Pick Me! Pick Me! A Discussion With the NPR Arts Desk

Jun 17, 2014

The NPR Arts Desk eludes many and embraces few.

"I'm never particularly interested in a 'this is happening' story," said Tom Cole, who's been editor of the desk for more than two decades.

Cole, along with NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, kicked off the PRNDI "NPR Arts Desk" session with an open discussion about how they operate. While everyone's questions were unique, they all seemed to be asking the same thing: What will make you pick my story?

Reporters and news directors are constantly seeking the hidden formula that will deliver their arts features to a national audience, but in reality there simply isn't one. It's about a solid pitch, great sound, and national relevance. Advance obits and book pieces don't hurt either. 

"The pitch is crucial," Cole said. "If they seem to know what they're talking about, I'll call them up." 

The Arts Desk wants pieces that paint a bigger picture using a cultural artifact. They want to know what this album, this artist, this play, etc. says about society at large in the time it was created, and how people are responding to it. They want news.

"Any time we get an arts story that touches on deep issues, those are the stories that make us really happy," Ulaby said.

“I think the arts are serious. I think the arts are news," Cole said. "They function in the context of news. Arts don't function in a vacuum."

On a smaller scale, Cole and Ulaby agreed that rich ambient sound makes or breaks a story. It may seem like Radio 101, but fundamentals are just that for a reason.

"Record a ton of sound...always have your ears open," Cole said. "Every room has a sound."

If rich sound and big picture are what the Arts Desk wants, what it doesn't want are plain explanation stories and grammar mishaps. And if you're submitting to Cole, never use the phrase "whole other."

Ulaby and Cole did reveal that there are a couple of story types that might put a reporter ahead of the bunch: books and advance obituaries.

NPR recently received more money for a staff dedicated to covering books. While the stories are more likely to end up on the web, radio spots are "not without opportunity," according to Ulaby. She added that NPR Books is now more popular than NPR Music. 

As far as advance obits go, the sad reality is that many famous artists from the baby boomer generation are really getting up there, and the Arts Desk needs to tell their stories in the event of their passing. It's a delicate subject, but Ulaby and Cole encouraged attendees to go out and interview aging artists in their towns. Revealing the reason for the interview is still a gray area, though. 

"In an ideal world, you would disclose. Realistically, don't. It's a little bit of a case-by-case situation," Ulaby said.

Looming mortality aside, what do these choosy folks actually want? What do they consider top-notch arts stories? The hosts offered two examples.

The first was Frank Morris' piece about William Burroughs' legacy in the small town of Lawrence, Kansas, where the eccentric author spent the last years of his life. It ran on what would have been Borroughs' 100th birthday.

The second piece was one that Ulaby came up with while working on another story. She was delving into women's lack of coverage in country music when she learned about "Cruise," a country hit whose popularity manifested due to a combination of shifting factors in the country scene.

Ideally a famous author in your town will die at the end of an interview you're conducting about their latest book in a chirpy forest, but until then the secret to getting a story across the Arts desk is to simply make it the most nuanced, sound-rich piece possible, and hope for the best.