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Host-hunters take very different routes in CPB Talent Quest

Updated and corrected from Current, May 14, 2007
By Steve Behrens

Of the two teams in CPB’s Public Radio Talent Quest, the one of guys centered on Boston’s techno-cool Public Radio Exchange has made a bigger public splash. It deployed a full toolbox of Internet contraptions plus on-air promos on numerous stations and attracted more than 600 entries as of last week.

On May 14, the team's web server struggled to handle a last-minute flood that brought the number of contestants to 1,368. On June 4 [correction*], after judging, the team will announce 10 semifinalists to move to the next step in CPB’s Talent Quest for new pubradio hosts.

Meanwhile, the competing team of women producers, called Launch, has been head-hunting, net-working, relationship-building and golden-gutting their own candidates for national hosthood.

(Is this competition rigged to summon up cultural stereotypes, like the casting of teams on CBS’s The Amazing Race? Is it the Machine versus the Organism or what?)

So, it’s been three months since CPB announced the two teams for the Talent Quest, each of which will choose and make pilots with three hosts. What have the teams been up to?

Launch: The team of producers has been quieter, more labor-intensive and less high-tech, though they’re considering large numbers of people.

On the team are radio veterans Mary Beth Kirchner of American Routes, Julie Burstein of Studio 360, Marge Ostroushko of Speaking of Faith, plus New York writer-editor Lori Leibovich, who worked on the startup of

Their approach is sometimes quite direct: Team members research and interview people they suspect would make interesting hosts, “who have an interesting sense of adventure,” Ostroushko said. Going into public radio “could be a logical next step for them” but they may never have thought of it. So ask them! When things go well, the candidate comes in for an “audio screen test,” she said.

Launch gets other suggestions from a panel of talent consultants or from the would-be hosts themselves.
The Launch candidates are not chopped liver, judging from the team’s blog, at Launch’s blog drops mentions of a performance artist who stars in a one-woman show, an innovative college president/poet/public health expert, a novelist who’s researching a book about AIDS in Africa and the producer of an Oscar-winning message documentary.

In some cases, Launch partners haven’t waited for a formal semifinalist stage to produce pilots. Not long ago, Kirchner was finishing a call-in show pilot with a candidate in Los Angeles, Ostroushko said.

PRX: A month ago, the team let loose a five-round, fully web-enabled formal contest that offers $10,000 in prizes.

The 4,800-word rulebook, blogs, audio clips, and a Google map of participants are posted at
Competition manager Israel Smith, who’s also one of the nine judges, says the process is “a cousin of American Idol."

Of the semifinalists named in each round, two or three will be voted off in each of the first four rounds. The survivors then respond to new audio “challenges” by submitting additional audio clips. In each round, registered members of the online public will vote for one candidate and the judges will choose the rest.

With web hype, media publicity and on-air promos broadcast by a handful of participating stations, the number of registered voters has exceeded 11, 900 this week.

Clips from a few entries played by PRX Executive Director, guesting May 5 on Weekend America, would indicate PRX is getting a younger pool of candidates than Launch’s, including a guy who parodied NPR News, another who proposes a dual-format show on rock music and gardening, and a young Chicago woman named Lakeisha who’d like to work in public radio even though “it’s just not a place where I hear from others like me.” (See stories about what Chicago Public Radio is doing about that.)

When CPB gets the six pilots from the two teams, it will choose one of them for further funding.

*The article above has been corrected. Semifinalists will be announced June 4, not May 14 as the print version reported. Spelling of Lakeisha's name is also corrected.

CPB picks teams for Talent Quest competition

Originally published in Current, Feb. 26, 2007

The Public Radio Exchange will compete against a team of three veteran producers who call themselves Launch to find new hosting talent in CPB’s forthcoming contest, the Public Radio Talent Quest.

PRX and Launch — a collaboration between producers Julie Burstein, Mary Beth Kirchner and Marge Ostroushko — will each choose three hosts new to public radio and develop pilots with them. CPB, which announced the Talent Quest last spring to answer a systemwide demand for fresh on-air voices, will pick one pilot for development funding.

The two teams have developed different strategies for the task. PRX, predictably getting all Web 2.0 about it, will choose its three hosts through a four-round, web-based competition judged by “public radio professionals and the listening public.”  Finalists will work with producer mentors and get cash prizes for their pilots.

Launch will tap into its “extensive network of contacts in the entertainment, business, academic, science and media worlds,” according to CPB’s release. Burstein is the creator and e.p. of Studio 360; Kirchner is e.p. of American Routes; and Ostroushko has worked with Speaking of Faith, This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion.

The six Talent Quest finalists will be announced at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in September, and CPB will choose a winner early next year.

Web page posted May 14, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Challenge for pubradio: inspiring, hiring, keeping talent, 2000.

Veteran producer Jim Russell says there's a downside in relying on personalities as hosts, 2005.

CPB announces competition, February 2007.


CPB published an FAQ explaining the Talent Quest.

The talent-questing teams' websites:

Jesse Thorn promotes the Public Radio Talent Quest and comments on public radio's approach to creating shows and cultivating talent. "New programming in public media is largely driven by pre-existing funding, which turns the development process backwards," he writes. "Instead of having a great idea, or a great host, or a great producer and feeding it resources, we find a need or niche we decide to fill, then look for money, then actually build the creative elements. It's anti-entrepreneurial and rewards sameness. Thorn is the host/producer of pubradio's The Sound of Young America.