Let’s Put on a Radio Show

If you appreciate the kind of brainy, off-the-wall radio that hardly even exists, you’ll be happy to hear about this new show. It doesn’t actually exist either, but at least it’s an idea; and the best thing about this idea is who has it: cartoonist Lynda Barry and Ira Glass and Gary Covino of National Public Radio’s Chicago bureau.

“We would just go in and do whatever we wanted,” Glass tells us. “Play some music. Talk. Gary does his type of live thing. Lynda reads her stories and talks about stuff.”

“We’re going to make sassy comments about things,” Barry guaranteed.

No doubt you’re familiar with the mind of Lynda Barry. If you listen to WBEZ at all attentively, you know Glass and Covino, too. “I do these reports where I kind of hang out with people and try to capture what their lives are like on tape,” says Glass. “Like last year I spent a month and a half at Lincoln Park High School.”

Covino is into what he calls “free-form radio.” Last spring, WBEZ had a hole in its morning schedule (host Carolyn Grisko had jumped to City Hall), and Covino came in and plugged it for a week–a week he christened “WBEZ held hostage.” “I did a nostalgia-for-the-cold-war show,” he remembers. “And two shows with Ira at the Alienation Cafe. Basically, we were sitting there talking about what was going on in the world, in a strange way. Is the New York Times airbrushing the spots on Gorbachev’s head? Why? Someone on the ‘BEZ staff pretended to be a waiter at the Alienation Cafe who wouldn’t serve us.”

We asked program director Ken Davis to grade Covino’s performance. “He was doing something very different which I would hesitate to attempt to describe,” said Davis. Much reaction? we asked. Heavy, said Davis. “Ranging from people who thought he was a genius to people who swore they’d never listen again.”

A bittersweet observation is in order. Glass, Covino, and Barry all left their mark on Heat, NPR’s valiant late-night failure that went on the air last March and leaves it October 26. Glass and Covino were loaned to New York early on to help put the woefully underfinanced and understaffed new show on its feet. Barry became a Wednesday-night regular.

“I loved being on that show,” she told us. “The night I was on with George Foreman, I was flying, man! George Foreman was reading some poems he wrote because he was on the week before with Joyce Carol Oates and decided he could write poetry . . . ”

The world wasn’t ready for Heat. The public didn’t flock to it, underwriters didn’t support it, and few public radio stations even bothered to carry it. So it’s important to understand that Gary Covino, for one, considers Heat far more staid than the new radio show hatching in his head. “I think what Heat turned into fairly quickly was another interview program,” he said. “A more adventurous interview program, certainly. The most adventurous show on NPR. But still, another interview program.”

Whatever Heat was or wasn’t, public radio learned a lesson from it: the next time risks are run they will have to be run locally. Let the stations sort out all the crazy ideas that just might work but don’t from the one that does; if a solid new program turns up, in the fullness of time it’ll follow in the footsteps of Prairie Home Companion and Whad’ya Know? and go national.

So it is pretty to visualize the Glass-Covino-Barry project as a plucky green tendril rising from the ashes of Heat. And then the question must be put: when does this show go local? “We’ve been a little slow about this, a little disorganized about it,” Covino allows, “but if ‘BEZ turned around and said “Here’s 90 minutes of airtime a week. Do it!’ we’re ready.”

We can understand it if ‘BEZ is reluctant to accept this declaration at face value. As it happens, Lynda Barry is off to New York in January to work on a production of her play The Good Times Are Killing Me; she could be gone for months. NPR might send Gary Covino to New York next week; “If so, I could be there a month or the rest of my life,” he says.

Despite good intentions all around, Ken Davis has yet to get together with Glass, Covino, and Barry for a single conversation about this vision of theirs (although they have discussed it with daytime program director Linda Paul). In the absence of more substantive communication, they can only guess at ‘BEZ’s enthusiasm. “It’s a place of mystery,” says Barry. “But from what I hear the tom-toms say, there’s definitely interest.”

If any program director at any public radio station in America has what it takes to roll the dice, it’s Ken Davis. Davis had Heat on the air in Chicago from day one (when it couldn’t be heard in New York, or in Washington either), and he kept it there from 10 PM to midnight even though jazz fans were furious. “We were dug in for the long term,” he says. “Our overnight audience went practically down to zero. We figured this would be a year and a half of audience loss that would gradually come back and eventually be bigger than what we had.”

