Brave New Morning

Minnesota Public Radio’s <em>The Daily Circuit</em> evolves talk radio for the Twitter age

In late February, Minnesota Public Radio blew the dust off its morning programming with the launch of The Daily Circuit, a sleeker, speedier upgrade to Kerri Miller’s signature Midmorning interview show. A new sidekick, the young up-and-comer Tom Weber, peppers Miller’s in-depth segments with bursts of original reportage, and “Movie Maven” Stephanie Curtis feeds the live broadcast with a non-stop stream of social-media engagement. We talked with Miller and Weber about old media’s love/hate embrace of News 2.0.

You guys are the new dynamic duo. Any bonding activities prior to the show’s launch?

Weber: You mean, like, a trust fall?

Miller: Is that when you fall backward?

Weber: Yeah, and I would catch you!

Miller: Uh…no. But we would be Facebook friends—if I had a Facebook account.

Kerri, you’re a veteran of traditional media, having worked in both television news and public radio. What do you make of technology’s takeover of old journalism?

Miller: How do I feel? Forced to engage. And I have engaged. I like how it shakes me out of my comfort zone—and it definitely does. But we just did a show a couple of months ago with this great Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, who wrote about the challenge of deep reading in the face of technology’s endless distractions.

Something that’s going away.

Miller: Exactly. When I’m reading for work, I’m thinking in the back of my mind that there are Tweets to put out, status updates to post, e-mails to check. That’s when I really feel it. I have to bring a deep focus to my research, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to do that and the social-media stuff I should be doing.

At what point did it become irrefutable that Twitter would become the reporter’s primary tool?

Weber: It was when that F0 tornado hit the convention center [in August of 2009]. Remember that? That came out of nowhere. We’re standing in the newsroom, hearing sirens blow. We went onto Twitter, and everyone had photos, eyewitness accounts. We were completely caught off-guard, but we went live immediately. And through Twitter, I had three eyewitnesses on the phone within 10 minutes, which we relayed on the radio. That was before our Minneapolis reporter could even get there. Twitter got us that coverage. That was a defining moment.

Do you worry about the uglier side of the technology?

Miller: Yeah. I worry about the “shiny object” mentality: that frantic need to consume headlines with no time to really dive in. TV was a lot of fun, but ultimately it’s a blip in the news landscape. I’d spend all day covering the capitol, I knew my beat inside and out,  and I’d have 1 minute and 45 seconds to explain it. On our show, we’re going more in-depth. But I worry if our audience is still chasing the shiny objects. Do people really want to sit there and listen for 30 or 40 minutes? Listeners have so many other places they can go.

Do you see public radio as an oasis in an increasingly chaotic world?

Weber: [looks up from phone] Sorry…what was that? [Laughs]

Miller: We can’t afford to be an oasis. That means we’re isolated. We have to be in the news cycle—and so relevant that we’re essential. I think of an oasis as a charming place I visit briefly and then I go back to real life. We can’t be that.

How do you inform yourself so thoroughly for in-depth interviews every day? Are you reading constantly? Or do you have an army of researchers?

Miller: Yes to both.

Weber: It’s worth noting—and I filled in for Kerri for a week, so I lived it, and it was maddening—if we have a 40-minute segment or a 15-minute segment, we have to invest the same amount of time to be ready. We have this great staff, and they put together manila folders of documents for us. But those producers can’t read it all for us. At the end of the day, the people behind the mics have to be able to talk intelligently.

Miller: A lot of it is just vacuuming up information. Really, that’s the necessity of it. To be honest, there’s never really downtime. On the weekends, I don’t do a  whole lot. That’s my time to vacuum up more information and read.

Do you feel overwhelmed when you embark upon a new topic?

Miller: Yeah. Right now, I’m reading a book about quantum physics.

Weber: Good lord.

Miller: I know our guest will be a great interview, but I want to really understand it. I got halfway through the book last night, and I feel like I’m just starting to grasp it, to get the glimmer of it. But it’s intimidating. Our guest knows I’ll never be at his level, but it still has to be an intelligent interview. There will be people in the audience that can blow my cover if I’m sounding dumb.

So you still have that fear of asking a dumb question?

Miller: Yes. That’s something that never goes away. And it probably shouldn’t. 

Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.