While the idea of all-arts talk radio, modeled on sports talk radio, may strike one upon first thought as rather absurd, I think my friend Pia Catton is really on to something in her enthusiastic pitches for just such a thing both this week and last week in her “Culture City” column at The Wall Street Journal.
Frankly, whether it’s sports, politics or, for that matter, car repair, we’ve been shown time and time again that there are people who are drawn to listen to, and participate in, audio conversations for hours on end. NPR’s Car Talk managed to attract listeners who didn’t even own cars, because the program was simply so entertaining. Now, while the Magliozzi brothers weren’t on a 24-hour car talk network (they had to make room for things like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and All Things Considered), their 30 year run is a testament to the idea that good talk makes for compelling listening, no matter what the subject.
So even as yet another arts television network heads towards rocky shoals (Ovation just lost the significant access to the pool of Time Warner Cable subscribers), maybe it’s time to realize that arts TV may be too expensive to sustain. But talking is considerably cheaper to produce, even when done truly well, and if Twitter, Facebook, chat rooms and the like are any evidence, there’s an audience for talking about the arts.
Certainly one fear is that it would quickly devolve into debates about which recording of La Boheme is best, or whose Mama Rose was definitive. I wouldn’t have much patience with such circular argument. But shrewd hosts could prevent repetitive (and insoluble) contretemps in favor of variety, and daily topics and special guests could focus the discourse. This is a little trick known as producing, and while it seems invisible when it comes to talk radio, it’s essential. They’re rarely just turning on a mike and letting some personality do whatever they want, which explains why Keith Olbermann keeps getting fired – he doesn’t want to be produced, but let free to roam wherever he sees fit and get paid for it.
One hurdle to be conquered by arts talk radio is the hyperlocal nature of the performing arts. While the entire country can share movies, recorded music and books, even the most successful Broadway show might be seen by say 500,000 people in a year, meaning that if an arts show is national, you may have trouble finding enough people who have seen any given piece to fuel a great conversation. Though there may be original sports talk radio in many markets, I suspect it corresponds with those markets which have major league teams, even though thanks to broadcast, cable, satellite and the web, sports are accessible across the country as never before.
Because of Pia’s ambition, I’m not prepared to theorize about arts talk radio that only serves New York, Chicago and London even at the start; its greatest service to the arts would be if it was national or international, connecting often disparate arts communities into a single conversation. Where I would moderate her vision is length. A daily show or weekend programming block would be a good place to start and test things out, without round-the-clock pressure and expense.
Another staple of most talk radio is opinion, which can fall somewhere between loud argument over the holiday dinner table and outright character assassination. That worries me. I would have trouble listening to people, whether host or caller, tearing down any artist, even when I agree that their work is negligible. That, of course, is because I come from inside the field. Perhaps, just as with many people’s reactions to the Bros on Broadway on Theatremania, it’s the reflex of the dedicated arts aficionado, protecting the artists and the art, and if arts talk radio is to attract an audience beyond the already-converted, maybe some feelings will have to get hurt, beyond bad reviews.
A number of years ago, I read a fascinating speech given at an arts journalism conference in which the speaker/writer said that if the performing arts want more coverage, more attention and perhaps more acceptance, they need to – to use the sports analogy – let the arts media into the locker room. We are, as a rule, profoundly careful about access to artists and process, so we should be surprised if our coverage is limited to one feature story and one review per outlet. While post-game interviews and sports press conferences are remarkable for their ability to say very little, they create the veneer of connection; if they didn’t, they’d have been axed by editors and producers long ago. Even in film, there are both prepackaged behind the scenes featurettes and set-visits for select outlets, whether high-brow (Vanity Fair) or low (Access Hollywood and the like). Maybe arts talk radio can open up those avenues.
Yes, social media has been used creatively by some celebrities to build the bond with their fans, but most theatre folk don’t manage to reach a critical mass or approach social media all that creatively (on Twitter, Lin-Manuel Miranda offers a great template for artist-fan interaction). They need a platform that goes beyond their own efforts.
Would I have called into arts talk radio when I was 20? Probably so often that I’d have gotten a nickname and become a recurring voice (or gag). Would I do it now? Probably only to play a similar role to that which I play on Twitter: fact-checker, conversation starter, and mild wit. Of course, at this stage, after seven years helming “Downstage Center,” I’d apply for a hosting job in a flash. Frankly, I think Pia and I would make a great duo. And with Car Talk off the air, maybe an arts talk call-in show is just what’s needed. Hmmm.
So I’ve gotta go. Need to find the number for the heads of programming for some radio outlets. NPR, WNYC, WBEZ and WGBH, you’re on the top of the list. Go arts, go arts, gooooo arts!