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The Story aims to venture beyond the talk-show regulars

Originally published in Current, Sept. 11, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

North Carolina Public Radio/WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., looks to put flesh on the bones of public radio political analysis with a new midday offering slated to launch nationally in early 2007. 

The Story with Dick Gordon, to be unveiled at this week’s Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Philadelphia, aims to “get beyond the standard Rolodex of pundits you hear middays,” says Joan Siefert Rose, station g.m. It will air tales told by the people who catch, or are clobbered by, political footballs such as Medicare and immigration policies.

American Public Media, Minnesota Public Radio’s national production and distribution arm, will carry the one-hour show, which will be WUNC’s first national program. Jim Russell, formerly MPR’s v.p. for national programming and now relocating to Chapel Hill as an independent consultant, helped develop the program.

“A lot of the system is focused on hard news and analysis,” he says. “That’s terrific, but it leaves people a little hungry for the human dimension.”

The man assigned to sate this appetite is Dick Gordon, the veteran radio journalist who relocated to Chapel Hill in November. That was a few months after Boston’s WBUR canceled his previous gig, The Connection, which NPR distributed nationally.

The Connection was a great show, but it was not ‘my’ program,” says Gordon, who replaced original host Christopher Lydon in 2001. “This program has more of my identity in it and is built around my strengths as a reporter.”
Those strengths include an ability to “elicit and draw out stories” from interview subjects without getting in the way, Russell says. “If people have a good story, he’s smart enough and secure enough to shut up and let them tell it,” he says.

The Story launched locally in February with one weekly broadcast and gradually ramped up to five shows a week by the end of July. APM will test it in Minnesota and perhaps on other stations this fall, Russell says, and the show goes national in January. The program tapes at 11 a.m. Eastern time daily and will go out on two feeds each afternoon.
Although the midday programming shelf is crowded with fare such as NPR’s still-growing Day to Day as well as standbys such as Talk of the Nation and The Diane Rehm Show, WUNC thinks it can carve out a niche by focusing on “riveting, first-person accounts rather than third-party analysis,” Rose says.

The station polled system program directors “to find out what’s missing” before it  began developing The Story, she says, and heard that middays were full of “a lot of same-old, same-old—that things were predictable and tedious.”
“So we looked for something to address that but still be news-oriented,” Rose says. “And we were also interested in finding underrepresented voices.”

For example, although many news outlets covered North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s political moves earlier this year, The Story explored a notable consequence for his citizens: Gordon interviewed a man who runs safe houses for North Korean defectors. For a show on Medicare policy changes, the host spoke with a woman who couldn’t get her heart medicine and the pharmacist who had been slipping her drugs on the side. In a show on immigration, he interviewed both immigrants and border agents.

“I’m not interested in hearing what a politician has to say about the legislation he introduced,” Gordon says. “You’re already hearing that on other programs.”

Says Rose: “This is not a call-in show — I want to be clear about that.”

The producers hope to engage listeners and find new voices in less traditional ways. Producers comb Listservs for potential guests and reject ones they’ve already heard on the radio. On the program’s website, where archived story descriptions are available—audio files are coming soon—the producers offer an e-mail form for people to “Add to this Story” with their own anecdotes and views.

Follow-up shows have already come out of listener reaction, Gordon says. Feedback on a show about prosthetics, for example, generated two additional programs on the topic.
“We’re hoping that when people realize we really want to hear their stories, we can create a better loop with them,” Gordon says.

WUNC’s volunteer leadership board, which encouraged the station to raise its local and regional profile by developing a national program, raised $700,000 to seed The Story. Rose expects the show’s annual budget to be about $700,000 as well.

The Story’s launch is part of a $3.25 million capital and new initiatives campaign slated to stretch through December 2007. Of that total, $1.8 million will go toward new projects, and part of that sum will help fund The Story’s first few years.The station also added a new facility in Durham as part of the campaign, doubling its production capacity.
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Web page posted Sept. 19, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee