Guest Interview

From The Transom Review, Volume 7/Issue 3, November 2nd, 2007 | (Edited by Sydney Lewis)

Intro from Jay Allison

Looking at the photograph of Jim Russell on Transom, you’ll note that one side of his mouth turns up and the other side down. This may reflect the attitude necessary to make a life in public radio. Jim has done pretty much everything… produced All Things Considered, substantially created Marketplace and Weekend America, and the concept for The World. He has recently become an independent consultant. Now, on Transom you can avail yourself of Jim’s advice for free! Perhapsyou’d like to start your own public radio show? In Part One of his Manifesto, Jim will tell you the questions you should ask before you do. In Part Two of his Manifesto, Jim provides the one thing that most would-be Executive Producers ask for most. A budget. And how to write one. Jim lists all imaginable line items, plus contingencies and overhead. So sharpen your red pencil and start budgeting. This is a great chance to prepare for the big time in public radio, such as it is.

Developing New Programs

Inventing a Program

For a producer, inventing a program — creating the concept and then being able to make it happen — is an amazingly fun and fulfilling thing to do. It is also incredibly hard: frightening because it is so easy to fail and so difficult to persuade anybody that you can do it and that it will work. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Tipping Pointand Blink captured the fear well when he wrote that we’ve trained ourselves to expect dazzling new ideas, “But if you’re the one responsible for those bright new ideas there is no such certainty. You come up with one great idea, and the process is so miraculous that all you do is puzzle over how on earth you ever did it, and worry whether you’ll ever be able to do it again.”
Jim at War

Andy Warhol used to say we’d all be famous for fifteen minutes. Now, I think, you only get 15 minutes to become famous … 15 minutes to go from zero to full success before people start saying “You have failed.” What surprises me is that no matter how many times you have done it, successfully, you begin from scratch each time.

People wonder if program creation is an art or a science. Is it inspiration or research? Is it a mission or a business? I think the answer to all of these is, “Yes.” Great programs of course need the creative spark that comes from imagination and artistic experience. But too often, these great ideas die on the vine because they do not have an organized, rational business plan — a way of evolving the program’s design that makes sense to all involved in creating and supporting them. In the end, the process can only succeed if the producer finds the perfect intersection of a brilliant idea — a compelling reason to produce the show, and a terrific plan to develop that idea into a sustainable program.

A good example of how “opportunity” can get out in front of program was the case of Weekend America. The research made it absolutely clear that public radio was experiencing a striking dip in listening in the middle of Saturdays. And also that there were over 100 single-subject, hour long programs being distributed nationally — a pattern of programming that appeared to create a kind of “jerky” unconnected listening experience for the audience. What was needed, we believed, was programming that provided a constant public radio magazine sound, but with a weekend sensibility. And if it could provide stations an easy way to insert local material, all the better. This was the opportunity.
The Program Doctor
But, where was the show? What was it about? What was its center? What did it do uniquely well? What was its consistent sound? Despite years of planning and piloting, in the early days of Weekend America, it was a huge burden to just get the two-hour live program on the air every week. To their credit, the staff persistently demanded a clearer, deeper definition of the program, but the distractions of producing the show, funding it, marketing it, defending it and keeping partners and stations as happy as possible — all of these delayed the program’s full conceptual definition. In retrospect, it is clear that in the early days, the opportunity outpaced the program. The sad irony is that I could “hear” a very particular program in my head, loud and clear as a bell! But, because I was the Admiral commanding a fleet, I was not on deck frequently enough to do daily proselytizing of the staff, teaching and reminding them of what show they were producing. My friend and a really great Executive Producer, Car Talk and Wait, Wait’s Doug Berman says, “Understand that an idea is just an idea. You have a lot of work to do before you even know whether it’s going to be a show.”

Hopefully, Weekend America has gotten its second wind and, with it, clearer definition. This all becomes tangible when the task is crystal clear: write the program’s vision and mission and be able to state its concept in a simple, short “elevator speech” (30 seconds). And the lesson is clear too, if somewhat heretical. Shows can evolve their quality: Marketplace, Wait Wait, Car Talk, Morning Edition, and many more programs are much better shows today than at their start. But, you really do only have Andy Warhol’s “15-minutes” to get the show conceptstraight. You cannot successfully preach a confused sermon.

The Process

After I had worked on the creation and development of a great many shows, Minnesota Public Radio|American Public Media asked me to be its Senior V.P. of New Program Development. It was in this role that I began to start writing down the recurring steps that new program development takes. I really am not a big fan of process, not a “process geek.” But, I don’t like reinventing the wheel over and over again. So, I am not in love with process, but — plain and simple — it works.

The first time I used the process, it probably took six months to walk through the steps as we tested the process while using it. Shortly after I left MPR and hung out my own shingle as a consultant, I had the opportunity to try out the process on a new client. Radio Netherlands Worldwide had approached me to help them develop a new English-language weekly show. I spent a week in Hilversum at RNW’s offices, working with the staff. By the end of that week, we had developed the superstructure of the new show, The State We’re In, a weekly show monitoring human rights around the world. It was clear the process worked. Subsequent to that experience, a number of stations and other organizations have asked me to lead their staffs through what has become a 1 1/2 day “Intensive” version of the process. We did it for a new MPR program on cross-generational relationships, How’s the Family; a new public affairs show based in Washington, DC; the daily magazine show Lake Effect produced by WUWM, Milwaukee, and I just finished a similar session for Iowa Public Radio. In all of these cases, the process held up and worked very well, producing clarity of mission, vision, style and editorial direction, and an accurate portrait of the resources needed. Perhaps most importantly, it pinned down management’s expectations from the start, and intersected them with staff’s aspirations, so that the result would not be a total or unpleasant surprise to anyone.
Jim RussellI don’t mean to suggest that this process is a panacea for the woes of new program development. “NPD” is a tumultuous and very emotional activity; circumstances and morale swing wildly, and this is simply not a game for the faint of heart. But, after creating new programs a few times, most producers conclude that they need to organize their thinking so they don’t forget important steps (I’ve been part of too many 11th hour discoveries like “Do we have rights to the title?”) and devote their creative energy to inventing the program, not reinventing the process.