‘Journalism in the raw’ distinguishes ‘The Takeaway’

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There’s a reconstruction project under way at The Takeaway, launched in April 2008 as a live, spontaneous and different way to do drivetime news — different from Morning Edition, the most dominant show in public radio and one of the most polished.

This summer, as a succession of prospective co-hosts have tried out the seat across from whip-smart network news veteran John Hockenberry, producers have been tightening the live broadcast, experimenting with the mix of stories and headlines, trying to be more consistent as they build the show into a fast-paced, well-informed and opinionated conversation.

Photos by Karen Everhart/Current

Hockenberry and Femi Oke, whose role as newscaster expanded during the co-host search, wrap the second hour of “The Takeaway’s” Aug. 27 broadcast.

“I think of it as journalism in the raw,” says Mark Effron, a former MSNBC programming exec who signed on as executive producer in June. “We take the best stories of the day and try to make a conversation that’s a little less structured than a formal package of TV news stories.”

Live interviews, news sound bites and talk segments featuring voices of people who are living the news are essential elements of the mix, Effron says. Assembling them for a live broadcast every morning is “like walking around on a tightrope without a net — we thrive on being in the moment.” New York’s WNYC co-produces the program with Minneapolis-based Public Radio International and editorial partners at the BBC World Service, the New York Times and Boston’s WGBH Radio.

Carried by 40 public radio stations on their primary broadcast channels, The Takeaway has a long way to go before it fulfills the producers’ ambition to become a truly national conversation about the morning’s news. Last week PRI announced that WYPL in Memphis, a radio reading service now airing BBC News programming in the mornings, will pick up The Takeaway in October. That will bring the number of stations carrying the show to 48, including seven that put it on HD Radio multicast channels, according to Mike Arnold, PRI content director.

The program has rough edges to be smoothed, regular topical segments to be developed, and new chemistry to concoct between a future co-host and Hockenberry, the former NPR journalist who spent 12 years in network TV news before joining The Takeaway launch team at WNYC. The show is built around Hockenberry’s facility for live, unedited, unscripted performance, trading on his broad reporting experience.

“John’s a real star,” says Larry Josephson, an independent producer and onetime captain of New York’s morning airwaves on Pacifica’s WBAI. “His style is off-the-cuff; he makes funny jokes and has interesting insights.”

What Hockenberry does, however, is quite different from the familiar precision of Morning Edition.

Josephson says he hears “a lot of complaints” about The Takeaway from WNYC listeners on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. WNYC counterprograms its FM and AM channels, airing The Takeaway on FM from 6 to 7 a.m. as the lead-in to ME, and then broadcasting it on AM from 8 to 10. As Josephson sees it, critics of the new program have a free choice: “There’s room for both shows.”

Of The Takeaway, Josephson says: “I think it’s a great show—they just have to find the right co-host for John.”

The co-host search, initiated after Adaora Udoji left in May to spend more time with her new daughter, allowed producers to bring in guest hosts and other contributors such as Katherine Lanpher, the Minnesota Public Radio host who co-hosted Air America’s Al Franken Show; Farai Chideya, host of NPR’s News and Notes until its cancellation in March; and Celeste Headlee, a Detroit-based pubradio freelancer. British television journalist Femi Oke, a Takeaway senior editor who had been the show’s primary newscaster, has also co-hosted. The hiring decision was pending at Current’s deadline.

Though the talent search has extended The Takeaway’s status as a work in progress, 16 months after launch, its producers take pride in the foundation they have laid and the new voices they are bringing to public radio’s air.

“We’ve become a lot more nimble, and we’re all just stronger as a team,” said Sitara Nieves, the line producer who joined the show at startup. “We’ve built the system up so that we’re able to respond to news more quickly, we’re adding interesting sound elements and interactive pieces. This is an exciting place to be right now.”

On the fly

As the team wrapped up its morning-after coverage of Ted Kennedy’s death Aug. 26, Effron beamed as he walked out of the studio shortly after 10 a.m. He declared that day’s edition had been The Takeaway “at its best.”

Producers had thrown out nearly everything booked for the day, and, drawing on the editorial resources of its partners, put on a show that hit all the right notes in covering the life, career and death of the Massachusetts senator, Effron said. “It was four hours of radio on the fly.” Hockenberry had been in his element helming the broadcast — imparting to listeners a selection from all the information flying at him while conveying a sense of the historic occasion, he said.

“I would put that up against anybody,” Effron said. “It was a really strong journalistic treatment of stories and voices done on the fly.”

Hockenberry kept moving toward his cubicle. “The Kennedy story was a big break for us,” he said later. “When a story breaks live like that, there’s enormous potential for conversation.”

“Our success will be when we can do that when there’s no news,” Hockenberry said. “That’s the challenge of any program, in the dog days of summer, when you’re running a lot of diet-book stories.”

