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New Host, New Sound for TED Radio Hour

Guy Raz

When On Q's editor spoke to Guy Raz in February, he and his team were working feverishly to finish the first episode of the TED Radio Hour (which aired on KQED Public Radio on March 1), drinking 5-Hour Energy and not getting enough sleep. "It's like being at a startup," he said. "What I imagine a startup must be like."

Did you take any time off between Weekend All Things Considered (WATC) and the TED Radio Hour?
No. In fact, I did both jobs in December. They announced I was [TED] host on December 1, but I couldn't just say "see you later." WATC was a show that had become a real ensemble group of contributors, friends and producers, and we were a small team — six producers and me. I wanted to stay through the end of the year, but I had to also had to start working on TED. We knew we were launching on March 1 and we had a really aggressive production schedule. So in December I basically worked seven days [a week]. And I have two kids — a 2-yea-old and 4-year-old — so it was crazy. That was the month I discovered 5-Hour Energy drinks. Much to my future suffering.

What drew you to the TED project?
I started at NPR in 1997. I've been in news my whole life. For the last three-and-a-half years at WATC we had this amazing opportunity to experiment. We created something we felt was new and exciting. I loved it.

But this past September it . . . became hard to work Wednesday to Sunday because my four-year-old started to go to school five days a week. I was gone on the weekends. [My wife and I] needed to figure out another way. And then the TED opportunity came along. Like a billion other people — I think they've had a billion downloads now — I've been watching the amazing TED Talks, and so, for me, it was an opportunity that I would be foolish to pass up.

NPR's partnership with TED is a totally new thing. The TED folks are involved in our production process. Each of these episodes is a product of all of our thoughts. And although TED does all kinds of partnerships they haven't done something quite like this. We're mining their archives, and we're not just putting talks on the radio. We're taking parts of talks and moving them around and bringing [TED speakers] onto the show. We're adding all kinds of production techniques and music.

In listening to a rough cut of the first episode, I couldn't help but notice parallels to the structure and sound of both This American Life and Radiolab. Was that something you were conscious of?
In my view there are three turning points in the history of public radio. The first was the creation of NPR and that sound that Susan Stamberg developed. The second shift was Ira [Glass] and what he did with This American Life. He understood that storytelling should move you. Radio should be a place where people can experience a whole range of emotions. He understood that and created something totally new. The third was what Jad [Abumrad] and Robert [Krulwich] did at Radiolab — they took all the best elements and pushed them forward. There's no question that they influence me.

As we continue to evolve — and we're going to do 30 shows a season, which is a lot — we're going to continue to experiment and develop sounds that maybe will inspire others. We may not be [groundbreaking] like This American Life or Radiolab, but we might be significant enough to inspire a radio producer to think about what the next sound is.

What's been the process so far for creating a show? Do you look through TED archives for something that jumps out at you or do you have a theme in mind first?
Both. Sometimes we find [a] talk that we're blown away by and then try and create a theme around the ideas the talk presents. And sometimes there are things that we want to explore. We might pose the question, "What do babies think about?" Then we'd mine the archives for 10 or 15 talks that might be related somehow, and then narrow it down.

Have you ever had an idea about a TED Talk of your own?
I would love to talk about echo chambers, because, like anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate or semi-corporate environment I know how powerful an echo chamber can be — for good and ill.

I would love to talk about the idea of creating a piece of popular music and how that's done. One thing I tried to bring to WATC is four-on-the-floor pop music. Give me Rihanna or Carly Rae Jepsen or Taylor Swift. What's happening in popular music now is, to me, as interesting as what was going on when everyone was listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna and Prince. I turn on pop stations and I hear dance music, electronic music and hip-hop, and it's amazing. It's amazing to hear what an incredible dance DJ can do with Rihanna. Or with Florence from Florence + The Machine. I love how pop songs are crafted.

If I were giving a TED talk in my living room, it would be about pirates — or the story my son requested last night, about a bow-and-arrow-shooting bunny.

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