Who will be the next Christopher Lydon , Ira Glass , or Terry Gross ? Starting Monday, a contest backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hopes to find out, auditioning entrants in the Public Radio Talent Quest, a kind of public radio "American Idol."
"We're sending a signal to the public that we want them to be involved," says Jake Shapiro , executive director of the Cambridge-based Public Radio Exchange, which is running the Talent Quest. In the search for the next great public radio host, says Shapiro, he and eight other judges will be looking for someone who is "compelling and engaging and interesting and curious." Added to these qualities, he says, they seek "some 'X' factor we're calling 'hostiness,' an indescribable magnetic draw."
To try their luck, host hopefuls are asked to submit a two-minute audio tape between Monday and May 14. This recording will be heard both by the judges and by the general public via the contest's website. (The rules and, in time, the entries themselves may be accessed at publicradioquest.com .)
Ten of these entrants will receive $500 and move on to the next step in a five-round process that will culminate in September with three finalists, who will each receive $10,000. In addition to the money prizes, these finalists will be paired with producers to create pilot shows, to be presented to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The corporation will then consider funding and producing one or more of the shows.
"The public can vote on every entry that comes in," says Shapiro. "We'll use that to rank the top vote getters. One slot in the first 10 will be purely on the public vote, the rest will be a mixture of . . . the top vote getters and the judging."
This isn't Shapiro's first attempt to open up the public airwaves. Since 2003, his nonprofit Public Radio Exchange has served as a clearinghouse for independent radio producers, a place where talent can offer shows to station programmers. The contest is also one of two initiatives approved by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting following a call last year for ideas to bring new voices into radio.
Already, such stations as WUMB-FM (91.9) have started promoting the contest and announced plans to air entries. "We're behind this initiative 100 percent," says WUMB general manager Pat Monteith . The station will offer studios to record entries on April 29 and May 1; see wumb.org for details. Other local stations, says Shapiro, have also expressed interest.
Public radio needs such outreach, says producer and contest judge Jay Allison . "A lot of us are aging out in public radio," says Allison, host of the public radio segment "This I Believe." "So I think it's key to pass on the baton. We really want to see that the idea [of public radio] survives."
"It's not necessarily just age," adds Shapiro. "A byproduct of [public radio's] success is that it's gotten more careful and it's lost some of its ability to take risks. Part of what is exciting about technology and new platforms is that there's much more opportunities to take risks."
He names options such as podcasting and HD stations as platforms for emerging talent. "We're at an interesting time of rethinking and more experimentation."