Washington, Carter and Letson

R&D stage is next for host/creators Washington, Carter and Letson.

R&D boost for new voices

Three win CPB aid; also-rans keep ideas afloat

Three finalists in the Public Radio Talent Quest won CPB research-and-development grants totaling $800,000 to refine and develop pilots they conceived and hosted.

Two of the winners, Al Letson and Glynn Washington, rose to the top from a field of more than 1,400 contestants in the Public Radio Exchange’s Web 2.0-style competition by demonstrating their “hostiness” to online voters and a panel of judges.

The third winner, community activist and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Majora Carter, was recruited by a group of seasoned production execs who call their scouting project Launch Production Inc.

“We were so impressed by the creativity and talent of all of the finalists, we couldn’t pick just one,” said CPB President Patricia Harrison in a video announcing the funding decision [see video below].

CPB launched the competition in February 2007, bankrolling both PRX and Launch for their contrasting talent hunts. Each search team chose three finalists last fall who delivered pilots to CPB earlier this year.

“We were looking for fresh voices and new perspectives — that was really the criteria,” said Kathy Merritt, CPB director of program investments for radio.

The three Talent Quest finalists whose proposals were not funded — food writer Mark Bittman, actress/comedian Julia Sweeney and “Skepchick” blogger/ podcaster Rebecca Watson — are continuing to seek funding and partners for their pilots. Watson, who was the “People’s Choice” winner in PRX’s online contest, is adapting her science show for television.

The one-year CPB grants announced last month support R&D for the winning series concepts so their producers can tweak them, refine the sounds, hire advisory teams and develop websites and distribution strategies.

“We’re not saying to any one of the three, ‘Here’s a bunch of money — go launch a program in the next six months,’” Merritt said. Since the PRX project was primarily focused on winnowing a field of contestants, its winners did not have as much time to develop their programs. “We’re going to give all the people involved time to look at the concepts and make sure they’re matched to their personalities and what they want to do, then figure out how they will produce the programs.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do before we commit to an ongoing program or even a multipart series,” Merritt said.
The next batch of programs from the Talent Quest winners will be available for broadcast later this year or in early 2009, Merritt said. At the end of the year’s grant term, CPB will decide whether to back one or more as a full-scale nationally distributed series.  

“The next phase is taking that inspiration and turning it into a viable program that isn’t just about solely fitting into a public radio schedule but also taps into the online and participatory element that brought it about in the first place,” said Jake Shapiro, PRX executive director.

The Talent Quest’s purpose was to bring “new ideas and thought processes into public radio, and I’m going to try to do that,” said Letson. “Public radio does a lot of things well, but one thing it doesn’t do well is the Internet. I’m an Internet junkie, and I’m going to try to work on that.”

Letson also looks forward to refining his ideas for State of the Re:Union. “What I’d like to do is dig a little bit deeper.” The biggest challenge, he said, is trying to tell the story of a community in an hour. He felt the pilot hit its stride about “two-thirds of the way through.”

“I can be more mindful of that, and also we won’t be working under the same crazy time constraints,” Letson said. He hopes to continue working with Taki Telonidis, the producer/mentor chosen by PRX to work with him during pilot production. “I learned a whole lot from him.”

Washington is planning ways to “stretch out” his ideas for Snap Judgment to include poetry and music. “We want to put on a type of variety show that explores all aspects of storytelling,” he said.

“This show will do some things that public radio is not generally known for — it’s going to be gritty, it’s going to be raw,” he said. “Our humor might be more risqué than people are used to. The people to be profiled will not be people that you hear from in national media. It’s a storytelling variety show that has an really urban core, an urban visibility,” Washington said.

Carter, the Launch team’s winner, may have had more time to refine her plans during piloting, but she still has some tweaking to do too, according to Marge Ostroushko, the producer working with her. “We’re going to work on the narration and program concepts, and we’ve started to talk about topics . . . for new programs.” They plan to try more ideas out in the studio and to originate live broadcasts from locations around the country, she said.

Ostroushko and Carter plant to hire a grant proposal writer and seek additional funders. “We’re going to use this year and the additional CPB funding so that it is an ongoing production.”

