Volume 4/Issue 1
The show “On The Media” takes a clear-eyed look at all media, public radio included. You tend to trust Brooke Gladstone (and her co-host Bob Garfield for that matter) because they’re so straight ahead, funny, not puffed up. Are these attributes among the core values of public radio? Should they be? In her Transom Manifesto, Brooke meditates on the way we sound now, and the way she wants to sound, and the way she’s getting there. Read her Three Waypoints for making the trip. –Jay A
Brooke Gladstone’s Manifesto
When I joined NPR in 1987, I was a print reporter and editor. My career was undistinguished, I knew nothing about radio production and would never have gotten in the door today, but Scott Simon "big footed" me in because he felt like it.
(We had met in 1982 when reporting on the big financial scandal that nearly sunk NPR. I was working for Current and he was covering it for NPR. Five years later he bumped into my husband at the Smithsonian when Dizzy Gillespie was donating his trumpet, and said he needed an editor to fill in for an absent staffer on his show.)
So, at the age of 32, I came into NPR as a radio baby, bred like an orchid in that hothouse atmosphere of mission and radio values and respect for the audience. I couldn’t believe my luck then and marvel at it now. What’s more, NPR was pretty nice to me. After three years I went from senior editor of Scott’s show to senior editor of All Things Considered, then reported from Moscow for three years and served as the network’s first media reporter for six years. NPR even let me fill in as a host from time to time. It rarely messed with my stories. When I went on the air, it gave me very little guff about my purple prose and nasal voice. I had no beef with National Public Radio.
So why did I quit?
Or more to the point (as one colleague asked and many thought) why on earth would I leave Valhalla to go to a local station to work on an overlooked and under-funded, five-year-old dead shark of a show called (insert yawn here) On the Media?
Well, I was bored. I had worked at the media job twice as long as I’d ever worked on anything, and when I get bored, I start to screw up. I hadn’t screwed up yet, but I knew if I hung around much longer I probably would. (It’s good to know these things about yourself.)
But if I was sick of the beat, why did I go to On the Media?
Well, for one thing, Dean Cappello, who is in charge of programming at WNYC, which produces the show, really wanted me. I was incredibly flattered. Cappello wanted a new life for On the Media, which had already used up two lives, having first launched as a local call-in in 1995, and then gone national as a magazine-style show a couple years later. It had a talented (tiny) staff and an excellent host in Brian Lehrer, but Brian was already producing 10 hours of live radio a week for WNYC, and had to parachute into OTM after his show and in the evenings, to do the interviews and read the copy. The overworked producers had great instincts but little experience, and there was no editor. As a result, OTM was wildly uneven and circling the drain.
But WNYC pays a lot of dues to NPR. So the station chiefs convinced NPR to pony up a little more support, found some other funding, applied some creative money management, and decided to relaunch the show, one more time.
Just before, or maybe just after my hire, I was in Cappello’s office and he delivered what I think of as the "mission impossible" speech. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to jumpstart the shark, to turn OTM into a real, viable, national program. One that people would actually want to listen to.
Oh god, really? About the media? Which I was beginning to hate?
So I got to thinking about what I liked about the beat and what I didn’t. What I liked about NPR newsmagazines and what I didn’t. And slowly, the manifesto evolved.
Now I was the one invited on to Transom, so this is from me. But the manifesto, if it could be called one, is a full collaboration of Cappello, Senior Producer Arun Rath, co-host Bob Garfield, producers Katya Rogers, Janeen Price, Megan Ryan, Tony Field, technical director Dylan Keefe and Mike Pesca (who was an inspiration while he was with us). But, as I took Cappello’s meaning (and maybe I’m wrong), if the program stayed dead, it would be my failure. So I may as well be the one to lay out the philosophy from which we built the jumper cables.
