Intro from Jay Allison: Getting together and putting on a show is one of the draws of radio, isn't it? Months ago, I asked JJ Sutherland if he'd keep a journal about creating NPR's new "Day To Day" from scratch, and then join us for the final month before launch. Here he is. I'm grateful to him, and to NPR, for letting this happen at the absolutely MOST inconvenient time. Plus, it's a sensitive time full of risk and ego and fear. Who wants to open the door while you're still undressed, who wants to reveal process when it's chaotic, who wants more hassle when you're hassled? Well, JJ says he does, within reason, and we hope his staff and host will pitch in too. We think we can learn a lot by listening to what they're going through. So welcome them, and be friendly. They're working hard. They're putting on a show.
Day to Day – A New Radio Show: Some Assembly Required
Before the Beginning – WHY?
A little over two years ago I had a 3 hour meeting with Jay Kernis, the Senior VP of Programming at NPR, about a new radio program. It would be a newsmagazine. In the middle of the day, sometime between Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It would be different than the other NPR newsmags, but not so different that it wouldn’t be an NPR newsmag. It would have to not draw too much on the resources of NPR News, it should be able to produce the vast majority of its own material. Then he sent me away to think and write about it. Since that time the idea of the show has evolved and grown. But the first question I had for Jay was, “Why?” You have to begin with “Why?” Why does this show need to exist? What purpose does it serve? Believe me, there are many reasons not to launch a radio program, and if you can’t come up with some overwhelming reasons to do it, it is far easier to keep doing what you’re doing. The answer? Without getting into detail, because listeners and stations want one. We (and I say we, but really other people did the work) did a lot of research, asking questions like, who is listening then, would they listen to a new newsmagazine, would it help build audience for public radio stations, where are they when they are listening, how long do they listen, what else are they listening to besides public radio, why is that, what would bring them back, etc., etc. We also talked to stations, asking them if they wanted a program in the middle of the day, and what kind of program, what would help them the most.
Now WHAT? And WHO?
So we had they why, or at least I was convinced it was a good idea. Then we had to answer the what. What would it be? It will be an NPR newsmagazine, but different. It will be an NPR fix for the listener in midday. It will be fascinated not so much with what happened, although it will tell you that, but with what ideas, beliefs and behaviors lurk behind the news of the day. It will be personal. The host and a cast of characters will become your companions through the journey of your day. And we decided we would do it in partnership. In partnership with Slate magazine, which in my humble opinion, is produced by a group of the smartest and best journalists and writers working today. Sitting in an editorial meeting with Michael Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg is, shall we say, an invigorating experience. It is fantastic fun to help bring the voice of Slate to the radio. Okay, so it has a reason, it has something of a what, and it has a partnership. The next thing in launching any program is the most important decision you can make. Who is the host? Any program is the host in a very real way. It doesn’t matter how great a staff you have, or how smart you are, if you don’t have a great host, you are doomed. We work in a performance medium. And in any performance, the core of it is casting. Who is the lead? Who is the master of ceremonies who will tie everything together? Whose personality will be the show to any listener? Not mine, they don’t even know I exist, except perhaps in some odd theoretical way. The host is the show. And we got lucky. We got Alex Chadwick. I won’t go into how extraordinary Alex is here, I’ll just say the truth. He is the best. Trust me on this one. Of course, we haven’t done the show on a daily basis yet and I am sure I will soon damn him for all eternity, but, at the moment, I’m in love.
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HOW? Good Lord, HOW?
And now we get to the hard part. How. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try and share some of how we’re going about it. I’ll just start here with some of my observations over the past couple of months. Jay Allison asked me to keep a diary of the recent past, and looking back over it a few themes emerge. First, your host. You have to keep your host focused and create an environment that allows him (in this case) to perform at his best. Host handling is a tricky art. It isn’t always acceding to their demands, but it is listening to them. It is encouraging his best and protecting him from his worst. One of the jobs of a producer is to convince the host that he is safe. He’s the one out there on the high wire, your job is to convince him you have a net in your back pocket. He may not see it, but he has to trust that you can whip it out at the last moment. Second, systems. The systems are your net. How do you get from point A to point B? Who schedules interviews, how are they scheduled, what calendar does everyone look at, who writes the copy, who edits the copy, where does the copy end up, what does it look like when you print it out, who takes it to the studio, these are just a few of the questions you have to answer. Not only answer, but ingrained in everyone who works on the program. I cannot tell you how much time I’ve devoted to script handling. Because if Alex is on the air and looking for a piece of paper he needs, it better be obvious where that piece of paper is, and where it comes in the show. We’re piloting tomorrow, and my main focus is going to be paper. Third, regulars. One thing we’re trying to do with this show is to have regularly scheduled segments appear on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is serving the listener. The ideal here is Bob Edwards discussions with Red Barber. Every Friday people would tune in to here that conversation. It was always at the same time on the same day. Another example would be the Puzzler segment on Weekend Edition Sunday. It is a segment that has become part of people’s routine. We want to make those kind of things happen every day. Besides the listener aspect of it, it also makes producing the show a lot easier. If you know that you’re going to have your movie person every Friday, or the advice columnist on Thursdays, you can plan and produce ahead. This will save you in the first few months of the show, when we will be struggling every day to put something out. The downside is that you lock yourself into certain things, and it will cramp you to an extent. Believe me, you’ll be grateful after six weeks on the air that you don’t have to worry about the top of the B segment on Tuesday, that’s your personal finance bit. Fourth, and this should probably be second only to the host, staffing. I have been extraordinarily lucky in the people I have hired so far, everyone is individually remarkable. But it has taken, by far, the greatest amount of my time. I am incredibly psyched about the team that I have (and yeah, I’m glowing a bit here) but the amount of time and effort that go into hiring has turned out to be far greater than I expected it to be.
NEXT? The Final Month…
Here I want to throw it open to you. We’re 4 weeks away from launch. We’re working as hard as we possibly can. We go into daily show production next week. One thing we are looking for is independents to produce for us, and we have specifically set aside time and money to put you all on the air. My main motivation has always been a combination of fear and the sheer orgasmic bliss that comes from putting out a great radio show. I’m not sure if this is a manifesto, or an explainer, but over the next few weeks I’ll be updating you all every few days on where we’re at, and what I’m afraid of now.