significant strand of broadcasting over public radio centers
on the world of what many call "culture" -- the realm
of the arts, literature, music, intellectual conversation about
books and ideas. How large is the current audience for this
sort of programming? How widespread is it today? In what ways
does such programming differ from that of earlier eras? What
role does popular culture play in such programming? Is today's
understanding of "culture" more multi-cultural and
anthropological than that of earlier periods? Is it more feminist?
How important to our society is this sort of program?
other questions will be addressed by two thoughtful radio professionals
Kushner is a writer, producer and host of Sound
and Spirit, which Bill Moyers calls "the best program
on public radio bar none." Begun in April 1996, Sound
and Spirit was launched as a national show by Kushner and
her team. Produced at WGBH in Boston, and distributed by Public
Radio International, Sound and Spirit airs on over 125
stations, and has won awards for its excellence in writing,
content and production. Kushner is also a fiction writer whose
first novel, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners, has
been hailed as the progenitor of the "Mannerpunk"
school of fantasy. Her second novel, Thomas the Rhymer,
won both the 1991 World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award.
Her latest novel, The Fall of the Kings (written with
Delia Sherman) was published in October (2002) by Bantam Books.
S. Lyons is director of radio projects and WGBH Online for
WGBH. In his 19 years in public broadcasting, Lyons has created
many national series and specials, including the public radio
companions to several PBS series and specials such as Africans
in America and an upcoming PBS series on the Blues. He launched
and oversees WGBH's online audio streaming services and recently
created the WGBH Forum
Network, which provides video webcasts of free public lectures
from Boston's leading cultural and educational institutions.
Lyons teaches a course in music production for radio and the
web at Northeastern University.
S. LYONS began his talk about culture on public radio
by defining the parameters of culture. To him, the term
refers to the broad spectrum of the arts, literature,
music and the world of ideas.
was optimistic about the attention given to cultural topics
on public radio, citing both older public radio mainstays
such as Sound
and Spirit, Fresh
Air, and Prairie
Home Companion and newcomers such as Odyssey,
, and This American
most current culture programs on public radio grew out of the
demand for news programs during the Gulf War. News magazines
such as Weekend
Edition Saturday and Weekend
Edition Sunday often included a brief segment on culture,
and program directors eventually decided to expand these segments
into entire shows.
radio has two basic forms. The short form, usually comprised
of two to nine minute features, is often used on NPR news magazines;
the more common long form consists of 15-30 minute interviews
or discussions, as heard on shows like Fresh Air.
of cultural programming include call-in shows, such as Talk
of the Nation, Connection and Odyssey; anthropological
programs, or programs that find out what makes people tick,
such as This American Life and Studio 360; drama
or art radio such as Joe Frank; and both discussion and airings
of classical or jazz music.
radio is format-driven, broadcasting the same type of talk or
music throughout the day, Lyons said. But public radio is program-driven,
airing a wide range of shows at different times of the day.
According to Lyons, this distinction between mainstream and
boutique market media is not specific to radio; it can be observed
in other media such as magazines and cable television.
that the size and type of the audience for public broadcasting
greatly depends on the program. Perhaps the most significant
distinction between public and commercial listeners is the higher
educational background of the former. The majority of public
radio listeners hold graduate degrees, said Lyons.
Ellen Kushner then parodied format-driven talk radio with a
sketch about a fictional radio station-entitled KTIME, whose
slogan was "all the time, all the time," and whose
sole content was to report the time from different locations
throughout the day.
that certain program genres, most notably opera and the serial
drama, are no longer found on the radio. He played a clip from
a 1987 episode of Reading Aloud with Bill Cabniss, a
show that featured readings from books such as a War and
Peace for a half an hour each night.
he also played a clip of Sound and Spirit with Ellen
Kushner to demonstrate current literary programming. Her show
about J.R.R. Tolkien featured excerpts from his novels as well
as interviews with other writers and music inspired by the novels.
Lyons discussed a more promising fate for public radio than
KTIME. Listening to shows produced by high school students,
Lyons notices a shift toward anthropologically inflected multicultural
programming. He suggested that technology will play a huge role
in the continuing shift from dry talk radio to all sorts of
his remarks by playing an excerpt from This American Life.
The episode analyzed what happened when a father decided to
tap his son's phone conversation and the son retaliated by staging
fake conversations with his friends. Featuring segments of actual
taped telephone calls interspersed among interviews and commentary,
the episode demonstrated both technological and cultural innovation
on the radio.
ELLEN KUSHNER, the major shift in the past decade
has been greater acceptance of diverse genres of music
and controversial topics of discussion.
earlier years, when her programs were marketed only to
classical stations, Kushner had to be more conservative
in her editorial and musical choices.
played a clip from an early Sound
and Spirit featuring the gamelan, a type of orchestra
originating in Bali and Java. This show was significant not
only because it discussed contemporary classical music from
a different culture but also because it discussed the spiritual
significance of the gamelan.
played an even earlier clip of a baroque music festival from
the International Music Series, a show she worked on
before Sound and Spirit. She said, "It was a national
classical music series with a little bit of zest," consisting
of performances from concert stages all over the world. Although
the show was popular, she said that it would probably not be
successful today because the public is no longer interested
in programs exclusively devoted to traditional classical music.
clip Kushner played was from a Hanukkah special; she said that
cultural programs on public radio make a point of serving minority
cultures around the major Christian holidays.
then spoke about her experiences in cultural broadcasting and
her sense of its future. One of her most exciting memories of
public radio, she said, was Lyons' six-hour live broadcast of
a New Orleans jazz festival. Unfortunately, both the shift from
program-driven to format-driven radio and the fact that it took
18 months to raise the money for the project meant such innovative
programming probably would not happen again.
said that information technology is altering the ephemeral nature
of radio. Because broadcasters can post information related
to program content on the station's Web site, listeners can
easily pursue interests piqued by a program. Digital media also
make it possible to play or replay shows from the Internet at
the individual listener's convenience. A potential downside
of digital media is that some of the spontaneity and "liveness"
of live radio has been exchanged for higher production standards.
The content of Sound and Spirit, for example, is constrained
because of the program's sophisticated production values. In
pre-digital days, Kushner could choose whatever she wanted --
an old vinyl record or tape, for instance --to play on the spur
of the moment, especially on late night radio.
sees radio and the Internet becoming ever more closely tied.
A 59-minute show like Sound and Spirit, for instance,
can post a large amount of follow up material, such as a playlist,
bibliography, links to other sites, and even essays or frequently
asked questions on the Internet for curious or engaged listeners.
THORBURN , Communications Forum Director: Could you
each expand on Ellen's point about the ways in which radio has
been changed or enhanced by the existence of digital technology?
And could you tell us what you know about the nature of your
We benefit from digital technology because our audiences are
very technically savvy. Partly because of copyright laws, digital
technology use is still marginal -- only 19 percent of public
radio members and a lower percentage of all listeners stream
about once a week, so it doesn't reach a large number of people.
But the large amount of control it gives to a small number of
people is definitely a big deal.
about the audience say that approximately eight percent of America
listens to public radio.
Eight percent sounds small, but if you consider how many people
constitute eight percent of the population, it's a huge number.
Imagine if eight percent of America bought a certain novel,
STEVENS, grad student: I'm probably one of the youngest
people in the public radio audience, but I love Sounds Eclectic
and I'm noticing public radio playing more interesting music
between segments. I want to know what NPR is doing to encourage
listeners in my age group and younger.
I think people are starting to realize that a lot of public
radio sounds tired, and stations are hiring younger producers
to play more up-to-date music and programs. The reason public
radio often appeals to an older audience is that it was left
to the individual stations to reach out to a younger audience
about a decade ago, but the employees were older and didn't
really know how to do that.
