Posts about radio

The coolest Canadian

Screenshot 2013-03-29 at 9.27.41 AMI had the great pleasure last night to watch one of my favorite interviewers on one of my favorite shows, live in New York. Jian Ghomeshi [except for an excess H it sounds like it’s spelled] is the host of the CBC’s Q, which I’ve listened to for years. You can — no, should — listen to him online, on Sirius (channel 159), or on some smart public-radio stations like WNYC, which have started carrying him.

Ghomeshi runs a radio variety show, but not like one of the late-night TV shows in America. It’s a smart variety show. It doesn’t try to be funny or hip but is both. Ghomeshi’s opening monologue is a written essay/soliloquy/riff that sets the pace for the show; it says, “keep up now.” He gets great musical bookings and gives them time. He knows how to speak with them because he was a rock musician himself. But the heart of the show is his long-form interviews with musicians, authors, actors, and divas; he’s comfortable with them all.

Last night I was thinking about my favorite interviewers: Howard Stern, Jian Ghomeshi, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, each live and uncut. And I started to understand, I think, what makes them great. They treat interviews like music.

That’s not my thought. At the after-party — an understated Canadian affair — I was talking with an American public-radio executive who was also a musician and a jazz producer and he said he saw Ghomeshi’s experience as a musician play out in his interviews: playing over the occasional wrong note, going with the flow of someone else’s solo. When Jian arrived later he, too, talked about getting into the right rhythm with a guest. It is musical, he said.

03-25-13---James-FrancoRight. In the car on the way home, I listened to a replay of Stern’s hour-and-a-half interview with James Franco this week. When I first heard the start of it, live, I thought Stern was being slightly ADD. He’d get Franco to go down a path; Franco would get ready to launch into a story; Stern would get distracted by a squirrel or perhaps he’d worry that Franco would spend too long and he’d deflect him to another subject; there was a bit of Mexican jumping bean to it. But last night I heard the rest of the interview and it was amazing. They got into sync. They were comfortable and out of that comfort came the surprising candor Stern can get even from jaded, over-interviewed stars. He truly is a genius at it. The real advantage of Sirius is not that he can say “fuck” but that he has the time, uninterrupted, to find that rhythm.

Ghomeshi has the similar advantage of being on public radio in Canada with two hours to devote to his guests. I’ve had the privilege of being on the show a few times. It’s shocking to my American media biorhythms to find myself in an interview or debate that doesn’t end in 2:30 — a race to the finish of the sound bite — but instead can turn into a real discussion. That contrast was apparent last night in Q’s media panel — one of my favorite parts of his week, but this time with American guests: The New York Times’ David Carr, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, and right-wing CNNer Will Cain. Though Goodman decried the sound bite, the truth is that they were all trained to recite theirs in sparse minutes while Ghomeshi was trying to get them to actually arrive at least at a clear statement of disagreement about gun control. Good luck with that. Cain wouldn’t play. Still, it made for fascinating radio/video/theater.

His other interviews each had their own cadences. Cyndi Lauper, who is approaching diva status, talked about her Broadway show with Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots, and about her childhood and, God help us, the Dalai Lama. Ghomeshi let her go. At his usual pace, with fewer guests than he had on stage last night, the interview would have gone on longer but the clock got in the way. Still, leaving us wanting more is not a bad thing.

Alan Alda tried to show Ghomeshi who was boss (“You grew up in the Bronx,” said Ghomeshi. “No I didn’t but I can tell you’re a Wikipedia reader,” said Alda) but that turned into a pleasant chat about the impact of M*A*S*H and about science (Alda is challenging scientists to define a flame and time so 11-year-olds could understand).

Vampire Weekend played three songs, a luxury the crowd enjoyed. Actually, they played four, asking to come back after the taping was done to rerecord their first. That provided a post facto punch line; now I understood the sly grins they shared when Ghomeshi — obviously aware of the redo that was coming up — asked Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij whether they were perfectionists.

The highlight of the night for me was David Cross talking about the return of Arrested Development. At the party, Ghomeshi said the two of them had hit that certain rhythm; watch how they did it at the start of the second hour, below. Cross began, like Alda, testing the line. He asked Jian whether he was that guy who had that interview — famously strange — with Billy Bob Thornton. “He was just such an insufferable prick,” Cross said. “We’re not going to replay that now, are we?” Ghomeshi asked. That could have gone either way. But then Ghomeshi exhibited real knowledge of Cross; he’d seen his stand-up act and knew his shows and had insightful questions and Cross responded with both candor and great comic timing. In only a moment, they became an act together.

After the show, I talked with a bunch of public-radio people and asked whether there was anyone in the U.S. market like Ghomeshi. They couldn’t think of anyone. Neither can I. We’re lucky we get to listen here. I asked his producers what the Canadian reaction was to Ghomeshi’s growing American fan base — did they wonder why he needed us. No, they said, but Canadians did worry that the show would become — like surely too much else from their perspective — too American. I don’t think that can happen. The acts and the subjects are shared. The attitude isn’t.

Ghomeshi is quite Canadian. He embodies what I like about the place — and why I indeed almost moved there three times (I am the rare Canadophile, but that’s another story). The Venn diagram of his and Canadian’s characteristics has many overlaps: calm, charming, self-deprecating, witty, easy, smart, never too hip, quite comfortable…. Hear for yourself.

I have just one wish: that Sirius and public-radio stations here would give his Q’s full two hours. We’re almost as smart and patient and interested as Canadians. Really.

Ray-dee-oh

I had a great time today talking about What Would Google Do with KCRW’s Rob Long on his show, The Politics of Culture (he also makes a great show/podcast about Hollywood: Martini Shot):

I can’t say the same for every radio interview I’ve been lucky enough to do for the book. Some are great (see hear also On the Media and KGO’s Ronn Owens and a few others). But some remind me of why Howard Stern makes fun of radio. I’ve had my share of IN-ter-VIEWS when THE hosts EM-pha-SIZE SYLlables in WAYS that No NORmal HUman DOES. But my favorite stupid radio trick so far: Three hosts asked me to tell the folks what Google is. Do they think their own listeners are that disconnected, that stupid? Apparently so. One droned on to me about how “people over 50″ just have a tough time with this internet thing and computers and all that. I responded that I’m 54 and I managed to figure it out.

National Public What?

I’ll be speaking to the Public Radio News Directors this Saturday in Washington and I’ll want to bang all the heads together and make them repeat after me: “We are not radio. We are not radio. We are not radio.” Just as newspapers are not paper, or must figure out what they are after, so NPR must decide what it is after broadcast. I said this to them a few years ago when I spoke to the group in St. Louis and then again when I joined others to talk about new media at NPR’s headquarters. My prescription then:

NPR is not radio. If I tell newspapers they have to stop thinking on paper, so I’ll argue that NPR must throw off the limits of its medium. And I don’t just mean that the can go multimedia, adding photos or videos to their sound. I mean changing the culture, not thinking like a radio network anymore so thewy can see the options the internet opens up to work in every appropriate medium with entirely new kinds of content, from TV to data bases.

I’m seeing the notion of thinking past radio discussed now thanks to the death of one of public radio’s attempts to modernize, Bryant Park Project. It was, as far as I’m concerned, the better of the attempts; the other, The Takeaway, is floundering, earnestly but uncomfortably. NPR apparently doesn’t know what it means to modernize. They seem to think it means losing their legendary polish and releasing their inner “uh’s” and “y’know’s.”

The problem, I think, is that they didn’t understand what the essence of NPR is. They thought it was radio, so they tried to come up with new formats and formulae for radio. But that’s not what NPR is.

Rob Paterson, the very smart consultant who advises NPR, says of the BPP folding:

I think a couple of things are becoming more clear to me. The show was seen as a Radio show with a strong social web element. This is I think the key error that drove the costs and the expectations. If you want to do the new today – you have to break away from the costs of the machine – if a paper, no press and no paper!

I would have launched BPP as a web show with a bit of radio. No small distinction.

He talked about the cost of it, as did John Proffitt. Radio’s also not cheap. And then Rob comes to the bottom line for National Public (Radio):

Just as the presses and the paper is a cost that is killing the Newspapers, so the transmitters are killing TV and Radio. All that can remain for a while are the established shows such as ME and ATC. But if you want some thing new that will scale and make you money – it’s the web all the way.

But again, what is it that moves to the web? And how? What’s that essence of NPR? That’s what I asked the Guardian. It’s what every media organization trying to reinvent itself must ask. What are you saving? What is your appeal? What is your value? What are you?

This afternoon, I happened to be talking with Adam Davidson, part of the team that created that incredible This American Life/NPR News show explaining the credit crunch. On Twitter, Jay Rosen said this was the best explanatory journalism he’d heard. I responded that it was the best I’d heard or read. If The Times had explained the story this well, it would have made it as radio so in their voices we could hear — as someone said in another tweet — their incredulity. So it was great radio but that was merely a choice of media. It wasn’t the essence of it.

