What makes Radio Times work?

Host Marty Moss-Coane talks about bringing national political issues to a local audience

DETROIT, MI — The first hour of the Aug. 20 installment of Radio Times, a long-running show on Philadelphia’s WHYY, was an exemplary bit of public-policy journalism. The segment’s hook was a local story: Barbara Mancini, a Philadelphia-area nurse, had been charged with homicide after giving her 93-year-old father a bottle of morphine. Her father was found by a hospice nurse and died later that week.

The details of the Mancini case were still foggy, but on WHYY’s airwaves, the discussion was clear. Host Marty Moss-Coane was joined by two experts—a University of Pennsylvania hospice physician and a law professor from Hamline University in Minnesota—for a conversation that put the story in context of assisted suicide policy and end-of-life care. Early in the hour, listeners learn about a Pennsylvania statute that criminally prohibits both causing a suicide and aiding a suicide. The host follows up by asking how policy in states where there is a legal process for assisted suicide—Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana—compares with Pennsylvania law. It’s not long before Moss-Coane is quoting an opinion by Sandra Day O’Conner, written for one of the Supreme Court rulings on assisted suicide, and inquiring about federal policy precedents.

The result was a fascinating conversation that moved in and out of an emotionally resonant story—but rather then sensationalizing it, a la “death panels” or Terri Schiavo, Radio Times crafted a rich and relevant show that illuminated both state and national policy issues. It was an example of what the show does uncommonly well, five days a week: nationalizing local stories and localizing national ones. And as it happens, Moss-Coane said later, this episode inspired particularly passionate feedback from listeners.

I recently spoke with Moss-Coane about how Radio Times tackles the challenge of connecting national policy shifts to the lives of listeners. What follows are the key lessons I culled from our conversation.

Merge national and local expertise

One of the simplest ways that Radio Times connects national and local policy issues is by bringing in diverse guests—often at the same time, in a panel format—that bring both national and local expertise. For example, a recent segment on climate change included two local experts—a Rutgers professor and a reporter for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger—as well as a senior editor of Time International with environmental expertise. A segment on geo-engineering featured both a Rutgers climatologist and Jeff Goodell, author of How to Cool the Planet. “I feel like, especially with interesting pairing, we can do strong national shows,” Moss-Coane said.

As a 26-year-old show—it launched to fill local hours after WHYY’s Fresh Air went national—Radio Times has developed a deep pool of local contacts that the show knows it can call on. “We’re not New York, or Washington DC. But we are Philadelphia!” Moss-Coane said. “We have universities, hospitals, nonprofits, museums, a great theater scene, local novelists… we’re also a region with longstanding activists. That’s all stuff we have to play with.”

The show’s ubiquity on the Delaware Valley airwaves means that “people want to come on even when things are rough,” she said—meaning, in this case, politicians and public officials.

But Radio Times has also built enough of a reputation for guests beyond its listening area—typically those bringing a national vantage on the news—are responsive to interview requests. “People know what NPR means, they know what WHYY means,” Moss-Coane said. And brand-new guests are vetted well: producers typically go online to find examples of their speeches or interviews before inviting them on.

Ask listeners what they want—but trust your judgment

Radio Times hears from listeners in a lot of ways—call-ins, emails, “the occasional mailed letter,” and, of course, its Facebook page, where Moss-Coane and producers ask listeners about what interest them.

What they hear could be discouraging to a program that devotes a lot of time to public affairs. “In many ways, maybe it’s just the temperature of the times or news, but there seems to be a lack of interest in politics,” Moss-Coane said. “Maybe it’s because there’s so much of it [in the media], but they’re sick of it. When we ask listeners on Facebook—does health care interest you? does the debt ceiling interest you?—they say no.”

Does that mean the right response for Radio Times is to ignore or diminish political issues? Nothing doing.

In some cases, the show is able to tackle broader political issues in a seemingly roundabout way—the assisted suicide show was very much about healthcare, for example.

“People want to talk about the issues they can’t talk about. Like death,” Moss-Coane said. In the assisted suicide show, the “calls just blew up. People want to talk about caring for their mom and dad in their final days. They shared these amazing stories.” (She added that “the anonymity of radio, the intimacy of radio” offers a powerful potential to connect with the public—inspiring people to share more than they might with, say, a newspaper reporter.)

Radio Times is responsive to listener suggestions—on Facebook, it’s asked for favorite cultural segments to edit into a “best of” rebroadcast, and it solicited questions Moss-Coane would ask during her interview with the Philadelphia schools superintendent.

But the show flexes its editorial muscle to ensure it’s making a meaningful contribution to national and local stories. Sexy or not, the show frequently circles back to local or state issues with national implications, like natural gas and fracking in the Marcellus shale. It’s zeroed in on very local stories about Philadelphia but also recently did a show debating intervention in Syria, because, Moss-Coane said, “we thought it was something important to talk about.

“As a local show that tackles national and international issues, we have a responsibility to listeners,” Moss-Coane said. “No other show I know of devotes an hour to something.” They mean to fill it well. Listeners may testify to a lack of enthusiasm for political stories, but Moss-Coane said that if it interests her and her producers, there are likely others who will be interested as well. Given the longevity of Radio Times, it appears she’s right—perhaps because of the show’s ability to make politics interesting.

Stick with it

Moss-Coane said she’s evolved as a host of Radio Times—her voice is lower than in early shows, she doesn’t get nervous anymore, and, perhaps most significantly, she’s developed “a deep fount of local knowledge, just from all the research and interviews” she’s done.

There’s no escaping the advantage that comes from sticking with it. The station’s consistent investment in the show over the years—it accounts for 500 hours of broadcast time each year—has paid off as the show improved. Not only has Moss-Coane been able to offer more over time, but, as described earlier, the show has built a reputation that allows it to bring in high-quality guests. It’s format—devoting a full hour to an issue, twice a day, five days a week—is also an unusually rich space for tricky policy conversations to transcend sound bites and gain real nuance.

But sticking with a story, and trusting your editorial judgment on a day-to-day basis, is also important. “Maybe we decide what to do next day,” Moss-Coane said, describing the planning progress. “By 3pm, oh gosh, it seems like its old news.”

The temptation is to scrap the plan and pick up on a more current trending news topic instead. But patience pays off.

“Having worked at the same place for, gosh, 30 years, when there were actual typewriters and smoking in the station, you see how the social media revolution has made the job so much easier and so much harder,” Moss-Coane said. Particularly with the show’s broad scope, she and producers can feel “jerked around from one topic to another.”

But, she said, “you have to have the confidence to say, okay, we don’t have to jump on everything every morning. It’s okay to take a day or two” before you tackle a subject.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , ,