Feature Article from the October 2008 AIRblast    

Ready, Set, Create!

By Ingrid Lakey

It's amazing how many different jobs there are in public radio - producer, program director, board op/host, secretary, underwriting account rep, to name a few. I've done them all and some others too.

And now I am jumping into a job I've never even heard of in public radio: Talent Manager. As far as I know, this doesn't mean getting Pellegrino for Scott Simon at book signings - although I would do that in a heartbeat given that I've had a crush on him since I was about 15.

I'll be working for a new CPB initiative led by AIR to help give public radio a push toward new digital platforms.

Welcome to Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0 (MQ2). I'll be your tour guide.
MQ2 will distribute up to $400,000 to about a dozen individual producers. We'll identify some of the best and brightest producers and provide them resources and incentives to forge new paths that include and go beyond public radio's broadcast airwaves to digital platforms. Some of these "bright sparks," as AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt likes to call them, may come from the public radio fold. We will also seek out those working in other fields - artists, students, or those already experimenting on Web-based platforms. The timeline and process are described here.

What makes me so psyched about this gig is the many miles - literal and figurative - I've traveled in pubradio that have made me keenly aware of the need for a project like this. In my years in the industry, I've worked as a board operator at a college radio station, as a secretary at NPR in Washington, as the program director of a major market station, and many things in between. Right now, we have a chance to set fearless and imaginative producers loose and give them the space and money to do what they do best: create!

It's been 20 years since producers were brought to the forefront to address technological change. And now there is a clear consensus that a tremendous opportunity is before us to, once again, ask producers to lead through experimentation and invention. MQ2 will look to the creators to redefine public radio and position it as a leader in public media.

It began decades ago.
I was born exactly one week before the first broadcast of All Things Considered, in 1971. The fact that I even know this says something about me. Obviously I can't claim to remember the early days of NPR, but I can vividly recall being an annoyed, preteen, public radio listener. Like many in my generation, I was subjected to public radio while sitting in the back seat of my parents' Ford LTD, on the way to school and while doing homework in the kitchen when my dad made dinner. I can remember asking Dad why he liked public radio so much, given that everyone sounded so bored, at least on the classical music station. But by high school, I was a convinced listener. Terry Gross and Ray Suarez (then host of Talk of the Nation) made me lean into the radio because they invited me into the conversation - they didn't sound the least bit bored.

After graduation from Temple University and an attempt at commercial TV news (that's a long story that you'll be spared), I got a temporary job as an administrative assistant at NPR.

My real education began at NPR.
Within weeks of starting my job in a cubical on the fourth floor of 635 Massachusetts Avenue, I tuned my ear to be able to identify the NPR hosts and reporters in the elevator as I eavesdropped on their conversations. I was always surprised to find out what the people attached to the voices looked like. But much more than that, I found out that a whole world of very busy people made possible the experience I had listening to Susan Stamberg, Robert Siegel, and Bob Edwards on the air. Radio is such an intimate medium but when you pull back the curtain, it's actually pretty crowded. It's more like a beehive than anything I could have imagined. At NPR, I learned about the universe of public radio: the large stations, the small stations, programming philosophies and strategies, the politics of stations, producers, and national organizations.

After a year at NPR, I moved to Rochester, New York, and worked for a time at WXXI, where I was everything from secretary to board op to underwriting rep to pledge pitcher. I went back to NPR to sell programs to stations. Then it was on to WETA, where I was pledge producer and later program director.

I returned to my hometown of Philadelphia and became a producer for NPR's Justice Talking, until its demise this past June. This is where I had my first taste of working with the independent producers and reporters, whom we relied on for our stories. I loved getting pitches from all around the country, selecting the right one, doing multiple edits, and finally hearing the completed piece in the context of our hourlong show.

While at Justice Talking, I was able to attend the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Third Coast opened my eyes to audio work that went beyond what was on my public radio radar screen. I had become accustomed to thinking in terms of stations and formats, but at the festival there were sound artists and audio educators. There were young adults and teenagers. There were people who had been working in radio or with audio for decades. This diverse group was swapping tips, challenging and supporting each other as they talked about the craft of working with sound.

Plenty of fear to go around.
I've been in public radio for 15 years. I am quite familiar with the concern about reaching younger listeners and expanding our audience beyond well-educated, wealthy, white baby boomers. I've listened to the arguments about whether new technologies would kill us or be our salvation. Think of how much in the last 10 years the technology has changed - satellite radio, Internet radio, podcasts, HD.

Rapid change is scary and exciting. It demands a kind of nimbleness that public radio isn't well equipped to handle. As a growing number of us already know, technology has already changed the sound of public radio.

Here's one example. As a program director and a producer, I've struggled with the quest for the best sound quality. Our craft is part of who we are. But I also think that in an age of user-generated content, the standards are changing. "Participation" is now an integral part of our aesthetic. Our listeners want to hear a real connection being made, even if it's from someone who's recorded a demonstration with a cell phone or MP3 player.
I would bet that over the past 10 years at every public radio conference targeted to program directors, development directors, and general managers, there have been sessions about how to use our evolving technologies to engage listeners in wholly different ways. Everyone is immersed in shaping the new sound and texture of public radio. Stations and the networks (NPR, PRI, APM) have been working on ways to grow and measure audience in a time when new delivery systems are being created practically every month. But how much have we, as a system, been looking to producers for leadership as we blaze new trails to a fresh identity/relevance in the lives of our current and potential listeners? 

Last year's Public Radio Talent Quest funded by CPB was an exciting effort led by two groups - Launch and PRX - to find and nourish new on-air talent. CPB is also supporting the Public Media Innovation project, funding station-based online service experiments.

But not since the 1980s has there been a dedicated pool of money available solely to talented producers. Back then, the goal of CPB's Satellite Program Development Fund (SPDF) was to encourage proliferation on the "new media platform" of the time: satellite.  The fund was discontinued after just a few years, much to the dismay of many in the industry. 

I've marketed to program directors, and I know how hard it can be to get anything new or edgy or experimental on the radio. Very few programmers want to take a chance on something untried and unproven. I can't blame them. When you're the steward of your station's schedule, it's a big deal to make changes. And what changes you do make must fit the overall sound and goals of the station. There is a lot of fear about losing listeners. I'm pretty sure that fear, even well-founded fear, is the enemy of innovation. And our model of public support has led many of us to commit only to the tried and true and dispense with experimentation.

MQ2 isn't about supporting producers to create something wild and crazy that no one will ever hear. Experimentation for experimentation's sake isn't what this is about. Our goal is to work with the selected producers to create innovative audio work that includes but is not restricted to radio - audio that adds new texture to the public radio mosaic. It could be anything from a new Facebook application to a new way to utilize cell phones to a brand-new delivery system.

Producers are half the equation. We're also working closely with stations to find a home for what is created. We'll work with the producers to facilitate productive partnerships with stations.

What excites me most about MQ2.
This initiative is one that supports producers with money. But the support goes beyond cold hard cash. Now we get to what it means to be "Talent Manager." In itself, MQ2.0 is one big experiment that extends to the makers themselves. I'll work with the grantees to hone their new concepts and shape their projects. I'll provide ongoing support and cheerleading. I'll work as a matchmaker between the producers and willing stations.

My job is to support the creation and creators of bold new approaches that will engage both current and potential listeners. AIR and MQ2 will work to expand how we, and others, define and experience public radio. Here's to the next 20 years of listening. I don't know what it will sound like, but I do know it won't be boring!