As the staff sat down to discuss the next day’s show, it was shaping up to be more typical, although producers had a backlog of stories that had been postponed. Among them: two installments of their guest roundtables on the health-care reform puzzle, with small-business owners and patients with chronic medical conditions describing how competing proposals will affect them. Also bumped: a taped interview with New York Times food writer and author Frank Bruni—a diet-book story of sorts—that was to have aired as a regular Wednesday food segment. It was pushed back to Friday.

Another report speculated that Apple would announce a new tablet computer. “What is interesting about this?” asked producer Jim Colgan during an afternoon edit meeting of top producers. “I don’t know what the discussion is for seven minutes.”

“I agree,” said Kerry Donahue, deputy e.p. “It will sound like an advertisement.”

The draft rundown for Aug. 27 included meaty topics—potential stories on the Middle East peace process, an announcement of preliminary gross domestic product data by the U.S. Department of Commerce, an extended conversation about the war in Afghanistan with the families of soldiers serving there.

Producers debated segments on how Massachusetts would choose Kennedy’s successor and whether Victoria Kennedy, the senator’s widow, would want the job.

Off-air engagement with listeners is a routine part of editorial planning. Questions posed over the air and on thetakeaway.org solicit listener reactions to topics for any given day.

For the health-care roundtables, producers asked young people to discuss their decisions about buying health insurance. Calls are taken by the show’s SpinVox system, recorded and converted into text and MP3 files. Select audio clips were mixed into a piece that aired Aug. 27. Hockenberry and Oke also shared listeners’ e-mailed reactions, bantered about the feedback and asked for more input tied to that week’s health-care conversations.

When the producers dispersed from their 3 p.m. editorial meeting — some preparing to leave for the day, others to help the night-time crew nail down loose pieces — they’d agreed on lead segments for the first two live hours of the next day’s show: conversations about what Kennedy’s death means for the health-care battle, and about military families’ views on the Afghanistan War. Effron said he was still anxious about story selection.

The mix solidified overnight, but there was some room to play with it the next morning, when Effron walked into the control room around 6:20 a.m. and asked Nieves about doing an obit on Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair writer.

“We talked about it, and John wasn’t super-interested,” Nieves said.

“Dunne spawned the TMZs of the world,” Effron said. “He helped create this world of celebrity obsession.”

Producers booked New York Times columnist David Carr, a friend of Dunne’s; added a clip of Dunne describing his career; and shoehorned the obit into the rollover of the first two hours along with other tweaks.

The two-hour basic broadcast handled many major stories in short form while giving a quarter of its time to various Americans talking about how policies affect them—the health-care roundtables and conversations with military families.

That same morning, Morning Edition abandoned its usual tight control, featuring a very live-sounding near-brawl between co-host Steve Inskeep and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, pressed to clarify the party’s have-it-both-ways rhetoric in the health-care debate.

“We can do this differently”

The Takeaway night shift leaves about 30 minutes of wiggle room to let the morning team respond to breaking news, says Colin Campbell, senior producer, who supervises the hand-off from the day to the night shift. “Everybody produces with a bittersweet understanding that the morning crew will tear it up if need be.”

Earlier in his career, Campbell produced WNYC’s local Morning Edition before going home to California to work on the startup of Patt Morrison, a live two-hour local talk show on KPCC in Pasadena.

The Takeaway concept was born during Campbell’s years at WNYC, he said. “The people who program here feel pressure from an aggressive New York news audience to hear about things really, really quickly and not air stories that feel at all old,” he said.

“We used to tear Morning Edition up,” especially after 9/11, Campbell said. Producing the local elements of NPR’s morning newsmag “got to be a real creative endeavor,” Campbell added. “We had great local reporting—stuff coming in that really appealed to the audience. There was a feeling that NPR will get to this three days late.”

WNYC’s practice of cutting up “Morning Edition” was the genesis for “The Takeaway,” Campbell says.

Campbell returned to New York to help launch the Takeaway. “This seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. The chance to produce something similar on a national scale, along with editorial partners at the Times and the BBC, was too good to pass up, he said.  “I’m a public radio kid. It’s fun to take on Morning Edition. I was raised on Morning Edition.”

The ongoing redesign is part of The Takeaway’s DNA, Campbell said. Before Udoji left, the show had been settling into a rhythm. “Now we’re feeling it’s time to reinvent and challenge things again. The hosts are doing headlines. We’re changing things each day. Breaking things into smaller and smaller pieces.”

An Aug. 27 interview with former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, about his relationship with Sen. Kennedy was less than 3½ minutes long, as was David Carr’s remembrance of Dominick Dunne. Yet both interviews delivered insights about each man’s character and personal life.

“Something that’s in-depth doesn’t have to go on interminably long,” Effron said. “The staff is good at understanding you can do a couple of voices and move on.” The idea, he said, is to give listeners what they need but not waste their time.

“Morning informational needs are different—you need to be interesting without being boring,” Effron said.

