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Putting TV on the Radio

Ted Koppel, right, hosts a Discovery Channel town meeting in Silver Spring, Md., Sept. 10, 2006. Discovery Channel hide caption

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Discovery Channel

Ted Koppel, right, hosts a Discovery Channel town meeting in Silver Spring, Md., Sept. 10, 2006.

Discovery Channel

In this multi-platform media age, we are always learning how to make what we do on the air work in other ways. Every day, for example, we marry what's on the radio with what goes online. Other folks here work to bring you NPR news available on your mobile phone. Yesterday, NPR senior editor Susan Feeney led an NPR News team that joined with a Discovery Channel television production crew, to present the radio version of a live Ted Koppel town hall special. Susan sent us this post:

Last night, we learned a great deal about how to make television and radio work — at the same time. We produced Ted Koppel's "The Price of Security" town meeting for NPR stations. It was a joint-production from NPR and the Discovery Channel, where Koppel now works.

You might think it would be easy to just play television audio on the radio. But that's not true – and it's not what you'd want to hear.

Television, at its best, uses words — or tracks — to illustrate pictures. Radio — good radio — has to paint the visuals. And even when the forum is fundamentally people talking to each other, like last night, there still are plenty of dangers for the media coupling. For one thing, radio listeners can't read the chyrons — the names or words across the lower third of the television screen. How to know who's talking?

Koppel, also a senior news analyst for NPR, gave his more than 30 guests a good talking-to about identifying themselves and explaining why they were in the audience in the first place. Television viewers got all of that information in a two-part chyron. When someone had the floor, the speaker's name alternated with an on-screen explanation of their connection to the discussion at hand. Only twice did Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan have to jump in as the host whisperer to the radio audience and identify a speaker that Koppel had called on without using his full name.

Another challenge: How to begin a live television and radio program that start after two entirely different on-air introductory programs? The television audience had just seen Koppel's 90-minute Discovery documentary. The radio audience had just heard a half-hour program with Conan interviewing Koppel about the documentary. (It was prerecorded.) Ted Koppel considered kicking off his live town meeting by identifying the last speaker in the documentary, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and then announcing the town meeting. That would have sounded strange to radio listeners who were just joining. "Why is he talking about Secretary Rice?" would have been a fair question. Even two simple transitional words considered by Koppel — "With that..." — preceding his opening of the town meeting would have sounded odd in radioland. "With what?" would have been a fair question. Instead, he began simply, elegantly and ambidextrously: "And so we move now into the live segment of our broadcast..."

Still, there will always be another difference between radio and television. Koppel wore a light blue shirt, dark suit and tie before the bright lights at Discovery Headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. Neal Conan arrived for work in our downtown Washington studios in a casual polo-style shirt and a baseball cap.