So I asked Davidson how he defined that essence. He thought about it and answered that it’s about shows that, at the end of the week, make you say, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about. Now I get it.”

I like that and that essence can be communicated in audio, video, text, graphics, apps, discussion. The intelligence of NPR can now be freed from mere radio to use any and all appropriate media. That’s what we try to teach our students at CUNY: making media choices with every story. So should NPR.

What do you think the essence of NPR is?

Trouble for NPR

It looks like bad news for Public Radio and its fans: CEO Ken Stern has been forced out. It appears that the stations did him in as they gun for his digital strategy because they fear the internet will hurt them.

Well guess, what, local yokels, hate to tell you this but… You’re screwed! You bet the internet is going to hurt you. There is no need for you as a distribution arm anymore. Unless you add valuable local content and service to the mix, you might as well tear down the tower now. Or in a year or two. Getting rid of Stern et al won’t get rid of reality.

This is the problem I see in all media: They think that protection is a strategy. It’s not.

The story on NPR’s site explains:

In addition, Stern led a major push in digital ventures. It stemmed from his often-repeated conviction that the old way of doing business wouldn’t work. Other diversions — such as cable television, online news sources, iPods, books on tape, video games and social networks — are siphoning audiences away from traditional broadcasters, including public radio stations. Stern argued that NPR shows and news and cultural segments increasingly had to be available on whatever platforms people wanted to hear them.

NPR is considered a leader in news and music podcasts. And under Stern it has also struck deals to deliver its content new ways, such as through cell phones.

But that push has aggravated anxiety among local stations about their relationship to the network. NPR member stations rely heavily on popular shows, particularly Morning Edition, to generate donations. But if people can listen to them through NPR’s Web site or even their own cell phones, why would they stay loyal to stations still reliant on pledge drives?

Interviews with eight current and former public radio officials suggest Stern failed to convince local stations — and especially their representatives on the board — that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future.

That’s because there may not be one.

I said that at NPR sometime ago when I visited with other graybeards of the social media world, giving them our solicited advice. Here was my prognostication then about local radio. It was crystal clear to me at the time that the stations — especially those that served only as distribution outlets — had no viable future. I advised that they should figure out how to shift the local stations to new roles in their communities. I loved the NPR strategy — Stern’s strategy — of getting maximum distribution for programming. That, after all, is also part of the mission of a publicly supported broadcaster. Isn’t it?

And there are other models for local support. When I wrote about reverse syndication as a model for national coverage in newspapers, served up by the New York Times and its competitors, John Proffitt suggested that this could be a model for NPR.

I’ve begun to promote a similar idea, specifically in the public media world. Local public TV and public radio stations today pay hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions to NPR, PBS, APTS, PRI, APM and other content providers (with NPR and PBS being the most obvious). This has stifled the local public media companies’ ability to produce local content. They blow all their cash paying the networks.

Reverse syndication in this world, to my thinking, is to have the networks sell their content to the public (ads, membership revenue) and give all the content to the local media outlets for free — with the caveat that embedded ads pass through with the content. Local outlets could then produce local media and still pick from the best national media and arrange it into locally-relevant streams/blocks on the web, on transmitters, etc.

This would also clean up the nasty co-dependent relationships between the local stations and the networks, as it would clarify the roles of each.

That’s the kind of thinking NPR and its stations desperately need. Not protectionism of the past.

: Here‘s Robert Patterson, who brought me to NPR, on today’s news.

: LATER: I don’t understand the politics of NPR that went into this. And I know there are visionary stations doing good and new things. I just fear that defining radio around towers and their location — like defining newspapers around presses and theirs — is dangerous.

So let’s get a discussion going on what NPR can and should do now for the future. What’s your vision? I’ll pipe in more later.

: LATER STILL: See the comment by Dennis Haarsager, interim CEO, below.

Seldom do you get it from the horse’s mouth, and this will be short, but go to my blog sometime tomorrow and I’ll publish a longer version. Until mid-day yesterday, I was chair of the NPR board, and since yesterday afternoon, I’m the new interim CEO. The scenario you outlined in your opening paragraph is dead wrong and so was the first part of the Washington Post story today. It’s what happens when speculators become sources. If station management wanted to kill off or slow down emerging media, their board picked the wrong boy. Read my blog archives for the past four years. More to come Saturday at http://www.technology360.com/. Regards, Dennis Haarsager

: A NOTE TO DENNIS: I would suggest that NPR and you should have announced this in your blogs and engaged in a conversation about this with your supporters — not just your fans, of course, but the people who give you money. You handed this story over to the press and you left your real board — the public — in the dark. The sooner that conversation starts, the better, because there are people who like NPR out here — and have ideas for its future — who are worried.