Her partners in Launch Production — Julie Burstein of New York’s WNYC and Los Angeles-based independent producer Mary Beth Kirchner — are already talking with potential partners who can help take their pilots into series production. “We have a commitment to these hosts and program ideas, and they will continue in development,” Ostroushko said.

Burstein, the producer working with Bittman, is working on a deal with a “major partner” she declined to name. They hope to make a series of specials in the fall and eventually launch a weekly series. “We want to make more connections with funders and reach out to program directors to fine-tune what we’re doing,” Burstein said.

In Bittman’s pilot for Food Matters, he really shined during listener call-in segments. “He’s really smart and really funny, so there was a very nice engagement with the listeners,” Burstein said. “And he’s so great at looking at big food issues in the news,” such as food safety and the ecological impact of a meat-based diet. “He can take those ideas and really break them down.”

Kirchner, meanwhile, has lined up a station partner for Julia Sweeney’s half-hour pilot for Home Sweet Earth, produced as an Earth Day special. The show features Sweeney’s ebullient interviews with scientific figures including astronaut Sally Ride, astronomer Michael Brown and entomologist E.O. Wilson. Jill Sobule, a singer/songwriter paired with Sweeney for the show, chimes in between segments, in a supporting role that Kirchner compares to bandleader Doc Severinsen’s with Johnny Carson on NBC’s Tonight Show.

“I have every intention of moving forward with [Sweeney] and no doubt that she’ll be public radio’s next star,” Kirchner said. When other partners sign on with the show, she plans to seek CPB funding outside of its Talent Quest initiative.

“You can’t be mildly interested when you create new shows,” Kirchner said. “You have to deeply believe in a project’s potential and future — no matter where doubt might be expressed. You have to be willing to charge forward and say ‘I know this in my bones.’” Launch is also developing new shows with CNN and ABC News ex-anchor Aaron Brown [article] and former NPR correspondent Elizabeth Arnold, who is now reporting freelance from Alaska.

Meanwhile Watson is working with her producer/mentor Richard Paul to adapt her Curiosity Aroused idea into a television series. The radio pilot, which tackles pseudo-science with a modern, post-feminist attitude, has been broadcast by 10 public radio stations, more than any other pilot produced for Talent Quest.

When Watson learned that she hadn’t made the cut two months ago, she was “disappointed and a little surprised,” she told Current. “I guess it was not what CPB was looking for.” 

“It’s a disappointing result, but I had such a great time and got a huge new audience for Skepchick,” she said. “I met fun people and got to see what it’s like to make a great radio show. Plus, I met Richard.”

Another consolation: Several months ago, an astronomer who likes her work officially put her name on an asteroid that he discovered out past Mars [story below].

Third rock from Rebecca

Boston blogger/podcaster Rebecca Watson — one of six finalists in the Public Radio Talent Quest awaiting CPB funding decisions on their program pilots — now has an asteroid named after her.

Watson’s blog about reality and reason, science and skepticism, is at skepchick.org/blog.

The rock, 2.7 miles across and orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, was officially named by the International Astronomical Union March 21. Jeff Medkeff, an astronomer and science speaker based in Alaska, was entitled to choose a name for asteroid No. 153289 because he co-discovered it in 2001.
“Rebecca really deserves this honor,” Medkeff said in a news release. “She has provided a much-needed injection of enthusiasm and humor into science education.” With the help of an automation system he developed, Medkeff has discovered several hundred asteroids, and other astronomers named No. 41450 after him in 2003.

Bulletin posted June 26, 2008, main article above July 14, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


State of the Re:UNION
Al Letson
His home page
His Talent Quest page

Snap Judgment
Glynn Washington
His program's site
His Talent Quest page

Promised Land
Majora Carter
Her page on Launch
Sustainable South Bronx


CPB announces competition, February 2007. The two teams chose very different routes to find their talent, May 2007.

PRX narrows its online hunt for talent with "hostiness," June 2007.

PRX names mentors to help three winners make their pilots.

In a Current commentary PRX chief Jake Shapiro invites others in pubradio to try the online outreach method used in PRX's version of the Talent Quest.

Carter (photo) wowed an audience of New York teachers at the WNET/WLIW Teaching & Learning Celebration in March 2008.


CPB announces the three winners, June 26.

Watson reacts to CPB’s decision in her blog.



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