Quick! Find a voice! And be funny about it!
Success of Day to Day forces the show to shape up
Originally published in Current, March 22, 2004
By Mike Janssen
Stations’ unexpectedly quick adoption of NPR’s Day to Day, its first new newsmagazine in 17 years, is causing the network to scramble as well as celebrate.
The hourlong program airs midday Monday through Friday on 103 stations, as of last week. NPR had been shooting for 75 stations by Sept. 30. Between its launch July 28 and the fall ratings period, Day to Day built a weekly audience of 1,148,200. That’s the biggest audience ever for an NPR show in its first book, says Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming.
But Kernis and Day to Day’s staff can’t rest on their laurels. They face competition from programs vying for the same time slots, including stations’ own local talk shows and national offerings such as WBUR’s Here and Now, WBEZ’s Odyssey and KCRW’s To the Point.
The network’s success with Morning Edition and All Things Considered sets a high bar for quality. NPR has tried to give Day to Day a voice that sets it apart from those shows, with a brisker pace and more humor and hipness. But station programmers give those efforts mixed reviews.
Whereas other NPR news shows have had years to gain footing, station execs give Day to Day much less time to establish its identity, Kernis says.
“My sense is that competition being what it is, this show needs to find its voice much sooner than later,” he says.
Fresher and faster
NPR created the news show, its first since Weekend Edition Sunday in 1987, to satisfy stations and core listeners seeking a reliable lunch-hour stop for the latest news.
Research told NPR that midday listeners have less tune-in time, so Day to Day was designed to move at a quicker clip, with shorter segments. Core listeners told NPR they wanted more humor and less formality, Kernis says. The network based the show at its West Coast production center to counter an inside-the-Beltway bias critics hear on NPR.
The ears can detect how these demands shaped the show. More often than other programs, Day to Day leads with California news. Lighter fare sometimes follows close behind. The debut of The Simple Life, the Fox reality show starring Paris Hilton, earned second billing one day—a spot it probably wouldn’t get on All Things Considered. And, especially in its first months, Day to Day’s pieces were short and fast-paced.
Alex Chadwick, Day to Day’s respected host, describes the show’s still-evolving voice as more personal. Kernis agrees. “I wouldn’t say it’s irreverent, but it certainly has a fresh tone to it,” he says. “Alex is certainly speaking to the audience. He’s really not announcing or reading. He’s really in conversation with the audience.”
Certain touches convey that tone. Steve Proffitt, the show’s senior producer, joins Chadwick on-air to sift through correspondence for the letters segment. In the many interviews, producers sometimes let rough edges be heard. If Chadwick has two consecutive interviews set up, he might let one run long, then unexpectedly bring the second interviewee into the discussion midstream. “It’s a technique that this show specifically uses,” Kernis says.
Day to Day’s small staff forces it to rely on interviews. It has just 10 producers and two editors, plus four reporters who file only for the show. Other NPR reporters contribute occasionally but many prefer filing for the big newsmags that promise a larger audience, though that is changing, Kernis says.
“I do think it needs more staff, and I’ve certainly made that position clear,” Chadwick says, laughing.
Lose the nose ring
Day to Day’s different tone and pace proved a draw for listeners and stations. Anecdotal evidence tells Kernis that younger listeners—that is, in their late 20s and 30s—are finding and enjoying the show.
The show seems “to get into the cracks in our culture that the other newsmags don’t seem to cover, and I seem to like that,” says Carl Watanabe, station manager at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Calif. Watanabe credits this in part to the show’s prominent partnership with Slate, the online mag backed by Microsoft. Slate writers regularly appear on the show as interviewees and contribute produced pieces as well. Former NPR reporter Andy Bowers, now a senior editor at Slate, helps prepare the magazine’s staffers for radio.
At first, Watanabe worried about how listeners might view the Microsoft pact. But he says it has gotten stories on the air that otherwise might not be heard. More so than Morning Edition or ATC, Day to Day can offer space for “the other kinds of stories that flesh out a program and keep us connected to our culture,” he says.
Watanabe praises the show’s “irreverent approach” but
acknowledges that not all programmers share his views. Michael Arnold, p.d.
at New Hampshire Public Radio, dislikes the show’s more obvious stabs
“There are times when NPR tries to sound hip, and they come across as a 50-year-old guy with a nose ring,” he says. “... Sometimes I think it really is good just to embrace your nerddom. You don’t have to be hip.”
Arnold also worries that the show’s relationships with Slate and other
public radio producers sound too promotional.
“There are times that it feels like, why are they doing this?” he says of some story choices. “Is it because they have a deal with World Cafe or Marketplace or whatever, or because it’s really interesting?”
At first “a little disappointing,” Arnold says, Day to Day has greatly improved since its launch.
When asked her opinion of the show, Joan Siefert Rose, g.m. at WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., says hesitantly, “It’s getting there.”
“I’m hopeful that they’ll take some of that nice gift
they have from Joan Kroc and invest it” to expand its staff, she says.
NPR responded to stations’ feedback by reining in some of Day to Day’s bolder departures from traditional newsmag form. The pace has slowed, Kernis says, giving pieces more breathing room. “We stopped trying to kill Alex by having him go at 90 miles per hour all the time,” he says.
The network also refined the show’s impromptu feel. Chadwick once aimed for an ad-libbed effect in some intros to stories. To station programmers, that sounded like lack of control, Kernis says. Informal moments now come more often within stories rather than during Chadwick’s continuity, he says.
Station programmers also requested “less ‘irony’”
in Chadwick’s delivery, according to an October NPR memo.
Kernis believes audience data indicate the show is making progress and expects its reporting to gain substance in coming months.
“We’re always in search of the Holy Grail, which in public radio is Fridays, segment C—Bob Edwards talks to Red Barber, that must-hear moment,” he says. “. . . Day to Day may be on its way with some of its contributors. I’m not sure yet.”
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