Programs/Publications

The View from the Top:

CPB's Bruce Theriault Talks Producers

Interview by Peter Clowney

Bruce Theriault's thoughts about public radio, its strengths, promise, and risks, wind up affecting most people in our business.

Good thing he's a superfan.

Theriault is senior vice president for radio at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Early in his radio career, Theriault says, he realized that he wouldn't be the talent making the content. He dabbled in production and reporting, but others were better at it. He says his real skill is clearing the way, making room for great radio to be produced and heard. And Theriault's done that, from Alaska Public Radio to PRI to Public Radio Capital. For the past three years, he's led radio strategy at CPB, focusing on what he calls the "three D's" — dialogue, diversity, and digital.

Peter Clowney, executive producer of program development at American Public Media, spoke with Bruce Theriault recently.

WHAT'S ONE THING AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCER SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOU? 

Hmmm, good question. That I'm excited about our future. This is an incredible, amazing time with enormous possibilities with all these new [digital and mobile] tools at our disposal. To me, it's a HUGE opportunity. I'm really bullish on our field.

SO WHO IS LEADING THE WAY RIGHT NOW? OR WHOM ARE YOU PROUD OF FUNDING, PERHAPS? WHO'S TAKING THAT NEXT STEP?


So many people are getting this [merging of radio and digital media] naturally. I was so impressed with Al Letson and Glynn Washington, when they came along. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Al and Glynn are, with Majora Carter, winners of the Public Radio Talent Quest. Glynn's and Al's new radio programs include lots of multimedia elements]. We didn't tell them they needed to do this. They came out of a radio talent quest, right, and they were going to be "new talent in radio." And what they showed us was, "oh my goodness, this isn't radio, this is everything!" And so it was just who they are. It's almost a cliché to say someone was born digital, or became digital, but it comes more naturally in the teams they put together.

I think Majora Carter will be exceptional, and the Moth Radio project. I want to support that as well. We're looking forward to working with AIR on a follow-up to MQ2. […] LA Public Media is really trying to invent a new thing from the get-go, and I know how hard that is. […] I'm continually impressed with what they do at PRX, what they do at Youth Media and Vocalo in Chicago. I've become really a fan of what they do at BAVC.

On the station side, there's increasingly some good work coming out of a range of stations. I like the approach that ideastream takes [in Cleveland], that KPBS is taking [San Diego], OPB is taking [Portland, OR], WXXI [Rochester, NY]. Obviously Minnesota Public Radio has made a lot of strides in this, with the News Q, and WBUR has [in Boston].
 
SO CONSIDER A PRODUCER WHO'S THINKING ABOUT MAKING SOMETHING — NOW, OR FIVE YEARS OUT. WHAT DOES THE PERFECT PITCH [TO THE CPB] LOOK LIKE? HOW MUCH "DIGITAL" SHOULD BE IN IT?

We're in a constantly evolving field, but the values stay pretty consistent over time. You have to make meaningful, in-depth, intelligent content. We know we can't reach everyone with one tool, one platform. We have to figure out how to actually do that where people want it, in the kind of media people want. Start with the content, and what you're trying to accomplish with it — point of view, editorial position, journalism, storytelling, culture — and then think about what platform should I put it on. People need to move away from starting with the platform first. Sometimes, pictures and video are powerful, and it's the language of a lot of people, especially the next-generation audiences. And we know how powerful words are, and good storytelling in audio is sound, and mixing them can be powerful. So we just need to think about how all that works.

And I'm not suggesting that everybody has to be equally good at everything. That's an early way of thinking about it — "oh my goodness, I have to do it all." But certain things are better done in different ways.

YOU USED TO HAVE AN RFP FORM FOR PRODUCERS, A REQUEST FOR PROPOSALS. BUT NOW THAT'S NOT ON THE WEBSITE. WHAT IS THE RIGHT WAY TO APPROACH THE CPB NOW?

Right. […] We're being more directed about our funding now. First off, we have just a trivial amount of money to invest in the system every year. And if we're serious about the commitments we talk about, the commitment to diversity, and dialogue, and digital, community engagement, we really need to line up our resources behind it. So there are many needs and there are many ways to get there. We have to be very strategic about it. We've invested for 40 years in the current audience. And that is an important audience, and we want to continue to invest in it. But if you only do that, you won't get to the other, and that is unacceptable.

So that means we're going to take some of the investments that we have made in the general RFPs and target that specifically to support some new content and services. Many of the new ideas that are coming from REMIX, and The Moth, and Glynn Washington, and Al Letson, and others [who are] very much thinking about [what] we're trying to achieve. So we're either thinking about a new target audience and new programming, and/or we're trying to encourage different new voices and bring them into the current system. So that's how we're organizing our funding, rather than saying, "Send us your ideas." People do! They still send them, and sometimes they're really compelling. But we're asking people, "What specific goals are we trying to achieve with this?"

[…]
And sometimes I feel badly about that. I just wish we had more funding. We're having to make more strategic choices in order to be effective. And I think that's hard because there's a lot of people out there I'd love to support that deserve support.

We need to think about infusing that new talent into the system. That's what we need to be thinking about, and let's work toward that.

THE CPB IS SUPPORTING A WHOLE NETWORK OF "LOCAL JOURNALISM CENTERS" JUST BEING LAUNCHED AND FUNDING PROJECT ARGO. CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU WANTED TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN, WHY IT CAN BE IMPORTANT TO EVERYBODY?

Yeah, I think this aligns two very big things. The journalism piece. The first thing is to recognize that, after 40 years of investing in our core news and information services, we have a strength and are known for our journalism. And not just in radio, there's Frontline and NewsHour and there's others, but we have a strength. […]

And then you take our industry and you look at the local/national partnership, and you look at how it's gone. The national has excelled and the local has been lagging behind. Now the system is making increasing investments in building local capacity. The […] Knight Commission's report on the Information Needs of Communities says communities have reporting needs, and as newspapers shrink and original reporting declines, who's going to step up?

[…]
The other thing we need to embrace [is] that doing this as one-off organizations is no longer getting it done. That collaboration — if I had to rename the LJCs, I'd rename them the Local Journalism Collaborations, because they're not literally centers. That conjures up some middleman, a grouping. It's actually a collaboration, a sharing, and an embracing that we can actually do more by working together.

[…]
We're going to bring some new voices into the process, by figuring out a way to collaborate or partner with some of these emerging journalists. Some of them are coming out of print and establishing themselves, some of them are just springing up in different places around the country. And there's literally hundreds of these efforts going on around the country. Some are quite small, while others are getting larger. A few of the big ones we think about are ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, but those are more nationally based. There's a bunch of others, like Cross Cut, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego … [these are] real journalists, people doing real work out there.

JOURNALISM HAS BECOME IN A WAY THE BRAND OF PUBLIC RADIO. IF I'M A PRODUCER LOOKING TO DO MUSIC OR COMEDY RIGHT NOW, WHAT INTEREST IS THERE FROM THE CPB?


I think it's a mistake to think audiences want all one thing all the time. It's really clear from the success of our current news and information formats that people want more than one thing. This American Life proved that people wanted something different, and Radiolab is incredibly exciting when you listen to it, and you get everything from Wait Wait to Keillor and other shows. And what they're doing with Studio 360 is increasingly interesting. So there's plenty of room for it.

I hope we never lose the interest in producing the great cultural programming. I still think of the great Miles Davis series that Steve Rowland produced. That was one of the great pieces of work. And the Kitchen Sisters work, and Jay Allison. I also think about the terrific local blues show on Saturday nights at KUNC.

There's two avenues we go into with cultural and entertainment. Sometimes we build it into the fabric of the news shows. The World has a segment on music, and NPR does that continually, particularly on the weekends, and the NPR music thing, within the context of the news and information format.

When you just get outside [the shows], my feeling is that music-only services are being a commodity service, just offering it on the station side, music and nothing else, is increasingly vulnerable to alternative online services like Pandora. You've got to offer more value than that. You've got to become the heart of the cultural community or music community you're serving. You've got to become the convener, the organizer; you've got to add value. And that's done by adding context and various service. […]

BEING ACTUALLY IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.

And it's really about community engagement. It's really about being the place that people think of and need to experience what's going on. If it's all about just passively receiving old-form radio, you're incredibly vulnerable. The automated services do that much more targeted and more effectively, cheaply I mean. So you have to do more. And I don't mean you clunk the music up with a lot of talk. You've got to think about that as a more total service.

WHOM DO WE NEED TO ATTRACT TO PUBLIC RADIO?


I think that what we want to be supporting here is that increasingly we want to be the place to go for talented people. We have to make public media, our industry, the place to be creative and have fun and try and make a living on it too. [….] We need to diversify it, bring in young people to teach us. That's why Youth Media is so important.

YOU'RE LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY OF RACE, AGE . . .

I think MQ2 was a great project, and we want to see how to go beyond one-off projects and see how they can become a flow of work. It's really hard to sustain one-off projects. I think the Takeaway is making real efforts to have a very diverse staff, and [they] had enormously interesting and different recruiting processes to find people.

WHAT DID THEY DO?


They asked people to submit pieces digitally as part of the recruitment process. People submitted videos, all kinds of things. They reached out to ethnic communities. And [they] went online for this. It's like what we found with the Public Radio Talent Quest. If you open it up, people will come. AND PEOPLE WHO MIGHT NOT USUALLY COME TO PUBLIC RADIO?

And they didn't have to know it was public media. It just looked interesting to them. And I think that's what will get people. I don't think you get too many people signing up because it's one thing or the other; it's labeled as such. I think people want to know that they can be heard, and they can be part of it, and they can be welcome. And that's what we can do.

As Bruce Theriault mentioned, the CPB isn't fielding open applications for radio program funds right now. There is a call on the CPB site for the Program Challenge Fund and Diversity and Innovation Fund, aimed specifically at public television productions. And you can read more about Bruce's vision for public radio in this Current article from early 2009. Finally, it's smart to consider the above in context with the speech NPR President Vivian Schiller gave at the D8 Conference recently. We're all working in a new media world, whether it's natural to us or not.


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