‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’, a weekend staple from Wisconsin, gets makeover

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When Wisconsin Public Radio–produced To the Best of Our Knowledge debuted nationally 23 years ago, it was the rare weekend radio show that explored deep ideas organized around a single theme, such as “Are Humans Innately Good?”

Producers Rehman Tungekar (left), Anne Strainchamps and Monroe-Kane each vied for the host's chair.

To the Best of Our Knowledge producers Rehman Tungekar, left, Anne Strainchamps and Charles Monroe-Kane each vied for the host’s chair after the departure of Jim Fleming. (Photos: Jeffrey Potter)

Two decades later, the concept had not only caught on but spawned new shows with different appeal: This American Life, Radiolab and TED Radio Hour, to name just a few, were captivating audiences by taking on heady topics and using a similar thematic approach.

But even as TTBOOK was ahead of the trend and could point proudly to its 2004 Peabody Award, all that competition in the format had taken its toll. TTBOOK producers gradually began to hear a consistent refrain in criticisms by station program directors — “You’ve been around a long time, and you don’t sound so fresh anymore,” said Executive Producer Steve Paulson. So in mid-2013, when original host Jim Fleming announced plans to retire, Wisconsin Public Radio decided to “rethink the show from top to bottom,” Paulson said.

Each new public radio show tends to go through multiple iterations to find its voice as it prepares to debut; the task of retooling a long-running audience favorite is far trickier.

“Any time you make a change, it’s hard for people,” said Kathy Merritt, v.p., content strategy and development, at Public Radio International, TTBOOK’s distributor. “As a content maker you’re always walking that line — to keep the audience you have and yet bring on new people and challenge the audience in a new way, appeal to an audience in a new way.”

As public radio matures, producers of many long-running shows are finding themselves in similar circumstances. A number of well-established PRI shows are “in an interesting cycle,” Merritt said. “You get to a point where you have to make that assessment: Are we keeping up with the marketplace? Do we sound fresh? And are we catching people’s attention in the way we want to?”

Selected Shorts, the one-hour weekly broadcast spun out of a live stage show of literary readings at New York City’s Symphony Space in the late 1980s, was forced into retooling after the November 2012 death of Isaiah Sheffer, its host and occasional performer.

As interim measures, producers broadened the mix of stories and readers beyond classic stories performed by Broadway stars; English fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert were among those tapped as guest hosts. One recent hour was dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With those changes in place, the audience is growing, said Merritt, and the show’s producers “are beginning to realize that this is something that has revitalized the program.”

Like Selected Shorts, TTBOOK had a natural transition point in Fleming’s retirement.

The producers undertook what turned out to be a six-month process of re-examining the program’s strengths and weaknesses, a process that involved numerous pilots done on paper, a few actual audio pilots, an online listener survey and conversations with program directors nationwide.

“We didn’t say everything was up for grabs,” said Michael Arnold, Wisconsin Public Radio’s director of content, who oversaw the process with Paulson. “In a lot of ways the show wasn’t broken,” he said.

Instead, they started with the positive: “What is it that makes the show the show? We felt it was important to do that at the beginning, before we started messing around with things,” Arnold said.

Producers concluded that “our strength is our content and our in-depth interviews,” Paulson said. “We also realized that sometimes our pacing lagged a little bit.”

Interviews on TTBOOK can run as long as 12 minutes, and producers wanted to preserve those extended conversations. They felt that trimming interview lengths would be akin to dumbing down the show, Paulson said. Instead they decided to mix in shorts, such as the three-minute segment “Bookmark,” in which guests recommend a favorite book. Short sound-rich pieces also populate the program now.

The producers considered, but ultimately rejected, the idea of having more highly produced pieces and a “hipper” sound, Arnold said.

Paulson and Monroe-Kane

EP Steve Paulson, left, led the TTBOOK team, including Monroe-Kane, through a top-to-bottom review of the program.

At one point the team also considered going host-less, and Arnold flirted with the idea of bringing in a host from outside Wisconsin Public Radio. Ultimately he decided against that. A new host often wants to put his or her own stamp on the show, Arnold said, and “for us, I felt we didn’t need that much change.”

To fill the host slot, Arnold opened the position up to all the core team members. Each of the five staffers submitted a demo and vied for the job over a month-long period.

In retrospect, the process “was pretty crazy,” Arnold said. For the staff, it lasted “probably longer than they wanted it to.” But in the end it created more camaraderie than if he had simply selected one person, he said. (Senior producer Anne Strainchamps got the job.)

One proposed change that consumed hours of conversation was the radical possibility of abandoning the weekly theme in favor of a magazine format. The theme was part of the show’s identity but limited its flexibility, Paulson said. In a compromise, the theme remains the focus of the first two-thirds of the show, leaving the last segment for a timely standalone interview.

That final segment is now crafted after one of the show’s most popular web elements: a daily topical feature called “On Our Minds,” often drawn from the archives. It generates 50 percent of the show’s Facebook “shares” and 30 percent of its streaming.

The changes, which also included the introduction of new theme music, took effect in February. Not surprisingly, some longtime fans were taken aback. Complaints have come in about the truncated theme and the shorter pieces. Ratings aren’t available yet, but Arnold said the producers were prepared for the pushback. With any change, he said, the first wave of feedback is always going to be “I want it the way it used to be.”

Later this year, the producers will poll program directors around the country about their views of the changes. Whether more tweaks are adopted immediately, or not, TTBOOK’s production team now expects to engage in a process of continual reinvention.

To Arnold, the best part of the last few months has been to instill a “culture of constant improvement.” The lesson learned, Paulson added, is to undertake a critical re-examination every few years, “not just when your host leaves. It’s very easy just to do what you’ve always done.”

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