Reaching beyond the fringes

The ongoing on-air experimentation at The Takeaway makes it hard to assess the show’s progress toward gaining a foothold as an alternative to NPR’s Morning Edition. Dean Cappello, WNYC’s chief creative officer, who executive-produced the show for 10 months until Effron signed on, said it’s hitting every benchmark set for it.

WNYC and WCLK in Atlanta, which have carried The Takeaway since its launch, are gaining listeners with the show, said PRI’s Mike Arnold.

In the month before The Takeaway debuted, March 2008, WNYC-FM was garnering a .9 percent average share in the 6 a.m. hour. A year later, its average share had more than doubled to 2.2. By June, the share was up to 2.8. All numbers came from Arbitron’s new Personal People Meters.

Comparisons are muddier in Atlanta, where Arbitron switched from diary-based data to PPMs during the show’s first year, but the show’s audience is growing by two measures. The metro average weekly cume during the winter quarter grew from 64,800 listeners in 2008 (diary data) to 84,200 (PPM data) in 2009. The Metro average weekly share grew from .3 percent (diaries) to .5 percent (PPM), Arnold said. “The Takeaway time-slot’s share on WCLK is twice the weekly average, which suggests that the program is contributing to WCLK’s growth,” Arnold said.

“We’re all just stronger as a team,” said Nieves, center, a producer who joined “The Takeaway” at startup. Associate Producer Leo Duran, left, monitors the Spin Vox line. At right: Vincent Fairchild, broadcast engineer.

There’s been growth off the air and behind the scenes as well. When The Takeaway first launched, the staff didn’t even have a relief system so crew members could take bathroom breaks, recalled Cappello.

“When you start something up—no matter how much piloting you do and how you respond to the news — you have to work on getting the right staff arrangement,” Cappello said. The Takeaway’s staff continues to grow — they’re hiring producers and a community engagement specialist — and have funding for up to 27 full-timers, including the new co-host.

“We’re much bigger than when we started, and we’re going to do what we need to do to take this show where it needs to go towards being very, very live,” Cappello said.

Then there is the challenge of winning over public radio station programmers, convincing them that the show is worthy of airtime during their most valuable daypart and distinctly appealing enough to put it up against Morning Edition on a competing station.

“I really like that they talk to real people about issues of concern to them, that the people they bring on are not all pundits, they’re not all journalists,” said Helen Barrington, p.d. of WFCR in Amherst, Mass., which airs The Takeaway on its AM station.

As a former producer for The World, the PRI afternoon newsmag co-produced by WGBH and the BBC, Barrington was enthusiastic about The Takeaway’s potential to offer something new in the morning. “What I want is for them to succeed. They are up against a behemoth in a way,” she said, referring to Morning Edition.

But there were technical problems with The Takeaway format that made it difficult for stations to insert local break material, Barrington said. And the chemistry between Hockenberry and Udoji didn’t feel right to Barrington. “My disappointment with John is that he can be very flip,” she said. “It felt like there was no room for her.”

“Host interaction is something that a lot of shows struggle with,” said Todd Mundt, content director of Kentucky’s Louisville Public Media and lead blogger of Mediavore, which recommends daily picks of public media content. “My impression from a year ago is that it was just really messy.  A lot of things topically and programmatically didn’t seem to be coming together.”

“They’ve been a lot more distilled lately, and that’s really improved the show,” Mundt added. “Topically, they’re broader than what NPR is doing,” especially on pop culture and sports coverage. “What you end up with is a program that arguably covers more topics that might be of more interest to the average public radio listener or people on the fringe of the public radio audience.”

Bringing people on that fringe onto the air is one area in which The Takeaway is “doing better than just about any other public radio show — certainly network shows,” Mundt said. “In The Takeaway you hear voices and textures in voices that you don’t hear elsewhere.”

“If there’s something that we’ve learned, it’s that there is a component to diversity that is getting faces around the table that reflect the population of America,” Hockenberry said. “In that, we have been incredibly successful. From the moment we went on the air in Detroit and Atlanta, their listeners got it.”

“You don’t grow the audience by getting everyone to listen to Garrison Keillor,” Hockenberry said. “You do it by creating a program that, in the course of the day, people will want to be part of.”

A lot is riding on the success or failure of The Takeaway in this regard. It was explicitly designed and funded to help address public radio’s longstanding problems in engaging ethnically diverse audiences. A top priority in Grow the Audience, the Station Resource Group’s recent analysis of audience strategies for public radio, recommends that pubradio extend its service to people of color, who are underrepresented in its core listenership, including some who may have decided public radio is not for them.

For this reason WDET in Detroit began broadcasting The Takeaway from 8 to 10 a.m. in February, replacing a Morning Edition rollover. “It’s been a whole roller-coaster ride,” says Mikel Ellcessor, g.m. and former WNYC programmer, of the schedule change. The Takeaway “challenges some people’s preconception of what public radio is, what it does and what it sounds like.”