Revamped ATC brings new sound to weekends
The weekend installment of NPR’s afternoon newsmagazine starts its 35th year on the air this month — and its third year of a different sound that has piqued the interest of station programmers and the network’s own staffers.
Think of it as the aftermath of an early midlife crisis, perhaps, except that the transformation of the weekend’s All Things Considered shows was less a crisis and more an engineered shakeup overseen by a new producer, Matt Martinez, and a new host, Guy Raz. For years, All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays sounded much like its weekday counterpart — a different host, but an emphasis on straightforward reporting on the latest national and international developments. As a result, producers say, its stories and interviews sometimes sounded more like incremental updates on ongoing news events, due to the calmer news cycle of most weekends.
That started to change in 2009, when the show began to experiment with a new voice. At the urging of Ellen Weiss, then NPR’s v.p. of news, Martinez and Raz reinvented the show.
The linchpin of their approach was the “cover story” — an in-depth look at an issue in the news from several different angles, with multiple interviews or reports, and often with a personal story at the core. These 11-minute packages kick off each hour-long show and mark the most evident shift in its sound. And as Raz guides the listener through the segments, he also establishes his own presence at the helm, an impression that carries through the hour.
The approach, which often prompts comparisons to the New York Times Sunday magazine, has caught the ear of program directors at stations. “They really breathed new life into the show,” says Jeff Hansen, p.d. at KUOW in Seattle, who highlighted the idea of the cover story in a presentation about innovative news radio at last year’s Public Radio Program Directors Association conference. “I thought the show was pretty good even before that, but they definitely made it a lot better.”
Reporters and producers within NPR now approach WATC’s staff with their own ideas for cover stories. “That’s a testament to what Matt and Guy started,” says Steve Lickteig, who took over from Martinez as supervising senior producer in August 2011. Even if Raz or the show’s producers move on to other jobs, “I think the cover story is here to stay,” Lickteig says. “It’s part of the show now.”
Looking for fresh angles
Putting together two cover stories each week is a demanding process, with Raz, a lead producer and a backup producer in charge of assembling them. The show has a small, young staff of just six producers, three of whom are under 24. At 42, Lickteig is the oldest staff member.
Raz, who is 36, often does 20 to 25 in-depth interviews per week on all kinds of subjects. On Fridays he gets “juiced up on coffee,” he says, and posts a schedule on his office door to remember what’s coming next as he ping-pongs from interviewee to interviewee and subject to subject.
The process of shaping the cover stories, and the rest of the show, begins each Wednesday morning around a table on the second floor of NPR’s headquarters. On this sunny Wednesday in May, Raz is wearing a blue blazer and jeans but no tie, an outfit he changed into after biking to work. Clothing is strewn about his office and flung over the back of a chair. The night before, Raz stayed up late to pore over articles and vet ideas for the week.
Raz, Lickteig and their staff now sit around the table, bearing multiple coffee mugs and a copy of the New Yorker, as they bat around candidates for the week’s stories. A video screen on the wall displays which pieces are already lined up for the weekend and where holes remain. There was to be an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett, which left Raz starstruck, and a report on the arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The week’s news is heavy with international stories, as the fate of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has captured headlines and French citizens prepare to elect a new president. Will the drama in China be played out by the time Saturday arrives? Lickteig says he’s not keen on producing two shows so top-heavy with foreign coverage.
In the end, Saturday’s ATC features a cover story that uses the Chinese dissident’s plight as a starting point for examining the role of such activists in effecting change within the country. It’s an example of how the cover story often goes beyond the nuts and bolts of hard news to ask questions that day-to-day coverage might not get to. The other cover story examines the growing popularity of Libertarianism, particularly among young adults of the millennial generation.
The show’s staff is building on a framework developed by Raz and Matt Martinez, who worked together to shape weekend ATC’s new sound. Martinez became supervising senior producer of the weekend newsmagazine in March 2009. He had previously served in the same role for The Bryant Park Project, the broadcast/web hybrid that NPR canceled in 2008. After freelancing for a stretch, Martinez decided to return to NPR.
His first assignment on the weekend ATC beat was to hire a host, and he chose Raz, a good friend who had been covering the Pentagon and then studied classics on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. “I was looking for a partner to help create a sound,” Martinez says of his hire.