Peter Day, podcast star

The BBC’s amazing Peter Day is the best reporter I know on the radio. As a story-teller, he stands alongside the U.S. radio icon, This American Life‘s Ira Glass. But his shows are entirely different; Peter reports on business and the world but with stories instead of numbers. He is a great interviewer and a genius at tying together his questions, answers, facts, and observations into a compelling narrative. I listen to his show on my iPod every week and play it for my students at CUNY as an example of both good interviewing and effective radio.

The Daily Mail is properly impressed that Peter’s In Business podcast is the top among BBC ‘casts, outdrawing even entertainment shows with big and expensive names: “More than 730,000 people downloaded Mr Day’s weekly podcast during September – 110,000 more than those who downloaded the second-placed show, Best of Chris Moyles, a weekly highlights compilation of his Radio 1 breakfast show. . . . Stephen Chilcott, the editor of In Business, said: ‘Peter may not be a household name but he’s an institution inside the BBC. People rave about him in their blogs and young entrepreneurs talk about him in hushed terms, saying he’s changed the way they think about business.’ ”

In the same edition, Peter writes with characteristic humility about how he does it and with characteristic eloquence about what radio really is:

Until now listeners have been remote: all we had was ratings to tell us who was listening, and a few appreciative or moaning letters. Now we have a new democracy of broadcasting: listening habits made manifest, ratings created by listeners making an active desision to download a particular programme.

Radio is music, chat and news but most of all it is ideas, and podcasting is going some way to redefine the ideas that interest our listeners. Podcasting is a new kind of listening, much more active and involved than merely sitting back to wait for what comes next.

It makes us broadcasters think much harder about who what and why we are talking to. It moves broadcasting much closer to conversation.

I wonder how many broadcasters in the U.S. would think that radio is about ideas but, of course, it is. If it’s only about sound, as too many of our stations are, it’s boring.

(Here is Peter’s show about blogs, featuring me talking so fast I scared even myself.)

This American story-telling

This American Life’s Ira Glass, who oversees what we journalists think is one of the last great hopes for “long-form journalism” (as it is so haughtily called), doesn’t necessarily call what he does journalism at all. From a Times Q&A leading up to his new Showtime video version of the show:

Q: How do you think your work differs from traditional journalism?
A; We’re taking the tools of journalism and applying them to people whom you wouldn’t normally apply them to — people who aren’t famous, people who aren’t powerful, people just like you and me.

Q; What are you talking about? Journalism has always had human-interest stories.
A; But a newspaper probably wouldn’t run an article where a cop remembers one weird incident with a squirrel when he was a rookie. That’s too far from any kind of normal news hook.

I’d say that’s false journalistic modesty. If journalists are storytellers, Glass & Co. are the masters of the craft.

Fair Game

Faith Salie has the most endearing voice on radio. Click below and listen to her on Fair Game, a new show aimed at a younger audience, and you’ll want to propose.

It’s not a voice or, for that matter, a personality we hear on public radio news shows, where the tones are stentorian and authoritative (hear: Nina Totenberg). Salie is relaxed and funny — though, as her radio bio emphasizes, she’s not dumbing down NPR stations; she’s a Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate. I’ve been listening to her on my iPod, fascinated by the show’s attempt to liven up public radio (especially after visiting NPR last week). So I was delighted when a call came to appear on Fair Game and doubly delighted that it was to talk about my new endeavor, PrezVid.

Before I got on, they were talking about the Jesus bones, not afraid of rattling the cultural safety latch, doing a shtick about a Jesus Jurassic park with cloned Messiahs and speculating with a theology professor about how hard it will be to get Jesus DNA (Salie guesses that a communion wafer probably won’t do the trick).
It was daring without acting daring and what I liked best was that the intelligence comes out in the wit.

I wanted to video the interview but with Salie as a TV personality, that caused complications. So here’s just a snippet from the control room below. And here‘s the interview.

Audio on audio

Andy Carvin at NPR put up podcasts of part of last week’s discussion there about social media — two hours at an open session with NPR staff. Part 1. Part 2.