Neal Conan during a Talk of the Nation show.
Neal Conan during a Talk of the Nation show. Wayne Huang/NPR
Ever wonder what it takes to put together an NPR show?
Please take a few minutes to peek behind the scenes at Talk of the Nation.
Check out the audio slideshow.
We spent a few days watching how the show's staff comes up with ideas, how they put those ideas on the air — and how they screen the callers who have questions or simply want others to hear their ideas.
Each staffer faces particular challenges, but one of the more difficult ones falls to those who pre-interview potential guests.
"The biggest challenge of my job is probably informing people who I have pre-interviewed – who have spent time discussing their work,views, experiences with me – that they won't be able to be on the show," said April Fehling, an editorial assistant. "So many potential guests I speak to are wonderful people who are very generous with their time. But once we've sorted out the program it's impossible to include everyone."
But that's only one of many challenges in producing a totally "live" show.
Check out the audio slideshow.
If you'd like to listen to that day's show, click here.
(Soundbite, Talk of the Nation song)
Neal Conan: From NPR News in Washington DC, I'm Neal Conan and this is Talk of the Nation.
Alicia Shepard: Every week 3 and a half million people turn on Talk of the Nation for 8 hours of original programming. Unlike much of NPR's content, Talk of the Nation is totally live.
You hear the final product. But I want to take you behind the scenes to see how a two-hour show is put together. For two days in August, I hung out there.
The show that depends on conversation begins with its own brainstorming conversation.
Sue Goodwin: What's the buzziest story?
TOTN Staff: Flight Attendant
Goodwin: What are the news stories that are the most important and affect our listeners lives the most?
Shepard: That's Sue Goodwin and her team. She's the executive producer in charge of the show and its staff of 10.
Goodwin works closely with Carline Watson, Talk of the Nation's senior producer. Watson's worked on the show for almost 6 years.
Carline Watson: Staff is very important because we are a show that lives and dies by the strength of our ideas. We talk a lot, that's why we are Talk of the Nation. But all of our ideas are generated by us.
Shepard: This morning, as all mornings – Monday through Thursday – ideas zip around the room. What about future effects of the BP oil spill? Social Security? Haiti?
No idea is too lame for consideration.
What about singer Fantasia ODing on sleeping pills? How about that new Pop Tart store in Times Square?
TOTN Staff: (Chatter. Name different types of Pop Tarts.)
Shepard: Brainstorming and planning start at 9. It lasts about an hour. Each week, the staff try to line up segments and guests in advance. But news rarely cooperates. Last-minute changes are common.
On this day of my visit, the world is curious about Steven Slater – Jet Blue's now-infamous flight attendant. Remember, Slater lost his cool, yelled at a passenger, grabbed two beers and escaped through the emergency chute.
The Slater incident points up one of the staff's main concerns: the caliber of callers.
It's a delicate balance. The show depends on callers. But if a caller is off-topic or long-winded, it slows the show. Listeners might move on.
Each Talk of the Nation segment is centered around a question, intended to prompt listeners with personal experience to call.
The staff struggle with how to word each question so the result will be the most intriguing calls.
Goodwin: Flight Attendants, is he your new hero?
Watson: I think for a lot of people who write want to be able to say take your job and stuff it. Take your job and stuff it.
April Fehling: Is his story your story? I like that.
Shepard: The essence of a good talk show is to find a combination of the right guests and the perfect question. Neal Conan hosts the show.
Conan: A good caller has a story. A good caller has direct experience of the subject at hand. People are experts on their own lives. [short clip 00:09]
Shepard: Conan began hosting Talk of the Nation on Sept. 10, 2001. No joke.
He has been a correspondent, producer, editor; you name it since he joined NPR in 1977.
Conan said he learned a lot about hosting from Susan Stamberg, now an NPR special correspondent. Back then, he was a producer for All Things Considered. She was the show's first female host.
Conan: We would give her lists of questions to go in and do interviews and she would never use them except for maybe the first one and I would ask her why and she would say the interesting part is, if you listen to what the person says, they will tell you what the next question is.
Shepard: Conan now has his own fill-in hosts. They always ask him what they should worry about.
His answer is simple. Eat lunch at noon. He says managing his blood sugar levels is critical. He can't go on the show hungry. Nor can he go on stuffed.
As soon as the morning meeting ends, the scrambling begins.
John Asante started as an NPR intern in 2009. Now he is an editorial assistant on Talk of the Nation.
John Asante: We've got to move stuff around because we want to put in the flight attendant stuff. And then I'm also working on another show on this celebrity photographer paparazzi. So I'm calling, booking, writing, cutting tape.
Shepard: For the next four hours, the staff is writing copy. Getting tape. Chasing guests.
The show goes live @ 2:06 Eastern, right after the newscast. Today is a Wednesday. So the first segment is Political Junky. Then flight attendants.
Followed by a segment on Islam. The show ends with celebrity photographer Ron Gallela. Remember him? The one who stalked Jackie Kennedy.
Gwen Outen: Music up. Mic out. Standby on the funder package in Dalet.
That's Gwen Outen. She directs the show. She makes sure the mikes are on when they should be. Runs tape. Makes sure that Conan sticks to the unforgiving NPR time clock.
Outen: You know, you kinda live by the clock. So you always think a step or two ahead of where you actually are.
The Flight Attendant segment starts at 2:40.
Asante is on the phones screening calls. The show has seven lines and one international line – plus it gets, and uses, e-mails and Tweets.
Asante: Talk of the Nation are you a flight attendant? Alright we're looking for flight attendants on this segment. Thank you. Hi Thanks, thanks for holding, OK. So you said you're a former flight attendant. [sound of typing] Gottcha. I'm going to get your call up. What's your name. [typing] Peggy. Where are you calling from?
Shepard: Screening is one of the toughest jobs. Sometimes people just want to comment – and don't address the question.
Or they make the same point as another caller. So the screener thanks them and moves on. Some feel rejected. They shouldn't.
Here's April Fehling screening a segment entitled: Imagining 'A World Without Islam'
The question to callers is: Do you think the conflict the West is engaged is due to Islam or other factors?
April Fehling: Sir I don't mean to cut you off, but you're actually talking about a few different things here so I want to go back to kind of the question that we posed and.. just kind of rephrase some of the things you'd like to share.
Shepard: Sometimes the Ombudsman's office gets a call from a frustrated listener who didn't get on the show.
But I witnessed how challenging it is to screen calls and get listeners on air under tremendous time constraints.
At one point Asante had six people on hold during the 17-minute Jet Blue segment. With only 40 seconds left, he thanked them and ended the call.
After the show, there's always a quick post-mortem and then planning for the next day's show.
Conan: Junkie I thought went exceptionally well. The segment, I thought, about flight attendants took a while to get going but once they started calling I thought it was really interesting to hear their stories and that's a group of people that don't get specifically a chance to hear from all that much. The segment on the Middle East was a little heady, but it was interesting conversation. Ron Galella, well you take it for what it is. Who knew? A romantic.
Shepard: Putting together two hours of live programming is high wire act every day. A guest might not show. Maybe no one calls. Or a caller tells the screener one thing; then talks about something else.
Whatever happens, it gives you something to talk about.
(Soundbite, Talk of the Nation theme.)