Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

An “Ol G” of News

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In my opinion, PRI’s “The Takeaway” is very near to its perfect form.  But it wasn’t always so.  The Takeway arose from the ashes of the Bryant Park Project, an effort in the early 2000s by National Public Radio to create and present a hip, fast paced morning talk show geared toward a younger audience.  BPP was groundbreaking in the way it tried to present its own avant-garde style of news.  But one person’s innovative is another person’s disjointed.  And NPR responded to BPP’s poor ratings by cancelling the program within a few short years of its debut.

The Takeaway, with co-hosts John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee quickly filled the void and came on strong with hard hitting, fast paced and topical news and feature programming.  It was a response to what public radio listeners wanted in conjunction with NPR’s flagship news program, “Morning Edition”. The Takeaway didn’t chase people away from their radios after Morning Edition as BPP had done.  But early Takeaway had different problems.

Namely, it rocketed through its segments with such speed listeners often didn’t have a chance to take in what they had just heard before they were hearing something new.  And although the two host format does add variety to the mix, it can also contribute to an already too fast pace by making listeners feel they are trying to follow a ping pong ball.  The news was good, the announcing was good, the format was good.

But now, it’s much better.  Hockenberry has taken over the announcing chair.  And in exchange for speed, the program is now “tight”.  Here’s the difference.  Any program that tries to smash too many stories into too little time or does too much experimenting with how it presents news can leave listeners under-informed and frustrated.  It can sound hurried, rushed and unsatisfying. And within that hurriedness there can be other problems.  Dead air, stories that don’t complete the storytelling arc and a flipness to reporting that can sound almost careless point not just to production problems but conceptual problems.

By contrast, calling a program “tight”, in production parlance, is high praise.  Tight means there is a flow between segments with transitions that make sense.  And it means those transitions are so seamless that you don’t notice them. It means the authority of the narration doesn’t talk down to you.  And it means that the mix of that narration, orchestrated with interviews, soundbytes, music and sound effects is credible.  Plus, The Takeaway’s partnerships with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston along with Mr. Hockenberry’s presentation give it a width and depth that is rare even within public radio.

Also, Hockenberry is ballsy.  He eschews labels and rolls up to the assumptions society is all to eager to swallow about itself.  He is pushy, relatively loud (by public radio standards) and, dare I say, sometimes indelicate.  That is what makes him so great.  He is, probably, the coolest old white public radio dude ever.  But, I’ll bet he knows that.

Faith Sailee, the original BPP host, along with Celeste Headlee, Mr. Hockenberry’s original co-host have both moved on.  Ms. Sailee is a fixture on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  And Ms. Headlee is an alternate host for Michelle Martin’s Tell Me More.  While I’m sure Mr. Hockenberry is not satisfied yet with The Takeaway, as a listener, I can see the program has traveled parsecs from where it started.  I am grateful for everything it went through and everyone who worked on it to get it there.

The term “old school” has become shorthand for the measure twice cut once mindset that typifies high quality work.  But sometimes, for some people, you have to go a little further. Back in the day, you called the best of the best an “Ol G“.  As I listen to The Takeaway, I am convinced Mr. Hockenberry has moved into the ranks of an Ol G.

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