Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:10 am
Smart talk on the radio
“The 21st” gives voice to Illinois
"I believe that Illinois is a lot more connected than people portray it to be,” said Niala Boodhoo, host of the daily Illinois Public Media-produced talk show “The 21st” which airs live Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. on Springfield’s NPR Illinois as well as in DeKalb, Peoria, Bloomington and Urbana.
The show’s motto, “21st-century radio for the 21st state,” reflects its dedication to providing a forum for statewide concerns as well as keeping abreast of the latest advances in technology. It celebrated its one-year anniversary in May.
An episode of “The 21st” will typically be divided into two segments, each focused on a different topic relating to Illinois, which Boodhoo will discuss in detail with guests, along with taking questions and comments from listeners via telephone and social media. For instance, an episode from last month had one segment about Congressperson Cheri Bustos’ “Build the Bench” boot camps designed to encourage women to run for state office. Boodhoo spoke to Bustos as well as two women who attended the boot camp and later ran successfully for office in Normal. The second half of the episode addressed the current statewide opioid epidemic, including ways in which the ongoing budget impasse helps to both create the atmosphere of misery that can result in widespread addiction and result in funding shortages which are causing closure of addiction treatment centers.
The germ of “The 21st” came in 2013 when NPR’s long-running “Talk of the Nation” show was canceled and former WILL director of news and public affairs Scott Cameron was looking for a new project. Cameron, who is now executive editor for Illinois Public Media, envisioned an Illinois-based show that would provide what he described as “civil conversations between people with differing perspectives that was also responsive to the concerns of the community,” something he finds to be sorely lacking in today’s media. Eventually the perfect host for such a show was found in Boodhoo. “She has almost as strong an online and social media presence as her radio presence,” said Cameron. “That’s a huge part of what makes the show successful.”
Originally from Miami, Florida, Boodhoo had been a reporter for the Miami Herald while still in high school. She went to school in the Midwest, eventually graduating with a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She began her journalistic career in 2000 as a reporter for Reuters in London and Washington, eventually returning to south Florida, which she says led directly to her public radio career. Boodhoo started doing business stories for the south Florida NPR affiliate WLRN and later moved back to Illinois for a job at WBEZ.“I was traveling all over the state as a Chicago reporter,” she said. Eventually she hosted “Afternoon Shift,” a two-hour, daily, live, local afternoon show which was canceled in June 2015.
“Right after that show was canceled, the folks at WILL reached out to talk about ideas.” Boodhoo came on board in November of 2015 to start developing “The 21st.” “My parents did not name me with the intention of me being in public radio,” said Boodhoo, referencing her unconventional (though common enough in India) name during a session on Reddit in which she also proudly mentioned that the lead song on the debut album by a musical group called Public Access is named “Niala Boodhoo.” (The song can be heard at https://publicaccessmusic.bandcamp.com/track/niala-boodhoo.)
Moss Bresnahan, president and CEO of Illinois Public Media, has said that public radio is evolving and needs to find ways “to interact with our content in new ways and on all platforms.” He envisioned “The 21st” as a program that would be “relevant, smart and fun, connecting people from all walks of life and from all corners of Illinois.” The show was broadly conceived as a mix of interviews and conversations including “farmers, businesspeople, artists, politicians and, most importantly, residents across Illinois.”
“From the beginning, I always wanted a show that could bridge the gap between an old-school public radio call-in show and all the vibrant social media interactions that are happening,” Boodhoo said. “I also just want to produce really good radio for the part of the state outside of Chicago. Everybody is familiar with the great journalism that comes out of the media outlets in Chicago but I think there is certainly a need for coverage of the rest of the state, especially given what’s going on in state government. It’s incumbent upon public media stations to step in and help fill that gap.”
A large part of the mission of “The 21st” is to aggregate news from across the state by bringing attention to stories that would often remain unreported outside of regional media. “There might be a great story you’d see if you were living in Rockford but you might miss it completely if you were in Springfield,” she said. “We see the role of the show as to bring people together throughout Illinois.” In addition to news, the show is dedicated to covering Illinois culture. “I think there is great, fun arts and culture happening here that people don’t know about – interesting people doing fascinating things across the state – and ‘The 21st’’ likes to help introduce those people to everyone else.”
Boodhoo has observed that many Chicago transplants live in other parts of the state and that many currently living in Chicago moved there from other parts of the state. “I don’t think we are as disconnected as people tend to think we are – that whole downstate as opposed to Chicago thing. There are many people who spend a lot of their time commuting between Chicago and Springfield or Champaign or Peoria or Normal – I think there are a lot of people moving throughout the state on a regular basis.”
As for the content of “The 21st,” keeping things Illinois-focused does not mean the coverage is all hermetically sealed. “We do try to be reactive to different news, whether it’s national, international or local,” said Boodhoo, pointing out that international trade deals, for example, can have a powerful effect on the agricultural industry of the state.
