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The "dreadful warning" of America


a few loose thoughts in search of a discussion

I was amused by Theo’s warning about what might happen if the glories of the European Feature tradition are let to slide into the “dreadful warning” of the American abyss: “stagnant, commercial-spewing, attention-span-conscious, listener-patronising”.

From my perspective, American radio simply reflects the harsh realities of an intensely competitive market place, where non-market subsidies are hard to come by. Programs need to demonstrate that they have vitality, sometimes created by a small, intense audience; more often, by a large fickle audience. Is that so dreadful?

I do not believe the core values of the Feature necessarily vanish in such a scenario, a scenario that may be increasingly inevitable in Europe, as subsidies dry up. In fact, with a bit of invention, and willingness to let go of certain self-images and ambitions, the Feature may even take on a fresh, exciting life in an environment that seems, at first sight, to be hostile.

It is a question of taking the SPIRIT of the feature into new formats, that are commercially established and familiar to the broad public, something I think of as similar to taking a humble work horse out for a gallop the wild meadows. Has the work horse not earned such a moment of freedom and exhilaration?

1. Talk Radio

The format is transparent --- a Voice Box (the “star”) at the center surrounded by a series of supplementary voices around the edges, fleshed out by a ciclre of networked call-ins from the wilderness zone of the Vast Anonymous Public.

In the right hands, the values of the feature can thrive: Provocation, reflection, humanity in all it’s muck and glory, emotion and thought transformed into bold, intricate stories.

All it takes is a change in attitude about what constitutes “production” (less author, more performance), and a willingness to reduce control over every minute of what happens.

An excellent example of creative possibilities: The Phil Hendrie Show. (a standard google search should yield some playable excerpts). In his case, Hendrie actually performs as a ventriloquist for the call-ins. Through humor and a subverted deployment of infospeak, he turns the hot issues of the day inside out, clearing the air and putting a fresh spin on the subject. Some of the most astonishing, fresh and moving moments I have ever heard on the air, in any country.

I could easily imagine Edwin or Lida or Anders or Brigitte putting together a Talk Show, conceived from a feature perspective, that would be 1. wildly successful in terms of audience and 2. fully embracing of our core values.

2. The Hosted Radio Cabaret

At past IFCs, we have often talked about the host as a kind of high level tour guide, a user-friendly presence who takes the listener gently by the hand and takes us through the lonely labyrinth of ideas and voices.

But there is another, less subtle kind of host: The Impressario.

In this style, the Host is a kind of toastmaster, ringmaster and carnival barker setting the tone for the evening of “acts”, and luring listeners into the sideshows and feature rings.

In the US, one recent relative success story in this genre has been This American Life, where stories of various idioms and styles are organized around Ira’s persona. Though some might say that the host persona (a sort of whiny nerd) gets a little “old”, and that the stories suffer from a somewhat constipated editorial vision, the FORMAT is a clear winner, with a solid base audience.

When Lorelei says “cheaper and shorter”, here is a way to bring the pieces together again: many short takes on a theme, held together by a persona/personality who seduces, provokes, challenges and soothes the assembled ears. The Feature Family is full of idiosyncratic, opinionated, charming and charismatic figures ---- readymade Hosts!


I’m not sure what Leo means, when he says, ominously: “you are the problem”. Maybe he is just dispensing punishment as a form of challenge, in his pater familias way.

It does come down to a question of self-identity, though:

the “old” featuremaker as the solitary, soulful, searching, questing author versus a new reality, that calls for different qualities.

Some will say: Whitehead has gone mad! Reduce the Art of Feature to Talk Radio, or some kind of cheap ENTERTAINMENT? Never. I am a serious journalist! A trained Author! A devoted craftsman!

So be it.

But if our objective is to stir the imaginations and hearts of listeners ---- then we must be willing to explore every possible means, even those that seem, from the OLD perspective, to be “stagnant, commercial-spewing, attention-span-conscious, listener-patronising” etcetera etcetera.

(In my own way --- small scale and from the margins ---- I have experimented with these forms, as some of you know, in broadcasts that have been successful enough to persuade me that yes, this can work. If offered the chance, I would gladly venture in more deeply.

For one thing, these formats put you in a much more active relationship to the listener, which can be alot of fun, and keeps you on edge, and in touch with a diverse audience. I’m still waiting for the million dollar contract. Tick tock.)

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