A college friend and I talk about NPR hosts the way my mom and her best friend talk about Pakistani soap stars, dissecting and judging their love lives and eating habits.
Now there's the Public Radio Talent Quest, a Project Runway for NPR geeks that's been playing out online all summer. Prospective hosts have sent 1,400 audio pitches for new shows, and three finalists get money to produce a pilot for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Judges include two of my favorite radio people: Jay Allison, the host of This I Believe (check out this piece on his teenage daughter grilling him after his first post-divorce date) and local Julie Shapiro, of the Third Coast festival. A-listers like Terri Gross, Ira, and Bob Edwards were trotted out to lend sexy promo spots to the site.
Not surprisingly, this being TAL country, three Chicagolanders made it to the top ten. My favorite, Carrie Kaufman of Flossmoor, who publishes the arts rag PerformInk and was a host on LesBiGay Radio in the 90s, got cut in round three. She's sweetly kooky in a way that reminds me of the student librarians at my women's college, and, aurally at least, she's a dead ringer for Paula Poundstone.
The other two locals just got cut, and neither was a surprise. They were Chuck Mertz, a rockabilly type who hosts the ranty far-left talk radio show This Is Hell Saturday mornings on WNUR, and Anne Glickman, a freelance producer in the Sarah Vowell vein, breathless and brilliant and unapologetically annoying. Like Kaufman, they were the Naders and Deans (or the Santinos and Sanjayas) of this horse race; intriguingly wacky but ultimately unelectable.
The surest bet all along has been April Baer, 34, who's worked her way up at local NPR affiliates on both coasts over the last decade. She looks and sounds NPR-groomed: confident, smooth-voiced, sharply intelligent, inoffensively hip enough to name-check Amy Winehouse and Steven Colbert in her About Me. "Like all other members of the family," she writes, "I owe a great debt to Ira Glass, who reminds us that radio is a conversation not a recitation." (I imagine that phrase piped in, Brave New World-style, over the PA system at NPR HQ.)
To her great credit, Baer copped to being a "type" in a long post about why dues earning and rung climbing matters. It was a thoughtful response to commenters griping about her lack of newness--"If these interviews were musical styles, April would be canned-and-shipped smooth jazz FM"--and it made me like her, as much as I got a kick out of envisioning a new show by finalist Bee Jellyfish, a 24-year-old from LA who listed as a strength that "18 year olds love me. OMG" and says LA sounds like "sirens and helicopters with a splash of kittenzZz."