A View from the Coast

I’m new to public radio but not new to public media. I come from the world of PBS and independent documentaries (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story; Citizen King). Since this September I’ve been working with AIR as consultant on the MQ2 initiative. Though I’ve been to great film festivals and conferences before, nothing I’ve experienced quite prepared me for my introduction to the culture of independent radio producers last weekend in Chicago at Third Coast. What a blast! The energy, the stories, the camaraderie, the opportunities, the ideas, the possibilities!  Here’s a brief account of my observations.

AIR was a strong presence throughout. The lightning exchange of ideas and interests at the speed-dating portion of the AIR producers meeting set the prevailing tone from the start of the conference: Dive in!  Award-winning journalist and founding AIR member Karen Michel kept about 56 speed-daters on task and moving forward as they found ways to connect by asking each other (and themselves) the assigned questions, “What do you have to offer?” and “What do you need?”  

To the surprise and delight of several in the room, fourteen year-old Ishmael Streever from the Alaska Teen Media Institute kicked off the session reflections by standing up and introducing himself. He spoke enthusiastically about how the speed-dating exercise (brainchild of AIR talent strategist Julie Drizin) had allowed him to quickly find his way to two or three people whose experiences, ideas, or outlook had somehow inspired him. Judging by the response in the room, lots of others felt the same way.

The “Dive in!” attitude was perpetuated further at the AIR “Win/ Win” pitch panels that featured brave souls like AIR members Ari David Shapiro, Phil Graitcer, and Sabiha Khan who stepped up in front of a ballroom audience of their peers to propose real story ideas to series editors from Marketplace, Studio 360, the BBC, ATC, and This American Life.

Producers came prepared to give it their best shot, which in many cases included playing audio samples. The story editors generally offered each producer a warm, constructive critique of his or her pitch but there was also a level of stark candor that lent a slightly intimidating air of “sink or swim” to these proceedings.  With the producer sitting right there, one series editor described his audio sample as “not very good or very funny” in front of roughly 175 people. Yikes! Not for the feint of heart.

A few, however, were immediately rewarded for their courage. I attended a pitch session where a producer generated what looked like serious interest with a marvelous story pitch. Later I was told that three other producers had done the same the day before, winning over the story editors from All Things Considered and This American Life. Talk about “Win/ Win.”

You can listen to the audio from these pitch sessions here.

Particularly invigorating was the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “listening session” that AIR convened for first-time Third Coast attendee Bruce Theriault (CPB’s Sr. VP of Radio), Kathy Merritt (Director of Program Investments at CPB) and AIR’s New Voices scholars.    

The purpose of the meeting was to provide a forum in which those who grant public money (CPB) could hear firsthand from emerging independent producers about their work, why they do it, and what it takes to get it done. The 24 New Voices scholars range in age from 14-65 and bring a wide diversity of personal and cultural experiences to the projects they create.  They hail from Alaska, Nebraska, California, Virginia, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, DC, North Carolina, and Oregon.

The session was characterized by unusual openness, honesty, passion, insight and intelligence as Sue Schardt deftly facilitated this 90-minute conversation in which the subject matter ranged from the difficulties of supporting a family as an independent radio producer to the need for substantive internships to how public radio is perceived in different communities. I think a rare and valuable opportunity for all.

Immediately before the listening session, Sue talked to the entire conference in back-to-back lunch sessions about what AIR has in the works – including the second round of MQ2 (more on that later). She also introduced Bruce Theriault to the hundreds of producers in attendance at which time he voiced his strong commitment to independent radio producers and their work.

And what would a festival be without an awards ceremony? AIR Members Shea Shackelford and Virginia Millington won the Best Documentary Bronze for This Can Go On Forever, their amazingly moving piece about a mother and son who meet eighteen years after she gave him away for adoption.  

Also memorable were Mary Beth Kirchner’s Capturing the Brief Life and Death of an Infant (Documentary Honorable Mention), and Adam Burke’s Sucked into the Tunnels of Vegas – great use of sound to take the listener into the dark tunnels beneath Vegas’ luxurious hotels to meet the many homeless residents who live there.  

From the audio clip I heard of the Best Documentary Gold prizewinner, Laurence Grissell’s An Interior Life, it sounds like a quiet stunner. A meditation on love, loss, and loneliness, the entire piece is recorded in the London apartment of an 86-year-old gay man who has been alone since the death of his longtime partner.

Special recognition goes to my old colleague Joe Richman (he was an intern back when I was an assistant editor on a landmark PBS series called Eyes On the Prize back in the 80’s). Joe and his producing partner Samara Freemark won the Best Documentary Silver Award for Willie McGhee and the Traveling Electric Chair, their piece about black man convicted of raping a white woman in 1950’s Mississippi and his granddaughter’s 2009 search to find out the truth about his guilt or innocence. Riveting!

Speaking of special recognition – – “Big ups” to Gene and Georgetti’s Steak House on North Franklin. Real old school; red meat, red upholstered booths, old guys with moustaches and big meaty hands taking your order, that steak was as big as my whole plate!

Like they say, you always remember your first time. Here are a few images that will help me remember mine. My first time at Third Coast, that is.

(Photos L – R, Clockwise: The conference begins; AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt in the thick of it; Producer Laura Starecheski anchors a panel; A quiet moment at the AIR table; Me, and PRX’s Andrew Kuklewicz; AIR Talent Strategist Julie Drizin on to the next session; AIR Membership Director Erin Mishkin lays down the law; This must be the place; Lunch; New Voices Scholar Selina Musuta; Sue Schardt with New Voices Scholars; Listen; AIR really was everywhere; “Is that your phone or mine?”; What’s next?)