culture talk on public radio
Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002
5:00-7:00 p.m.



A steady, 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?

These and other questions will be addressed by two thoughtful radio professionals from WGBH.


Ellen 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.

Robert 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.


ROBERT 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.

He 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, Connection , and This American Life .

Lyons said 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.

Today, cultural 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.

Other types 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.

Most commercial 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.

Lyons remarked 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.

Lyons and 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.

Lyons said 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.

In contrast, 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.

Finally, 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 creative programming.

Lyons concluded 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.

To ELLEN KUSHNER, the major shift in the past decade has been greater acceptance of diverse genres of music and controversial topics of discussion.

In earlier years, when her programs were marketed only to classical stations, Kushner had to be more conservative in her editorial and musical choices.

Kushner 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.

Next, she 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.

The last 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.

Kushner 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.

Kushner 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.

Kushner 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.


DAVID 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 audience?

LYONS: 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.

The statistics about the audience say that approximately eight percent of America listens to public radio.

KUSHNER: 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, for instance.

FRAN 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.

LYONS: 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.

JO-ELLEN 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?

LYONS: 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.

A program 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.

I think 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.

BRAD 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?

LYONS: 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?

ANDY 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 being used.

LYONS: 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.

QUESTION: 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?

LYONS: 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.

RICHARD DUFFY: I was wondering if there was any hope of radio drama coming back or if technology has simply moved elsewhere?

KUSHNER: Everyone in radio wants to get involved with radio drama. Why doesn't it happen?

LYONS: 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.

There's 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.

MIKE 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.

LYONS: 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 difficult problem.

KUSHNER: 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?

EASTEN: 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.

The culture 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.

KUSHNER: How would you define culture?

EASTEN: 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 the area.

--Compiled by Elizabeth Greenwood
--Photos by Kelly Clancy