EASTEN: Can you comment on WBEZ
in Chicago, a station that created a relationship with a Loyola
University student-run station, but is not doing anything to
change the format or programming of the station?
WBEZ recognized that they had a problem, and since the station
has no real competition, they basically said, "Can we sit
next to you guys for a while? We want your coolness; we'll pay
the bills." It shows they are making an effort to reach
a younger audience.
creates its audience. Since public radio airs mostly news and
information, it attracts the sort of people who want to listen
to that. Other programs might attract other sorts of people.
public broadcasting is an interesting way of looking at how
people's tastes evolve. People watch children's programming,
and then they leave, and then they come back in their 30's and
listen to adult programming. There's clearly a gap, but how
can we fill it? One way is to get young people involved in the
craft, but at the same time to make young people happy, you
have to alienate another demographic.
SEAWELL, Communications Forum: I was wondering how you classified
that clip from This American Life. I thought it could
be "reality radio." Also, I heard that a Hollywood
group is paying This American Life for the use of any
ideas they come up with. Is this true?
Hollywood probably doesn't like it or want it, but they want
to make sure no one else can have it, so they buy it and hold
onto it. Once somebody actually made a show based on Car
Talk and it was terrible. Does it really matter, though,
as long as Car Talk made money?
JONES: I was wondering about digital technology for narrowcasting.Could
people use some of the sideband for digital TV or digital radio?
I think that would be a good way of reaching all the audience
because it seems like there's a lot of bandwidth that's not
There actually is a question going on about spectrum reallocation
in the FM band because there are a lot of holes, and we could
definitely squeeze in more broadcasting. We also just finished
a pilot attempt at compressing radio in a digital TV stream.
As for the narrowcasting, the business aspects such as how much
it should cost have not been worked out yet, but it probably
will be common in the future because it makes sense to have
a TiVo for radio as well.
Why would you need TiVo for radio if you can just download stuff
from the Web sites? Can't anyone just put something on the Web?
Yes, you can download stuff from the Web sites, but people are
generally lazy and they want to just be able to push a button.
Internet radio did exist, but now it is generally available
with a subscription only.
DUFFY: I was wondering if there was any hope of radio drama
coming back or if technology has simply moved elsewhere?
Everyone in radio wants to get involved with radio drama. Why
doesn't it happen?
Simply because no one will listen to it. It goes along with
the shift from program-driven to format-driven programming.
Even an all-drama channel would still require timed programming
to be effective. Most program directors don't want to take on
something that would probably be a losing battle.
a question of convenience. Imagine if someone delivered a magazine
Tuesday at 9 p.m. and then came back an hour later to take it
away. Personally, I wish radio drama still existed too, since
it was all around when I started in radio.
KITTROSS: Some of these old forms still have an existence
someplace. I once heard a children's program on WYNE that had
been on in 1945. My question is, with all of the channels in
all the different types of media, how are we ever supposed to
know what's out there? It's an overload -- I don't know how
to know what I want.
It's definitely like finding a needle in a haystack, but there
probably is a place we can find all these things. It's hard
enough for TV -- they've tried to solve the problem by creating
an interactive program guide -- but for radio it's an especially
I'd like to introduce Jo-Ellen Easten from our culture desk.
I have two questions for her. First, since you answer the letters,
how would you define our audience? And second, can you talk
a little about our culture desk initiative?
It's actually hard to tell who's listening from who writes because
they aren't necessarily the same set of people. But I do get
letters from people who find radio to be a voice in the darkness
or a comforting friend who broadens their horizons.
desk is a new initiative for packaging content that WGBH produces
and providing it under the guise of the culture desk, creating
feature stories on all different shows.
How would you define culture?
We define culture in terms of our programming as anything involving
arts and cultures right now, with a focus on the Boston area.
We are looking to find ways that this experience can be translated
for a national audience. We also do vignettes about life in
--Compiled by Elizabeth Greenwood
--Photos by Kelly Clancy