Changing the Sound of Public Radio The nonprofit Public Radio Exchange is seeking to change the stereotype of public radio being flat and drowsy. Nine months ago, it launched a contest to find the best new voices in public radio.
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Changing the Sound of Public Radio

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Changing the Sound of Public Radio

Changing the Sound of Public Radio

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I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

Okay. You're listening to public radio right now so maybe you like it the way it is. But there's a stereotype that public radio is flat and drowsy. A new contest called Public Radio Talent Quest was sort of an "American Idol" for the left of the dial. Al Letson from Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the winners, and his entry explained his vision.

Mr. AL LETSON (Winner, Public Radio Talent Quest): (Rapping) It's not the Don Imus needs to put some danger. We can see that problem, and if we're bold enough, it may change. The sound, maybe more a deadly killer, is the homogenization of our culture. It's the cancer that eats away at the thing that makes America beautiful - our diversity, our soul.

CHIDEYA: Al is with me now as well as John Barth of Public Radio Exchange, which sponsored the contest.

Welcome, guys.

Mr. JOHN BARTH (Managing Director, Public Radio Exchange) Hello. Hello

Mr. LETSON: Good to be here.

CHIDEYA: So, Al, congratulations. Now what did you bring to the contest and what do you want to bring to public radio?

Mr. LETSON: You know, I think what I brought to the contest was really me and my view on the world. Like, I think this is a great nation we live in, but I think we're really fractured right now. And, you know, what I wanted to do is find a way to bring people back together. I'm a playwright by trade and so, like, in the work that I've done in theater, that's what I've been trying to do, is find a way to tell stories and bring people back together. That's what I want to do on the radio.

CHIDEYA: So if you had an imaginary target listener, who would that person be?

Mr. LETSON: You know, I would say that I want to reach everybody, but definitely, like, I'm African-American so, you know, I'd start there, like, I would definitely, you know, want to bring in young African-Americans. But also I want to reach beyond that and get to people like in my age range. I guess, you could say, like, the generation X's that aren't really into NPR right now. I have a whole lot of friends who, you know, I know if they spend time listening to NPR they'd love it but, you know, I want to bring them in. And not just black people but, you know, white people and Latinos and Asians, like, everybody. I want to bring everyone to the table.

CHIDEYA: So, John this is not a game show. I'm sure that folks don't get a million dollars, but what do they get in return for winning?

Mr. BARTH: Well, that's right. It's not a game. This is really an exciting serious step for public radio. And each of the three finalists - Al was joined by Rebecca Watson and Glynn Washington - each of them will get $10,000 in - with that money they can now begin production on a pilot program moving forward.

CHIDEYA: So what would be the process for taking that pilot to air?

Mr. BARTH: Well, the process is pretty intense. I mean, the fact that Al and Rebecca and Glynn got this far is really remarkable. We had fourteen hundred entrants, so for three people to emerge from that pool is - that takes a lot of skill.

And so at this point, what they need to do is go back and take that money. We'll pair them up with a pretty well known mentor-producer to guide them through the process and then they'll produce a program. And then the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, which really is the one that put the money behind this whole effort, they would decide whether they want to fund a program going forward that might end up on public radio.

CHIDEYA: So Al, what's next? What's your game plan for your pilot?

Mr. LENTON: My game plan for the pilot - the title of my show is called "State of the Reunion," and so I think the best place to start it would be in Washington, D.C. So I'm going to spend some time in D.C. and get all the stories from there, get the sounds, you know, just really - when you listen to the pilot, I want you to be able to feel like what it feels like to be in D.C.

I think there are two D.C.'s. I think there's the Washington part that governs this nation and I think there's D.C., you know, where the people are. And so I want look at both of those aspects of it and bring it together.

CHIDEYA: John, what about the other winners? What kind of take do they have on the world?

Mr. BARTH: Well, you know, it's pretty exciting because, you know, we opened up this process. It's not like they came through a corporation. They came through a Web site where listeners in public radio or people who just want to try radio were able to enter. So we have all these different visions of what radio can be. So Al has one vision. Rebecca Watson, who was the kind of the public choice winner, her vision is really challenging a (unintelligible) skeptics' eye, like really bad science and myth. And then Glynn Washington, who works with At-Risk Youth in the Oakland-Berkeley area, is going to be doing a show that really does look at positive ways that young people can really impact society.

Great visions, incredible talent came out of this process. We're so excited for Al and Rebecca and Glynn.

CHIDEYA: So before we let you guys go, Al, give me - you talked about D.C., but give me a flavor for something you might cover on your show.

Mr. LETSON: You know, I was talking to a couple of friends of in D.C. and they were talking a lot about gentrification there. So I think I'm definitely going to look at, like, what's going on as far as old neighborhoods being turned new. I definitely - I have never - I've been to D.C. a lot and never quite understood the go-go phenomenon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETSON: So, people might want to check that out. That's going - that is a definite. And then, you know, I have a lot of friends who are artists in D.C. So yeah, I'm going to turn to them. You're from D.C., are you not?

CHIDEYA: I'm from Baltimore.

Mr. BARTH: You're from Baltimore?

CHIDEYA: House music all night long, excuse me.

Mr. LETSON: All right. I like some of theā€¦

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETSON: When I get to Baltimore - Charm City is my home away from home. So when I get there, you know, then I'll be giving you a call.

CHIDEYA: Sounds great. Well, Al, John, thank you both so much.

Mr. LETSON: Thank you.

Mr. BARTH: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Al Letson is one of the winners in the Public Radio Talent Quest hosted by Public Radio Exchange, and he joined me from member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. John Barth is managing director for Public Radio Exchange. He joined me from KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri.

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