Source: New York Times
On an unseasonably warm spring night at the Bell House, a hip club in Brooklyn, a new NPR quiz show was taking shape. Like its hit older sibling “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!,” the new show, “Ask Me Another,” is taped before a live audience. But “Wait Wait ...” tapes at the likes of the august Carnegie Hall when it is in New York; this audience was sitting on metal folding chairs and drinking beer from plastic cups as contestants filed onstage to compete over obscure trivia like Weird Al Yankovic lyrics.
“Ask Me Another,” which began broadcasts on some NPR stations in May (but not in New York), is part of a new land rush for precious public-radio weekend airtime. Developed on modest budgets, many of the newcomers are aimed at a decidedly younger audience than currently listens to NPR; some aim for diverse listeners. All face a big hurdle: limited open time slots and, some would argue, a risk-averse public-radio culture, where time-tested audience and money generators make it challenging for new shows to thrive.
The recent news that the 35-year-old “Car Talk” would stop taping original episodes this fall seemingly creates an opening. But that show — by far public radio’s most listened to, and a major local station fund-raising draw — will continue in repeats.
“The safe choice most stations will make, at least for the foreseeable future, will be to just take the reruns and not rock the boat,” lamented Adam Schweigert, a digital consultant and former public radio producer based in Columbus, Ohio, who has exhorted his online followers to demand that their local stations move on to other programming.
Still, the aging of public radio’s core shows has given many producers incentive to act now. “Fresh Air” began broadcasting nationally in 1987, “This American Life” in 1995 and “Wait Wait ...” in 1998. A year ago Garrison Keillor, the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” announced plans to retire from the show, which he started in 1974. (He later backtracked.)
“A number of us are asking, ‘What’s our generation’s contribution to this content going to be?’ ” asked Eric Nuzum, 45, the vice president for programming at NPR, who thought up the “Ask Me Another” concept a decade ago. He has also overseen the recent debut of “TED Radio Hour,” based on the TED conference talks, and “Cabinet of Wonders,” an edited version of John Wesley Harding’s music, literature and comedy variety shows at the City Winery in New York.
NPR’s new entries, Mr. Nuzum said, are partly informed by a survey that showed new audiences wanted lighter, more humorous content and intellectual shows not tied to the news.
“Public radio is in need of an infusion of new voices, new models,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of the Public Radio Exchange, which is rolling out the personal storytelling show “The Moth Radio Hour” as a weekly program in January, and in 2010 developed “Snap Judgment,” from the Public Radio Talent Quest winner Glynn Washington, which calls itself “Storytelling. With a Beat.”
If public radio sticks with its current franchises and sound, Mr. Shapiro said, it will “leave us open to other vulnerabilities, as the next-generation audience goes elsewhere for its content.”
Digital podcasts are making that increasingly easy, with costs that are a fraction of full-fledged radio shows. Some of those podcasts are migrating to radio. Public Radio Exchange has repackaged the comedian Marc Maron’s podcast for radio, minus the profanity. American Public Media’s online “Dinner Party” has slowly popped up on stations too.
WNYC in New York will offer the actor Alec Baldwin’s interview podcast “Here’s the Thing” for radio this fall. Its “RelationShow” has moved from podcast to radio special to “Weekend Edition” segments, and “we’re looking at next phases,” said Dean Cappello, the chief content officer for WNYC. The station is also testing the live-audience “Kings County,” which he calls “an old-style variety show set for a new audience with a Brooklyn state of mind.”
But the odds are against newcomers. Of nearly 350 nationally distributed public radio programs, Mr. Nuzum said, “half of all national listening is done to 17 shows.”
At NPR, the new shows are beginning with limited runs and staffs of three or four, not the 10 or 12 of continuing shows, Mr. Nuzum said. “Cabinet of Wonders,” like “Ask Me Another,” is taped before audiences. “It’s much cheaper to record live than in the studio,” Mr. Nuzum said.
In testing, “Ask Me Another” is appealing to the younger listeners that many believe public radio needs more of. “The dividing line is right around 45 years old,” Mr. Nuzum said. “People under 45, they love it. People over 45 have much more of a mixed reaction: The puzzles are not hard enough, the staff is trying too hard, or they don’t get the humor.”
© New York Times