Entry 1

The time clocks that strike fear into Alex's heart
The time clocks that strike fear into Alex’s heart

I’m worried about the clock. Actually, I’m worried about several clocks, but the one I expect to give us the most difficulty is the one we don’t have yet and won’t have for probably a week—a Web-based countdown clock that will tell people when to stop talking. We’re about to debut a new show called Day to Day, which I will host. It’s a big moment for NPR, and personally it’s certainly the biggest moment and the biggest risk of my career. I’d like to get through it without crashing into a time post … which is why we need the clock.

Two radio fundamentals are starting on time and stopping on time, show functions that are supposedly carried out so smoothly that the listeners never even notice. Here’s how to do it: Begin to talk about something at exactly 10 minutes and :00 seconds past the hour, get a couple of different interpretations, include a brief interview, then wrap it up and say, “That’s it for this segment, pretty soon something else is going to come along. Oh, and it’s 19 minutes past the hour.”

That’s what we call the outcue—a signal to the board operators at stations around the country that they can take the next minute or two to report local news headlines, traffic, weather, etc. If the stations (Morning Edition airs on 600; Day to Day will be on 50 or so starting out) don’t get those minutes, they won’t have very many listeners, because even the news-hungry NPR audience wants to know about local traffic. So, there’s that outcue, and then a point a couple of minutes later where the stations know we’ll start another segment at an exact second, and they can rejoin us.

In the best of worlds, all this occurs with a natural and organic feel. If you’re very good, you can even achieve a kind of elegance with time posts—as Scott Simon, for instance, often does on Weekend Edition. But we’re not living in the best of worlds. We’re at a converted furniture warehouse in Culver City, Calif., the new home of NPR West, and we’re trying to get this show ready for launch—in a couple of hours, dear God. Just getting the thing pumped up and oomphing along for the first time will seem like a wonderful achievement, to us. Not to our listeners, however. They may understand that this is new, that we don’t yet know perfectly well what we’re doing, but they’ll expect the logistics of radio to work just as they normally do on NPR. I’ve been arguing for the clock; I should have been more insistent.

Day to Day's studio, just before the show's launch
Day to Day’s studio, just before the show’s launch

People keep asking how this show will be different from Morning Edition and All Things Considered. There is an answer (aside from the glib one: Those shows actually do know what they’re doing) … we’re going to be more live. That is, we expect to regularly invite guests onto the show to comment on events of the day and even participate in interviews. Of course, the other shows conduct interviews all the time, but even interviews with NPR reporters at a congressional site, or overseas somewhere are almost always recorded well before they actually air and edited down to fit an assigned time. That’s one reason they sound so cogent and articulate—besides the vast skills of my colleagues, I mean. But live interviews have a recognizable energy; they’re not suddenly out of date because the news changed; they feel different.

Our show comes out of Los Angeles—another difference. NPR magazine shows have always originated in Washington, D.C. Some of our guests will be in our studio here, but many will be elsewhere, and wherever that else turns out to be, it is not likely to have a countdown clock that’s running in synch with ours. You would think this is something that’s easily overcome; believe me, it’s not. This is what my clock fear is all about: getting a system running that will let the other person in a faraway studio know when to stop talking.

We’ve got a guest for the first show—it’s Mike Kinsley, who founded Slate and now writes for the site. He’s perfect, worth inviting on anyway, but especially so because Slate is our partner in this show. He’s quick and well-informed and he’s funny—great attributes for live radio. But we’ve tried this a couple of times in rehearsal, and I know that the get-to-the-end-of-the-segment, radio mechanics thing is not necessarily working in our favor. It would be one thing if Mike were here in L.A., but he’d long ago committed to a conference in Aspen, Colo., for today. So, we’ve rented a studio there, and I think things are going to be OK. I’d just feel better if we’d gotten the clock thing done so he could see the seconds ticking down to zero … as they are now.