Monday, September 20, 2010

A new day for Madeleine Brand

The former host of NPR's 'Day to Day' newsmagazine returns to the airwaves with a new weekday show on KPCC-FM.

By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Madeleine Brand (source: SCPR)
When Madeleine Brand was named co-host of National Public Radio's "Day to Day" in 2006, the newsmagazine was the network's fastest-growing show. The Los Angeles native had joined a small coterie of NPR hosts that included public-radio icons such as Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer and Brand's mentor, Susan Stamberg.

"I felt like I was joining this august company but that they had given me the freedom to update it," Brand said. "And then … they didn't."

In 2009 NPR canceled the program, a victim of the recession. But Monday, Brand premieres her own show at 9 a.m. on Pasadena-based KPCC-FM (89.3), which she said has the vibe of the pioneering days of NPR.

"I'm kind of feeling like I'm where they were. It has that spirit of 'just figure it out,'" Brand said. When you're understaffed and not overproduced, "that's when the excitement happens."

The hourlong "Madeleine Brand Show" fills the time slot once held by "Day to Day," but unlike its predecessor it doesn't have to appeal to a network of stations around the country. KPCC program director Craig Curtis said, "the point of view is now unapologetically a Southern California point of view."

Brand, 45, said the show will be "a place where people do get the news but get a different perspective — a more in-depth look, a more humorous look."

"I think a lot of public radio is so well edited, you don't get a lot of the warmth, where you have a conversation," she said. "There's a lot more desire for a more intimate format — less pretentious than 'the voice of God.' That doesn't mean you have to be dumb or you have to be trivial. You have to be real."

Finding a balance

She knows there's a need on the air for in-depth coverage of Pakistan, for instance, but "I also want to hear about Kanye [West] and also hear about how to make a delicious dinner tonight."

They'll have guests reporting on music, sports, finance, food, technology, pop culture and other areas. "Five-Minute Meal" will have famous chefs — they've already lined up Susan Feniger — whipping up quick cuisine. And she's turning her "Parenting on the Edge" podcast, a project she launched during her layoff, into a weekly feature on her show; topics include stay-at-home dads and gifted programs in schools.

"I want this show to always have one piece in it where someone listens to it and says, 'You know what I heard on the radio today?' and talks about it at the dinner table. Intellectually stimulated and delighted at the same time," she said. "My goal is for it not to be reheated broccoli."

After stints as a reporter and fill-in host for NPR, Brand joined "Day to Day" three years after it premiered in 2003. The show had been a long time in planning and was supposed to anchor the weekday schedule between NPR's signature newsmagazines "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." As the flagship program at NPR's new West Coast broadcast headquarters in Culver City, "Day to Day" was also supposed to deliver stories and a sensibility outside NPR's usual New York- Washington axis.

But then the economic downturn hit, and when plunging support and underwriting pushed NPR to an anticipated $23-million deficit, the network axed the show and laid off 64 people companywide.

Making her move

"I filled in on the other shows for a year," Brand said, guest hosting on "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." "I went on many fruitless meetings with television executives: 'We love you on radio.… We don't know what to do with you on TV.'"

But after the cancellation, the best prospect turned out to be the first one, from Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which operates KPCC.

"Within hours Bill called and said, 'We're going to find the money to bring you over here,'" she said.

Curtis said a show of this type costs about $600,000 a year to produce, and station officials solicited its board members, foundations and other major donors for the money. Now they're seeking underwriting and other largesse for the second year but hope to incorporate the show into the regular station budget after that.

Brand is taking over the time slot of the " BBC Newshour," and Curtis said he's already received complaints from fans of that program. He noted that the station still carries the BBC World Service overnights and hopes that fans of the BBC will give Brand's program a chance.

"The show sits in that interesting area between a talk show and a newsmagazine," with a conversational style that lets Brand show her personality, Curtis said.

"They hired me to be me; I can't not be me," Brand said later and momentarily broke into song. "'I've got to be me!' … Within reason."

She admitted it feels strange to have her name in the title — one that took all summer to settle on. "We're super-creative," she joked. But as senior producer Kristen Muller noted, that way it's easier for people to find it on the Web, Twitter and Facebook, and it's what people will call the show anyway.

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