Fast Talk: Testing the Edge

Public Radio International's Alisa Miller on the quest for weirdness.

Alisa Miller

President and CEO, Public Radio International
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Miller, 37, a University of Chicago MBA and former Sesame Street honcho, took charge last year at Public Radio International, which produces and distributes content such as This American Life and the BBC World Service to 745 public radio stations and 32 million listeners a week. Here, she discusses the need to push at the edge and how PRI does that.

"Our competition includes not just public radio, but generally media, Web sites, everything focused on news and entertainment. So we have to ask two questions. First, how do our programs serve our mission, helping people understand that they live in an interdependent world? And second, how can we manifest that in a way that's unique?

To do that, I have to be 12 to 18 months ahead of everyone else.

Part of that means being partnership-oriented. We don't think we're the 50 smartest people in the world. But we are smart people who can reach out to people who are amazing in their own right, and then leverage their resources. Like the BBC and our partner stations.

And part of it is about sheer invention. We joke, 'If it sounds weird, we're all over it.' But about 18 months ago, we started looking at evenings, thinking we could do more to reach the thirtysomething audience. Public radio has not had a contemporary look at humor as a way to understand the day's events. We started thinking about a show like that, which turned into Fair Game.

With this sort of program, the cast of characters is incredibly important. So Kerrie Hillman, the executive producer, began reaching out to potential talent. She started with comedian referrals, and then we looked at MySpace, YouTube, a lot of Web research. We ended up with more than 100 people who could be serious potential hosts or characters. We went to a lot of comedy clubs and places to check out talent; there were some pretty interesting expense reports. But we found people who mostly weren't showing up regularly on public radio--and one of them was the host we eventually hired, [actress] Faith Salie. That's what you really have to be willing to do--reach outside yourself."

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