing, and production, at this very important part of a story?

Click here to listen to five examples of "How to start a piece." The first was a story filed from Kabul by reporter Michael Sullivan about the civil war in Afghanistan.

Weiss: I think you heard that there's a whole variety of ways to start a piece. I won't necessarily say which ones I agree with and which ones I don't, but I do want to pick up is on the last piece about the piano, because I think that gets to my second point, which is about writing.

I thought Brooke wrote such beautiful and engaging copy that she just sucked you right in. That was a piece about a museum exhibit. She could have started by telling you, "We're going to talk to you about a museum exhibit." But she didn't. She grabbed your attention. She made you laugh and smile. I think that if you begin anywhere -- forget about sound, forget about actualities -- begin with the writing. This is the most important thing you can do. And I would say, that if I were bringing somebody new into radio, the first thing I would do, for three months, is have them do nothing but write two to three minute pieces, just with writing. Because if they can make a two or three minute piece sound interesting through their writing, then you can add on the sound, and then you can add on the actualities. But I don't think that you can spare the writing one bit.

When I think about our most interesting people, our best people on the air, the people who make those programs so successful, they're writers – that's what they do. They write, and the written word has a purpose. And I guess that brings us back to where Marcia began. It is about purpose. It's that the sound should have a purpose, and the words should have a purpose, and the tape should have a purpose, so that the story has a purpose. Thank you.

Alvar: My thanks again to Doug, Ellen, and Danny, for agreeing to participate, and talk a bit about the kind of work that they do. I guess the big question for us now is, "So what do we do with what we found out?"

In the months ahead, PRPD wants to create a set of new tools -- new ways all of us can use this vocabulary of core values, and the filters Danny, Doug and Ellen have described. We want to develop a new kind of yardstick that will help us more effectively evaluate and improve the quality of what we do.

I think one of the things that happens with success is that we all get contented and we don't keep pushing ourselves a little bit further. And you can tell what happens when someone like Susan Douglas gives us a little stick in our sides-- it's like "Whoa –that stings!" But that's good for us! It's good for all of us to have that kind of incentive and "encouragement" because we have a lot of work to do:

We're going to need to develop more programming; more powerful programming that serves the audience that we have attracted.

We want to create some new training opportunities for people in the public radio system, and we want these core values to be at the heart and center of those activities.

We want to continue the dialogue that we began between stations and producers. I believe very strongly that we are a community, and that if anything comes out of this, bringing a new sensibility to the dialogue, will be a valuable contribution.

And finally, in a world that's marked by an ever-increasing level of commercialism, of noise, of hype, and of manipulation, public radio truly has -- and I think we can be very proud of this and be like mother bears with our cubs about it – we have created an oasis on the radio dial, a kind of sanctuary for our listeners.

Jim Russell said a wonderful thing during our discussion last June. He said, "We aspire to do something with the media that most American broadcasters simply don't." It is that aspiration and our willingness and dedication to continually improve our work, to push ourselves forward that will guarantee that we remain and thrive in the future as a significant broadcast service.

Editor's Note: In the next edition of NewsWrap, Three Local Programs and How They Grew. We'll have more discussion of public radio's core values as Danny Miller, Doug Berman and Chris Tschida talk about how Fresh Air, Car Talk and APHC. All three were local programs for many years before going national. Hear how the programs sounded in their early years, and about the decisions and discipline it took to make them the national hits they are today.