Fourteen years ago, I did an interview with Bill Buzenberg when he took over Minnesota Public Radio’s news operation. The subject of the 9-11 a.m. “Midmorning,” came up, and I mentioned that the show too often featured the “social service provider of the week” – earnest guests who weren’t exactly in the news cycle. Buzenberg made it clear: “Midmorning” would get newsier.
Over the years, it did, especially right after Buzenberg brought on then-KARE11 political reporter Kerri Miller in 2004. To my ears, the show has gotten less urgent in recent years, as (for example) Miller’s literary proclivities can make Midmorning a less-visual version of C-SPAN’s “Booknotes.”
With my philistine credentials established, I’m tentatively pleased with the news that the new “Daily Circuit” will subsume “Midmorning” and the 11 a.m. hour of Gary Eichten’s “Midday,” beginning Feb. 21. Though the name is awkwardly generic — one click above “MPR NewsQ” — several overdue changes are afoot.
First, Daily Circuit won’t be locked into the guest-an-hour format that dominated the “mids.”
Says MPR general manager Tim Roesler, “As you’ve noticed, in Gary’s show and on Midmorning, the topic sometimes doesn’t really go where you want it to go. We want to treat the audience with respect; we hear the same things you do.”
Miller says the new show will feature “one in-depth interview an hour, 35 to 45 minutes. I feel like that’s our brand, people want it, that’s context, and we don’t want to lose that.”
At the same time, the show will be faster-paced, with more topics and topicality, more newsmakers, more reporter debriefs. (Conflict-of-interest note: Miller invited me to be a guest Friday in the 9 a.m. hour, which should be a stern test of this new paradigm.)
Second, MPR — which has greatly expanded its newsroom since Miller signed on — will actually include original reporting in the show. Tom Weber — until now MPR’s schools correspondent — will handle that. Weber will salt his reporting into his newscasts and, potentially, more in-depth stories.
“We want to follow the news cycle — absolutely,” Roesler says. “We haven’t totally broke something new on ‘Midmorning’ and ‘Midday’ — Gov. Ventura announcing he wasn’t running on Gary’s show, that might be the extent of the newsmaking. With Tom, we’ll run things first on ‘Daily Circuit.’”
With their growing newsroom, there’s really no reason for MPR to take their foot off the reporting pedal (aside from newscasts) for six hours between “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Anyone who reads MPR’s website knows they produce more news than fits into their current line-up. If Weber’s ascension extends the reporting bridge between morning and afternoon drive, that’s a very good thing.
Third, in grabbing Weber and “Movie Maven” Stephanie Curtis as social media impresario, the show gets younger and, potentially, looser. The stentorian Miller polarizes MPR listeners in a way no other host does; she can be an excellent interviewer — aggressive by the network’s standards — but many find her affected.
Anyone who’s listened to “Movie Maven” segments knows that’s not a problem for Curtis; she’s really one of the down-to-earth people at MPR who can laugh at herself, and even her workplace, while still upholding its values. Too often, the network’s “no rant, no slant” ethos drains correspondents of their personalities; there are plenty of opportunities for authentically fun people to remain authentically informative.
I don’t know Weber well, but he’s held in very high esteem around the shop and appears to “get it” about engaging audiences in new ways while still being a topical reporter.
Miller acknowledges her style hurdle. “I think you’ve got something there; it’s the balance between getting the answers and still be warm to the audience. Do I feel need to work on this? Yes. Is this the opportunity to work on this? Yes. We can have a little fun, be a little warmer” with Weber and Curtis to bounce off of.
She adds, “When I watched [former KARE11 anchor] Paul Magers do this, he had a nice balance, he knew his stuff and it showed, but he was warm and accessible on the air, not afraid to engage in fun, cross-talk.”
Like many new media ventures, “Daily Circuit” also promises more audience interaction.
Roesler says “Daily Circuit” will include “audience input stuff, tweeting, a Facebook page, as well as having a form-builder on the website, so you can just engage via the website if you want to. In the past, we might have taken a look [at Twitter, Facebook, etc.] after the show, or once in awhile during the show. Steph will be doing it minute-by-minute, feeding the newsroom. We’ll also do some exchanges off the air — the ‘always on’ that’s new to this field, so we can keep learning and sharing at, say, 3 p.m.”
Says Curtis, “We’ve never married social media to a news program. That’s all I’m going to do.”
Is this some sort of pell-mell rush for younger audiences, a la NPR’s late, barely lamented “Bryant Park Project”?
Roesler says the changes are “not going to shock. It’s less driven by a need for younger audiences than developing the next, best, talent. When you spot a really good talent like Tom is, you want to take advantage of it. Combining a new voice with Kerri and her success may yield a younger listenership, but we want to honor who’s listening. And we already have a very good chunk in the 18-34, 30-ish audience.”
Roesler says ultimately, “Daily Circuit” will “be in the news cycle, but not abandon literary and authors; there’s a really loyal audience who loves that. We want to make public service interesting and fun — we’ve done an OK job, but with the new format, we can be even better at that.”