I spent a couple of hours last night at Minnesota Public Radio’s UBS Auditorium, the huge top of the MPR’s Taj MaKling, their immense downtown Saint Paul headquarters.
I was a guest on “In The Loop“, a newish MPR public affairs program hosted by Jeff Horwich. Word had gotten to Horwich that I was a conservative who was interested in the whole topic of the planned protests at next year’s GOP National Convention.
More on that later.
As I’ve written in the past, once you get past the whole “public” nature of Public Radio – the fact that taxes go to support what is in essence a medium catering to a specific socio-political niche – there is actually some excellent stuff out there. And “In The Loop” is certainly an interesting experiment. I’ll give the Loop crew this; file away your “Delicious Dish”/Terry Gross “Good Times/Good Times” stereotypes. It’s a fun, fast-paced, eclectic show, recorded live in front of a studio audience (and edited for time and to cut out flubs – it is public radio, after all). Horwich, a talented, personable guy (at from my first impression, as a guest) is a good interviewer. And he seems to have done a good job, tonight at least, of seeking some sort of balance in stacking the show. The show takes an hour (more like 90 minutes before editing) and talks about an issue – in this case, activism from the very personal to the very public (which was where I came in).
Again – more on that later.
After almost thirty years, off and on (mostly off) of working in radio stations that were tucked above drug stores and into transmitter sheds, MPR is something else; big, clean, Scandinavian, expansive, an equipment geek’s dream. The UBS Auditorium feels like a lecture hall at a well-endowed university, with theatrical lighting, badonkadonk acoustics, and a gorgeous north (?) facing view of downtown Saint Paul.
The culture shock continued when I saw the way the show ran. Where commercial talk show involves a host or two, a board operator, and maybe a call screener (and on major-league talk shows like Limbaugh they might add a person or two to do on-the-fly research), a National/Minnesota Public Radio show involves a crew that, to my commercial-radio tastes, looks more like the crew for a good-sized TV production.
The show included the host, at least four producers (one of whom acted as a combination stage manager and technical director, calling instructions to the booth staff into a wireless mic as he maneuvered about the floor), at least three engineers that I could see (two or in the large booth at the back of the room running the recording, the lights and the Powerpoint slides that ran behind the interstitial recorded bits, plus one running the house sound from a big mixer back to the audience’s left). The show’s closing credits ran on a long time, listing close to a dozen people. Plus the band.
To produce a one-hour, monthly show.
Not criticizing. Just saying – to my frugal, commercial-radio-raised tastes, it was like being in a foreign country.
The first guest was songwriter Larry Long, a local folkie in the Pete Seeger mold – musically and politically – who played a couple of songs. A local “storyteller” read a couple of poems. “The Smarts”, a three-guy jazz combo, provided some occasional hilarious bumper music (a jazzy version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after…well, we’ll get to that).
There were some recorded segments of interviews with people discovering activism and protest in various ways.
And then it was my turn.
I was on a panel with a cute-as-a-bug twentysomething named Erica, from some anti-war organization (the name sounded similar enough to every other anti-war group out there that I involuntarily started replaying the “People’s Front of Judea” sketch in my head).
Her line; she and her fellow protesters want to show the “ruling class” in this county – the one coming to the GOP convention – what anger was all about. They want to block freeways, raise havoc – in her words, they want to break up the convention, in as many words.
Y’know – to teach Republicans a lesson about democracy. The message seemed to be “My ends justify my means!”, delivered in a perky chirp with just a tinge of Valleygirl.
I tried to respond. Horwich split the time – under ten minutes – pretty evenly. Which, being as used to co-hosting a two hours show as I am, was very, very difficult!
I was nearly a loss as to how to respond. The ruling class? Does my boss know this? At any rate, it was hard to find a way to engage her; she seemed to believe her feelings about the President trumped everyone else’s right to participate in a democracy – a point I tried to make several times. Between the fact that Horwich kept the interview zipping along (it’s a live show, after all) and the fact that, like most anti-war protesters, “Erica” would zip away from topics when cornered like a greased rhetorical pig made me pine for my nice, long-form talk-radio interview format.
Still, check it out; it’ll be on at 9PM tonight, and 6PM Sunday on your area MPR affiliate or online.
While Erika slipped away without a word to me, Larry Long and the whole MPR crew were exceptionally gracious; any thoughts of being trapped in the belly of a left-of-center beast were…well, not untrue, but whether you chalk it up to good manners, love of a good debate, or professional polish, everyone I met – Horwich, his producers, the show staff, and the other MPR staff present – was way beyond civil, and downright friendly.
Leaving philosophical problems with taxpayer-funded media aside (let’s face it, MPR could most likely support itself), In the Loop is an interesting experiment – think of it as a live This Minnesota Life with an audience. At any rate, it’s well worth a listen.