According to Cameron, getting each show ready for broadcast begins with pitching ideas to Niala, who narrows things down and edits them to fit her approach. “The question we always ask is: Is this something people in Illinois want to hear – or should hear?” said Boodhoo. While most topics are time-sensitive, with an attendant sense of immediacy and urgency, there are exceptions. “We try to plan things like author interviews at least a couple weeks in advance,” Boodhoo said, “because I’ll need time to read the book or see the play. Otherwise, we try to do a mixture of topics that we think will interest people, along with reactions to breaking news.” Sometimes a prepared show will even be completely scrapped in favor of broadcasting on the fly. “Particularly in January, during the first couple weeks of the [Trump] administration, I felt like every show we planned we ended up redoing because of something dramatic that had happened,” she said.
With a year under its belt, the “21st” team – which on any given day consists of Boodhoo, three producers, two engineers and one or two interns – is starting to reap the benefits. “Now that we’ve been around for a year, people are reaching out to us more and suggesting things,” Boodhoo said. “We also do a lot of work looking at conversations happening on social media and analyzing those, researching different hashtags and things like that. We try to look anywhere and everywhere for the conversations that end up happening on the air.”
To this end, the show’s staff works with University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s social media analytics lab. “They have access to some pretty powerful social media monitoring tools that we use to search through social media for hashtags as well as influencers,” Boodhoo said. For example, in June of last year it came to the staff’s attention that several K-12 school superintendents throughout the state had come up with the #passillinoisbudget hashtag to express their frustration with the impasse. “We saw that hashtag appear and we used the lab’s tools to isolate how often it was being used, how often it was being retweeted. Then we got in touch with a couple of superintendents that way, one of whom had started the whole thing, and had them as guests on our program to talk about the budget.” The episode can be heard online at https://will.illinois.edu/21stshow/program/school-funding-in-illinois-canine-flu.
In another case of social media driving content, during the presidential election, Boodhoo asked listeners what questions they had about the ballot. “People posted questions on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook and then we had PolitiFact Illinois answer everything,” she said.
“The 21st” is currently distributed via broadcast on five stations throughout the state. However, listeners are not limited to these traditional outlets. “We also have people who are listening online live using the WILL app or the live stream,” Boodhoo said. “We also have people who hear us via the NPR One app or through podcast subscriptions on iTunes or Android.” Listeners in markets such as Carbondale have found the show in spite of the fact that it doesn’t air on the area’s local affiliate, which has come to the staff’s attention due to the experience of hearing from such listeners directly. “We like working with NPR One,” said Boodhoo, “because that app is available to radio audiences throughout the country.” This particular app tracks the specific content a user listens to and makes automated recommendations based on that information. It will start by suggesting specific relevant segments of “The 21st” to an individual listener, eventually leading them to the show as a whole.
Randy Eccles, general manager of NPR Illinois, headquartered at University of Illinois Springfield, helped launch “The 21st” in 2015. “Scott [Cameron] had started talking with me and I told him we’d love to have an Illinois-based talk show. We’ve got national shows, but we thought that something focused on what’s going on in Illinois would be great.” He says the show is doing very well at the one-year mark. “From my experience, it takes between two and five years for a show to establish itself and this show is really pretty far along the development curve – it’s already been picked up by five stations.”
The original idea for “The 21st”was for it to be paired with NPR Illinois’ “Illinois Edition” and for both to be heard across the lower portion of the state. “The greater Chicago metropolitan area has 67 percent of the state’s population,” Eccles said, “so the rest of the state is about one-third. We want to do a great radio show for the part of Illinois that is outside of Chicago. But you can’t ignore the gravity of the economic center of the state so you have to investigate how that two-thirds up there impacts or affects or helps the other third. If we wanted, we probably could have partnered with BEZ to take one of their programs, but we really wanted something that gave voice to these spaces-in-between, these towns that have populations of 500,000 or less – like Peoria and Bloomington.” Currently, according to Eccles, “Illinois Edition” is broadcast by WILL in Urbana and WUIS in Springfield, reaching Decatur, Jacksonville, Lincoln, Taylorville, Pittsfield, Rushville, Charleston and Bloomington from those signals. Other Illinois markets are considering adding it to their schedules.
Eccles has observed that shows like “The 21st” allow for perspectives major metropolitan media centers might miss, pointing out that NPR affiliates seemed far less shocked by the results of the November election than their counterparts in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, just by virtue of being located closer to rural areas.
Reaction to the show from NPR Illinois listeners has been positive, according to Eccles. “During the recent pledge drive we got feedback about which shows people like and ‘The 21st’ is being cited positively by people,” he said. “Even this early in its development it’s getting name recognition. The numbers are good on it.” According to Eccles, affiliates are not charged cash to broadcast the show but they do barter underwriting messages during the show for WILL to sell to pay for production costs.
“We are in five out of nine public radio markets in Illinois and I’d like us to expand just a little bit more,” Boodhoo said when asked about ambitions for the future of the show. “I’d like for us to be available in every part of the state. We had an internal goal our first year to have five stations and we made that and I’m really happy about it but I’d really like us to be distributing the show even farther.
“For me, though, what’s most important is that we’re producing a show that’s relevant and helps people maybe understand each other a little bit better and be more informed about our state and our world. As long as we do that every day, I’m pretty happy.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at email@example.com.