Saturday, June 6, 2009

How To Start I: NPR

So, looking at this research (I'm still in the research/concept phase of the project, sneaking it in among the show I'm preparing for and my unrelated job as a technical writer), the first huge question that dawns on me is:

How do you start changing a community?

The problem, as I see it, is that the Thriving Arts report predicates the creation of an arts community on an already extant set of background values: a sense of place, a tradition of informal arts, a few people who already personally enjoy the arts, etc. The question, however, is where you start if such a thing is not available.

Obviously, there isn't such a thing in the universe as a place where there is no tradition of any arts or etc. The question is, where can you find a good thread to start with, a tiny spark that you can gently blow on and put kindling with to start a frame.

The one I was thinking of this morning is one that I've been thinking of for the last few days: National Public Radio.

I don't know exactly what NPR (and I suppose by extension PBS on TV) has in terms of reach in regional areas. But when I listen to Car Talk (the number one rated radio show), people call in from everywhere. Brooklyn. Tallahassee. Squunk Corners. The Hubble Spacecraft. The South Pole. So if we make the assumption that NPR is listened to everywhere -- at least some shows on it, at least a little bit -- then NPR's arts programming might be the beginning.

It would be really cool if NPR had an arts show that was quite as engaging as Car Talk is. After all, many of the people who listen and call in to Car Talk are not people previously interested in car. They're not the people who have a dead car on their lot that they're tinkering with. They're people like me--I've never even owned a car but I listen in. It's fun.

The other day on NPR, they were interviewing a publisher, and asked him whether fiction books published about the financial crisis are still going to be relevant three or four years from now, when the financial crisis is not what's in our minds. The publisher said, "It doesn't matter what it's about. If the characters are well written and they are put in engaging situations, people will read."

That's what we need to do with the arts, I think. We need to communicate a vision of the arts as being full of real characters and engaging situations. I don't mean on-stage. I mean us, as arts practitioners. We have to be real and engaging, and we have to be real and engaging when we discuss our work. We need a show where a couple of artists talk about art, and they don't use any sentences that begin with the word "Postmodern".

The Sloan Foundation understands this. They fund projects which promote science in fiction, but in engaging ways that bring the art into human contexts. And my favorite project that illustrates what the Sloan Foundation is talking about is WNYC's Radiolab. Each week, they ask a question ("Why do we laugh" or "What is music") and then spend the episode examining specific scientific aspects of that ("Do animals laugh" or "When does speech become song?") But the way that the hosts examine the questions, it isn't heavy on the science. It's high on the wonder.

A non-NPR example of this is, quite famously, Mythbusters. Another great example would be what Ace of Cakes does for the wedding-cake industry. By the way, Ace of Cakes is actually probably a good foundation for a community arts.

So how can we start an arts community? Well, you can start with a popular radio or television arts show (none of which exist, by the way--I'm a hardcore arts person, and I don't listen to a single arts podcast regularly, because... I haven't found any that are as engaging! Consider that a challenge, reader community: get me a podcast that I can subscribe do with my open-source music program that makes the arts fun and engaging). Then, you create a fan-club locally for the show. Start by watching/listening to the show together, move on to actually trying some of it hands on.

Hesto presto! It's a beginning.

1 comment:

Kira Campo said...

Thoughtful post. As someone who is fascinated with the creative process, I tend toward a very broad and inclusive definition of what is creative. I love to hear others discuss their own creative experiences and process, including activities that take place outside what we would traditionally think of as creative pursuits. I think it would be great to have some platform that would invite readers/listeners to submit or discuss such stories or experiences. Maybe a radio series, as you suggest, would be an ideal entry point for others to think about and share the wealth of creative experiences we routinely engage in.
We might think of our individual experiences in a different light if we began to perceive them in the broader context of "creative expression".