Yet Lynda Barry may have misheard the tom-toms. “It’s not even a gleam in anybody’s eye at the station,” Davis advised us. “I’ll tell you right now there’s not one dollar allocated for it in this miserable budget we’re working with. We’ve agreed not to go out and find funding for new projects when we can’t fund what’s already on the air.”

Why Heat went belly up . . .

Fecklessness. Heat was available to more than 300 public radio stations across the country. About four dozen of them carried it. “Station managers are very conservative,” says Gary Covino. “They weren’t going to say, ‘OK, here’s an offbeat new show. We’ll run it and see what it is.’ They want to be sure it’s going to be a hit with a big audience right away and not offend too many people.”

The price tag. Murray Street Enterprise, the New York City studio that created Heat, had pretended to itself and NPR that the first year of the show would cost $900,000. Then reality set in. Its projected budget for year two was $1.4 to $1.7 million. After testing the philanthropic waters, NPR saw no way of raising more than half that much. Keeping Heat on the air, says Murray Horwitz, NPR’s director of cultural programming, would have meant squandering “all of our resources of cultural programming.”

The vision thing. Host John Hockenberry thinks NPR should go back to its roots and woo underwriters with its aspirations, not its demographics.”I think NPR has to be back in the business of selling programs and not selling its audience,” he told us. “It’s anchored to two drive-time shows, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. If they are there simply because of a certain number of people who don’t want to listen to commercials, that’s not a vision and I’m sorry.”

The audience. Heat was very expensive. Yet it was a show that very few stations carried, and it was on the air at a time when most people have gone to bed.

Bad luck. Steve Rathe, the executive producer of Heat, told us that a major foundation wanted to give Heat serious money; instead, its board voted to get out of media funding altogether. A major corporation was urged by its ad agency to become an underwriter; instead, the corporation fired the ad agency.

The night of August 6. On this date in 1945, Hiroshima was bombed. In commemoration, Hockenberry writes an essay, a book of Japanese poetry is found, a scientist from Los Alamos agrees to come on. Hiroshima winds up the theme of the entire first hour of the show.

“Every night we had to do something,” explains John Hockenberry. “We either sounded intelligent or we sounded stupid. As long as we were willing to take the gamble at the beginning of every show to sound intelligent or sound stupid, listeners went along with it.”

The faithful audience understood the terms. Even when a show failed it failed for the right reason–because Heat rolled the dice. Tomorrow’s show might be wonderful.

The Hiroshima show fails. Hiroshima claims more time than there is material to fill the time with. And what’s worse, the climax, the moment that, as Hockenberry says, fulfills “the feeling of expectation that sweeps you along,” never arrives. “The scientist guy ruined everything,” says Hockenberry. “The guy was a dud. The guy was a complete dud.” He didn’t understand that his role on the show was to put an aesthetic experience over the top. “He’d been listening to the show up till then–all those Japanese voices. He was worried we were trying to paint him as a killer of Japanese people. He feared we’d trick him into saying something.”

Of course, tomorrow is another day. The faithful audience knows that. But does tonight’s important visitor? For tonight, monitoring the show at Murray Street, was Rick Madden, director of the radio program fund of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Madden controls $4 million in grants. Three times, when Heat was just a proposal, CPB had refused to fund it. Now that the show was on the air everyone was hoping CPB would finally reach into its pockets. Madden came by because Heat is not carried in Washington and he wanted to get a feel for the program. When he disappeared into the night, unimpressed, Rathe had the desperate sense of half a million dollars vanishing with him. A few days later, Rathe and NPR agreed to pull the plug.

Around Heat in these final days the night of August 6 is steeped in tragic meaning. We talked to Madden about it. In his mind, the problem with the Hiroshima show was what he called its “distracted feeling”–Iraq had just invaded Kuwait and it was hard for anyone to focus on something that happened 45 years ago.

Did that show ruin Heat for CPB? we asked him. Of course not, Madden said. “It would be unethical to render a judgment based on one hour. . . . That’s a lousy way to do business.”

The problem with public radio, he explained, is that “there’s always too many ideas chasing too few dollars”; but he looked on the bright side. “We should celebrate that Heat was attempted and sustained eight months.” A commercial show with all Heat’s problems, Madden thinks, would have been yanked in three weeks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.