We got to sit down recently and talk to the Peabody Award winning chica Alison Stewart, the former MSNB reporter and host, now hired for the Bryant Park Project to co-host with Luke Burbank.
It's NPR's brave new morning show still in the rough, but scheduled to be up and running Oct. 1.
Stewart, 41, won a coveted Peabody Award for her pioneering MTV coverage of the 1992 Presidential election. (as opposed to Billo Reilly who tells women he has a Peabody when he wants to distract them from his turkey neck)
She's been a reporter and anchor at ABC, CBS, and MSNBC, before turning the heads of network suits as host of her own noontime news show, The Most. (She particularly turned the head of one MSNBC suit: Bill Wolff, MSNBC Vice President of P rogramming whom she married last year. He's the funny guy who fills in for Willy Geist on Tucker sometimes).
The Most was lite and funny, and studded with viral Internet video, but Stewart's interviews could be counted upon to be insightful, direct and smart. Her fill-ins for Keith Olbermann have cemented her into progressive psyches.
With all these TV bona fides why in the hell would she go to radio? Who would seemingly go backward down the technological ladder? Risky, no?
"I didn't see this as a risk," she said, "I saw it more as an opportunity." I love to make things, build stuff. I made my own doll clothes, built the doll house for my dolls. And in my career, the happiest times for me have been when I've been involved making something."
She helped build MTV's ground-breaking political coverage. "I was one of the first producers to do that stuff." She helped create The Most, a new concept in news. "The idea of being able to make a new show, really set off bells for me."
The Bryant Park Project (or B double P which just may end up being the name of the show) will be multi-media with podcasting and videos of stories and real time connections and linking to NPR.org. It's ostensibly aimed at the 25-44 demographic, but Stewart says, "It's not so much about the age- it's really more about the type of person.
They're shooting for The Daily Show audience. Stewart: "My 20-year-old niece loves it, so does my 70-year-old dad. I've made that very clear up and down the food chain here- we can't think about it in terms of age, we have to think about it in terms of sensibilities."
It's to be conversational, personalized, spontaneous, and vivid. No longwinded back-grounders, no droning esoterica like we've come to love from NPR, "We thought about what kind of show we'd want to listen to, then said, let's make that show."
She bristled at our suggestion that young people aren't paying attention to the news, or listening to much radio (we'd read the polls, seen the data).
"People who are 30-35- those people have mortgages, kids, ailing parents," Stewart says, "it's not like they're out snowboarding every weekend. They're people with serious issues.
"Maybe I know a select bunch of 20-year olds because I work in the news business. But I want to defend people who don't necessarily take their news in the traditional way. I feel they need their own news sources."
They're looking to new frames for the same news covered by the multiple formats available to everyone these days. How to make it attractive to those who've been turned off by the old forms, or simply haven't consumed news in the first place.
"I'm just coming from 24 hr. news, so I'm asking: does there need to be a 5 minute Iraq segment every single day? What we came to decide was: we'll do it at the end of the week and really put everything in context. Obviously, Iraq is a big story right now, and of course we'll cover big breaking news- but if you do it every day in little pieces it's hard to understand the whole."
They're working this out in a piloting process. The first pilot, is on their NPR blogsite; listen to it here.
(What a concept: piloting a brand new show on-line, free to anyone to hear and comment upon- so different than the secretive, stultified, hemorrhoidal, commercial radio whose aging audience is waning due to attrition, and attracting no younger audience for lack of innovation).
In the pilot, they did a little piece on Paris Hilton (In case you've been in a coma, or Tacoma, she's a rich girl, apparently, who doesn't wear underwear, and got put in jail for something, and then got out). Stewart apparently lost the argument whether to include the Paris Hilton "news." What we liked was that she and Burbank aired the argument, giving raise to the unavoidable questions about "What's news?" and "who cares what happens to Paris Hilton?"
(Commenters, who were pretty supportive of the effort as a whole, hated this part more than anything in the hour long pilot, siding with Stewart).
There's a feetch Luke Burbank did with matching video about some 80-year-olds riding the 80-year-old Cyclone, the legendary roller coaster at Coney Island.
The conversational analysis and banter is interspersed with newsreads from the NPR newsroom which has an irritating electro back beat. (commenters complained about this a lot too).
How does she like working with Luke Burbank, the Seattle native, former KUOW, KVI producer, and Metro Traffic virtuoso who co-hosts with her?
"Luke is a great guy. He's had such an interesting life. Our life experiences are completely opposite. Our professional experiences are completely different. He cracks me up regularly. I think we're going to really challenge each other."