First — the beat. What I didn’t like about the media beat at NPR was that I would be asked to do a three-and-a-half minute piece every time Tina Brown passed wind (or so it seemed to me.) I wasn’t interested in that, and I lived in one of the half-dozen zip codes where people genuinely cared about Tina Brown [former New Yorker editor-in-chief].
The fact was, for six years I had a Howie Kurtz monkey on my back. He writes a widely read media column for the Washington Post. He has great sources, and he’s often first on the big media stories. He’s also first on stories that aren’t big, or even interesting outside of certain social circles. But Howie writes for a newspaper. If people get bored they turn the page, they don’t throw out the paper. There’s no page-turning in radio, only channel switching. So you have to make people care about every story. That was always my first priority on a beat as abstract and vicarious as media, and sometimes it was hard. But try as I might, I found that some "insider" stories weren’t worth selling.
I covered the big news, but I also wanted to do pieces on where media and culture collide, where media holds up the mirror to culture, pieces on advertising, TV and movie trends, stand-up comics, you name it. I wanted to show how the media sausage is made. NPR wanted those stories too, but I still had to do pieces that I couldn’t even sell to me.
I’m not going to focus much on the way we configured the beat at OTM. It’s changed over time. 9-11 and the war made it more serious, more centered on journalism. And it will keep changing. But we do all the pieces I wanted to do, plus lots more that would never have occurred to me.
Point #1 of the Manifesto
Don’t limit your scope. It’s good to have an organizing principle but it should be violated at will. (Like when Bob did a story on vanity license plates, which doesn’t exactly qualify as "media," but was a fabulous story.)
Having worked on a couple of general interest magazine shows, I have reveled in the pursuit of any compelling story or idea that comes along without respect to beat or bailiwick. How liberating is journalism without a brief! But there are drawbacks. The danger is that programs that can be about anything may wind up being about nothing. The wheel has to be reinvented each time: out of a universe of possible topics, what to talk about this week becomes an excruciating question. It’s worse when a program has a small staff and limited resources. One inspired way around the problem is to organize each show around a theme, which has worked so well for This American Life and Studio 360. With time and advance planning, they compensate for the lack of resources and produce great radio. That doesn’t work for us because we are tied to the news and can’t re-run shows (though we certainly "repurpose" individual pieces and interviews.)
So actually, it helps us to know what we’re about (journalism, freedom of information, cultural and/or linguistic trends reflected in the media, impact of media on attitudes, manipulations of and by the media, etc.) It gives us a starting point. But none of us would last if it had to end there. Automatic pilot is death to a program like ours. If we can’t make media relevant and compelling even to those who don’t think they care about it (including those of us on staff), then the show will suffocate.
So Bob does vanity license plates and I do Everquest and we do privacy and Broadway and eBay and cell phones and all sorts of things that fall slightly outside the confines of "media" but entirely within the confines of "whatever we are dying to do and can make a halfway decent case has something to do with the way human beings interact." There’s a higher bar for stories like that but they do get on the air.
Point #2 of the Manifesto
Get good people, and use them. You are an idiot if you disrespect the ideas of anyone on the staff. Only a few ideas make it on the show, but they all deserve an airing and even a knockdown drag-out fight if the passion runs high.
The reason why OTM is less predictable than most news shows is it draws ideas from everywhere. This is the most collaborative show I’ve ever worked on. A co-host who is also a managing editor creates a dangerous power nexus that can strangle a program, so we don’t let it happen. There are no "junior" members on the staff. Rigid hierarchies (and I have participated in them at NPR) squander a lot of brainpower, and we can’t afford to waste any.
Prelude to Point #3 of the Manifesto
Here’s what I like about most public radio news magazines. The reporting is solid, the subjects are important and relevant, and the level of discourse is high. The audience is respected. These are the keys to public radio’s success. While more and more news outlets slice up consistently smaller pieces of the audience pie, public radio consistently gains listeners, so it’s doing something right.
Here, in my humble opinion, is what’s wrong: As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seeks to balance the four humors (so as not to be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic or melancholy) by bloodletting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.
There are strong personalities and neutral ones. Hot ones, like Scott Simon or Susan Stamberg, Jacki Lyden or Robert Siegel, are risky. People will love them, but they will also loathe them. The neutral personalities that hold most of the on-air positions on public radio today are safer. They bring us the news, they keep the discourse high. They are polite to the guests and the listeners. We don’t hate them. We don’t love them. We don’t know who they are.
The Part About Radio
When you read a newspaper (increasingly, public radio’s model) the reporter generally is absent. When you watch TV, the reporter is showing and telling, with pictures and charts. When you watch TV, in the back of your mind is the certain knowledge that tens of thousands of other people are watching with you. With radio, you can almost feel the breath of the reporter on your cheek. Radio is personal.
Only on radio do hosts and reporters serve as the listener’s surrogates. Only radio can maintain the illusion of a one-to-one relationship. Listeners need that person to guide them through the story, paint the picture, explain the situation. Listeners respond, actively, to the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the vocal transmission of amusement or fear. It’s like dynamite. It can blow up in your face. But skillfully applied, it provides context far more intensely than an avalanche of words.
Passion is a part of life. Public radio is all grown up now. It should be able to handle it. But we all know where unbridled passion can lead: To that rolling cacophonous quagmire that is the rest of talk radio. All contention, no content. All bias and prejudice, no exchange of ideas. All heat, with nary a glimmer of light. I wouldn’t do it if they paid me a million bucks. (Well, maybe a million.)
There has to be a third way. We’ve all had debates that were a trifle tense, that involved some little gesticulation and saliva spray, that were still nuanced and fair, and ultimately more satisfying than the standard polite exchange.
Point #3 of the Manifesto
Look for ways to use the passion that accompanies conviction to make better radio.
So here’s what we did with OTM. We figured any show that includes a fair measure of criticizing one’s professional colleagues had better come clean. So Bob and I regularly practice full disclosure, and rarely use locutions that distance us from what we really mean (as in: "What do you say to the critics who say…) unless we really don’t share the criticism we’re presenting.
We have opinions, and we state them, and we allow the guests whatever time they need to respond. We ask a lot of follow-up questions. Sometimes we do push politeness to hammer away at a question if it isn’t answered the first, or second time, but we really do see ourselves as the listeners’ surrogate, and they deserve an answer (when we can get one) and not an evasion. Otherwise, why bother?
Every once in a while, if it’s interesting or illustrative, we leave in our mistakes. If, for instance, in a particular interview, we find that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, the same tree we think listeners may be barking up, we let the interviewee correct us rather than retake the question.
But we don’t leave it in if it isn’t meaningful. We edit like crazy. We shorten and move things around. Editing may be OTM‘s dirty, little secret. Things you hear are rarely anything like they happened in real time. We are excruciatingly possessive of our weekly hour and the listener’s ear.
Mostly though, we use what we’ve got. After all, OTM has about as conventional format as there is — just interviews and pieces with maybe an essay or parody thrown in to round out the hour. So we keep it moving. When we’ve used up the good stuff, we leave it. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Sometimes our shows are great, sometimes they suck. We learn from our mistakes. And yes, we always try to keep the level of discourse high.
A Final Thought About Public Radio in the Third Millennium
Public Radio is in great shape, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. It is an oasis in a broadcast landscape where high ideals and intellectual engagement are drying up. But we don’t have to use the soothing rhythm that is public radio’s trademark tempo for every discussion. We can alternate the pace, syncopate. We can be true to our individual voices. Today’s news consumers are different from those a generation ago. They are inundated with outlets. In fact, they are – all of them – conscious media critics, navigating a torrent of chatter. They’re either going to trust you, or they won’t. In the interests of full disclosure, and journalistic ethics, and better radio, we should reveal ourselves. Let them know who they’re dealing with – flesh and blood people who live in the same world they do.