AUSTIN — Early next year, the airwaves here will crackle to life with a new public-radio show that’s at once familiar and novel: the first daily, one-hour news magazine produced for, about, and from the Lone Star State.
Texas Standard aims to be the Morning Edition or All Things Considered of America’s second most populous state, home to four of its biggest and fastest-growing cities. A small crew in downtown Austin, along with partner stations and news organizations both in the capital city and around the state, will set out to produce a combination of news, enterprise, and richly woven radio tales. The challenge: Not just to keep up with the news discussion but to help drive it forward, while bringing a shared sensibility to a state population that numbers nearly 27 million, in media markets often separated by hundreds of miles.
Texas Standard will be produced at KUT, Austin’s public radio station, and by all accounts it is the brainchild of Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager. The husband-and-wife team of David Brown and Emily Donahue will be the host and executive producer, respectively. They bring years of experience to the job. Brown was the host of Marketplace, the daily business show produced in Los Angeles that often follows All Things Considered, before coming to Austin in 2005. Donahue, who also worked at Marketplace, launched KUT’s news department in 2001 and is the station’s news director.
But the show is also, in Vanderwilt’s words, “an unprecedented collaboration.” Donahue is hiring a team of editors and producers, but Texas Standard won’t have its own reporters until perhaps next year. Reporters at partner stations around the state, which have been investing in their own production capacity—KUHF in Houston, KERA in Dallas, and San Antonio’s Texas Public Radio, as well as KUT—will help gather the news. The show’s partners also include the Texas Tribune, Texas Monthly, and The Dallas Morning News.
That reporting and storytelling will, in turn, be broadcast around the state, available to public stations from the big cities of Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston to tiny stations in Marfa. In mid-January, the show will go live, weekly, in Austin, reaching as many as 250,000 people on KUT. It will move to daily programming in February. And it will make its statewide debut on Texas Independence Day, March 2. The show will also air beyond the state line: A station in Arkansas and one in Oklahoma have picked it up; so has Public Radio International.
So what will the All Things Considered of Texas sound like? In a series of weekly trial programs, produced over the last couple months and available online, like this: a mix of Texas politics and policy; a discussion of “riot anxiety” and the unrest in the Ferguson, MO; an examination of Mexico’s student massacres, with help from the Morning News’ Mexico City bureau, that asks whether the atrocity could launch that country’s “Arab Spring”; a discourse on Texas twangs; a look at the next legislature; and segments on the Camp David Accords of 1978, various books and authors, and the risks to consumers of mobile wallets. (Full disclosure: An early show also included an on-air essay on the state’s politics recorded by yours truly.)
The editorial mission is not just to chronicle events within the state’s borders, but to find the Texas angle or perspective in big stories, and to discover Texas stories with resonance. “We’re increasingly a part of the national and global community,” says Vanderwilt. The station has raised about $800,000 for the show, he told me recently. As he and colleagues at other public radio stations in Texas continue to raise money they are focusing on statewide sponsorship, with no guarantees to cover particular issues or topics.
It’s an ambitious plan, mirrored by a rule about production quality: no phone interviews. Listeners can think that low-audio-quality call-ins are just talk radio, Brown says—not what he’s aiming for, because “the bar is put so much higher.”
Jack Mitchell, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, is a founding employee and the first producer of All Things Considered, which makes him something of an authority on news magazines. “What they have to do is find something inherently interesting other than it happened in the state,” he says of statewide programs. As for whether Texas Standard should err on the side of more straight news as it strikes its editorial balance? Says Mitchell: “They shouldn’t.”
It seems likely that to succeed with listeners, the show will need to master the art of the enterprise story, the piece that advances knowledge of a topical subject or issue without either recounting the day’s press conference or requiring a year-long investigation. Doing those stories day in and day out requires thinking ahead, front-end editing, a lot of work in a fairly short amount of time—and throwing a lot of easier stories on to the slush pile.
Brown concedes that some things will have to give into the pressures of daily deadlines. The ban on phone interviews might even be one, so KUT has put some money into a smartphone application that captures better sound quality than a cell phone and transmits over wifi.
Telling stories that are topical and yet revealing and rich is the “tough nut to crack,” he concedes. “But what we’re most afraid of is being boring.”