After an extended period of experimentation triggered by pandemic lockdowns, public radio’s Intelligence Squared is relaunching as a weekly, hourlong program focused on hotly debated, timely topics.
Before the coronavirus ended live events as public media had known them, the show’s producers recorded in-person debates in front of audiences and delivered up to 15 new episodes for public radio broadcast every year. But in 2020, Intelligence Squared U.S., the organization that runs the program, had to “completely pivot the business model,” said CEO Clea Conner. “We had to reinvent the way that we produce our work.”
The team began experimenting with new debate formats and producing more episodes from virtual events. “Just taking out that whole live production scenario enabled us to scale, focusing on the content,” Conner said.
They weren’t sure how public radio program directors would react to the changes, Conner said, but saw an opportunity to respond to “public outcry and a lot of concern about the state of public discourse right now.”
“As a debate company, we wanted to kind of grow and expand and respond to these debates that are taking the country by storm,” she said. “We couldn’t really do that before.”
Since last year, producers have aimed to deliver more timely debates than were possible when they were recording programs live in front of an audience. They began releasing shows on a biweekly schedule.
Conner pointed to a debate on the ethics of booster shots, which she said, “we never would have done if we had to dump a tremendous amount of resources into a live production, because you want something that’s just totally evergreen all the time.”
The hunch about responding to public discourse turned out to be right, Conner said. “We saw our radio carriage with that biweekly release schedule increase almost 40% in 2021.”
Debates related to the pandemic “became the most popular episodes we released,” which informed the decision to explore going weekly, Conner said.
“We really thought as an organization, our mandate being to elevate public discourse, bring debate to the public square, we have got to figure out how to scale this program and go weekly,” Conner said.
The Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund provided a $1.25 million grant to help fund the expansion. In addition to the weekly episodes, the organization also plans to ramp up its digital content, Conner said.
The program’s format has also expanded beyond its traditional Oxford-style debates to introduce new approaches, including a one-on-one debate format called “Agree to Disagree,” a panel discussion that provides a range of opinions called “Unresolved,” and an interview format focused on debate. For each episode, producers “cherry pick the format for the topic,” Connor said.
Upcoming shows present debates about Amazon’s impact on small businesses, the benefits and drawbacks of artificial intelligence and whether former President Donald Trump should be indicted.
New episodes are released every Friday on podcast apps. Fifty public radio stations, including repeaters, air the weekly program.
Intelligence Squared isn’t moving away from in-person events, Conner said, but will be more “opportunistic” about hosting them “in conjunction with a partner to offset the costs of live production.”
Looking ahead, Conner has ambitions for the organization to create educational content that will “leverage the power of debate as a learning and a teaching tool.”
She also wants to launch a “debate platform” that replicates the Intelligence Squared model and allows people to debate with “civility and respect for people who disagree …, but engage in a productive and constructive way.”
“My goal is to really have Intelligence Squared be synonymous with … America’s debate program, America’s debate platform,” she said.