Raz started at NPR as an intern in 1997 and was named Berlin bureau chief at the age of 25. He later left NPR to report for CNN for two years. Raz says he enjoyed his stint in TV and learned from the experience but ultimately decided it was not the right fit. “Radio was my home, and it was the place where I felt I could tell stories and really do the best work I could possibly do as a journalist,” he says.
The new host and his producer started thinking of their show as a blank slate, ripe for reinvention. On weekends, Martinez says, ATC is surrounded by a different lineup of programs, such as On the Media, This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. How should a news show sound in such company?
“I didn’t want to do a show that all of a sudden landed on people like a brick because it was just so hard,” Martinez says. “At the same time, I didn’t want it to be as light as cotton candy.”
Raz thought that because the show differed from its weekday counterpart, it offered a chance to experiment and even fail at times. He and Martinez met at his home one weekend and brainstormed, their laptops in front of them. Within a few hours they had a blueprint that would become the new sound of ATC on weekends.
That included the cover story. “You get the drip, drip, drip throughout the day, and the cover story is going to put it all together for you,” Martinez says. Raz cites This American Life and also Radiolab as inspiration for the cover story concept. Both cover big issues while entertaining listeners and creating a narrative thread.
The recurring feature helps weekend ATC stand apart. “You really feel like you’ve learned something about the topic from a wide range of views,” says KUOW’s Hansen. At 11 minutes, the cover story is at about the maximum length for any one story or package on a news magazine, Hansen says, but the variety of angles and creative choice of topics make it work, adding an “additional spark” to the show.
The squishier middle
The recurrence of the cover story doesn’t prohibit WATC from responding to breaking news when needed. Sometimes producers bump the cover story to later in the show. This happened recently when the death of journalist Mike Wallace and shootings in Tulsa, Okla., in April demanded top billing.
Another mainstay of the show, Three-Minute Fiction, was brought to the mix by Raz, who pitched it when he applied to serve as host. Listeners submit super-short stories in response to challenges thrown at them by celebrity author-judges, which have included Ann Patchett and Michael Cunningham.
Three-Minute Fiction launched in June 2009, when Raz began hosting, and is now in its eighth round. Listeners have submitted 40,000 stories, with 6,500 coming in this round.
With these distinctive features in place, Lickteig is now working on giving the show a distinct personality that will pervade the entire hour as much as possible. “It would be great if listeners could know it’s weekend All Things Considered immediately,” says Lickteig, who rejoined NPR after six years with The Bob Edwards Show at SiriusXM Radio. He had previously worked as a producer on various NPR shows before heading to SiriusXM.
The show’s final segments usually cover books and music, an approach that also needed to be rethought. At first, Raz says, he and his staff were often interviewing musicians that they liked personally, including rappers and rockers, but listeners didn’t always share their enthusiasm.
“We were kind of like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so awesome that I get to talk to this person,’” Raz says. “But it was shutting out some people in our audience,” most of whom are in their early 50s, he says.
To compensate, they’ve kept interviewing musicians, but now try to elicit personal stories that listeners can relate to more easily. Raz thinks that hip-hop is “the most significant form of American musical expression in the last 30 years,” he says, but “I don’t want to just bring on Rakim or Nas and assume that people like them and know who they are.”
With the first and last thirds of the show fairly well established, Lickteig now wants to figure out what the middle third should sound like. The B segment, as it’s called, frequently features Raz talking with Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, who Lickteig says has become a “voice of the program.” And coverage of major news events, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s arraignment, also gets slotted into the B segment. Otherwise, “it’s a little bit amorphous right now,” Lickteig says.
To Franny Bastian, director of programming and production for Vermont Public Radio, weekend ATC has already succeeded in distinguishing its sound from that of its weekday counterpart. Part of the credit goes to Raz, she says, and his “more contemporary” hosting style. “He’s a little edgy,” she says. “He owns the hour.”
“It sounds more relaxed and conversational,” she says of the show. “I don’t think I’d want to listen to All Things Considered as it is Monday through Friday on Sunday afternoon. The way the producers put it together acknowledges that we’re in a different place.”
Copyright 2012 American University