It's 11 A.M., four days into her new gig, and Adaora Udoji is already exhausted. "It sounded like such a good idea a year ago, to get your ass up at midnight," she says, laughing. "But it's for a great cause."
The cause for which Udoji and her cohost, John Hockenberry (both of whom are award-winning TV correspondents), are willing to upend their days is a radio program called The Takeaway. The upstart morning show is not only an audacious bid to take on NPR's Morning Edition, whose 12.9 million listeners make it the second-most-popular radio show in the country, after Rush Limbaugh's, but it is also an effort to tackle the challenge that keeps public-radio programmers up at night: how to engage with an audience that's migrating to cell-phone headlines and podcasts for its news.
To equip the show for this fight, Takeaway producers sought a secret weapon 3,000 miles away: Stanford University's d.school. "Design thinking can be applied to all nature of challenges," says George Kembel, the d.school's director. Kembel saw the opportunity to test his methods on something new—a media product—and the producers got tools that could help them come up with fresh ideas.
The first goal was to create a public-radio news program that replaces highly produced, carefully edited segments, such as those on Morning Edition, with something that feels a little more on the fly—open and conversational. New York's WNYC, which coproduces the show with Public Radio International (PRI), its distributor, drew its inspiration from the BBC Radio's popular 5 Live, a highly interactive alternative news broadcast in the U.K.
But executing on that concept began with a trip to California. In June 2007, 15 producers and executives from WNYC and PRI met with Kembel and d.school instructors in a ring of red sofas on the platform at Palo Alto's Caltrain station, a nod to the school's "user-centered experience" ethos. "The exercise got us thinking about how to remake mornings," says John Keefe, WNYC's news director. "So we're sitting at the train station during the morning commute, and all these people are rushing past. It was this beautiful moment." Not everyone was so blissed out at going back to school. "As a bunch of cynical New Yorkers, we thought, 'Oh, this is going to be great. How much humiliation are we in for?'" admits Dean Cappello, WNYC's chief creative officer.
A three-day crash course taught the producers the basic steps of d.school innovation: observe, brainstorm, prototype, and implement; repeat as necessary. When they went back to Manhattan, everything was up for debate. Instead of hiring from the usual pool of public-radio producers, they sifted through 1,700 résumés collected from such eclectic sources as Craigslist and the Native American Journalist Association. The usual media brainstorming sessions also shifted. "Here's how idea meetings work in TV news: 'We did that, I saw that, I hate that!'" Hockenberry says, his voice rising. Instead, following the design firm Ideo's guidelines, the team encouraged wild ideas while deferring judgment. The result of all that foment debuted at the end of April. The program's central idea is a daily question that audiences are asked to riff upon, either by calling in or by emailing. Their responses are then woven into the rest of the show's programming. Notes executive producer Graham Griffith: "Our hope is that pretty soon The Takeaway will be not just a radio program but an active environment."
In its early weeks, the program had a hit-or-miss quality. There was some lively listener response to questions such as "What words or phrases would you retire?" (spun off the anniversary of President Bush's 2003 "Mission accomplished" speech), but also some leaden interview segments where the interviewees were "asleep on the phone," as Hockenberry concedes. Listeners have been vocal about the uneven start. Sean Ross on The Infinite Dial blog praised it as "Morning Edition on casual Fridays," while other commenters on The Takeaway's Web site have labeled the show "pathetic," calling the conversation "staged bonhomie" that's "grating and condescending to the listeners."
But recognizing shortcomings and criticism and iterating quickly is one of the design process's core principles. The students in a d.school course called Design + Media, who are using the show as a class project, are helping producers generate ideas and track online response. For example, they're following Twitter streams to find out which questions and other parts of the broadcast are producing the strongest reactions. Within three days of launch, the show had already revised how it presents the daily question, moving from a traditional reading of emails to airing listener audio files at the top of the hour. Audience response immediately improved.
The Takeaway is still a long way from success, but as Cappello says, "We've got to trust the process." Even before launch, the producers used design thinking to help promote the show. In advance of the annual PRI program-directors' conference in September 2007, where new shows are unveiled, the Takeaway team had PRI call program directors and ask a battery of questions: What are you afraid of? What do you hope for? Their answers were compelling. "Program directors are people who think of themselves as visionaries and like to be ahead of the curve," Cappello says, "but they're actually extraordinarily risk averse."
So the producers created a mock political-campaign video with program directors talking about what they wanted in a "candidate." The video rocked the conference, helping The Takeaway pick up eight markets for its debut (including WNYC and editorial partner WGBH-Boston). By the time you read this, The Takeaway should air on 15 stations. "They need Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chapel Hill," says Ken Mills, a public-radio consultant. But hey, that's the key to innovation: Repeat as necessary
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.