Should Stephen Talbot be worried? He left PBS’s Frontline World, where he was a series editor and senior producer, to form Talbot Players and create and develop original media properties, including a new globe-trotting television series about world music dubbed Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders. For Talbot, it’s the kind of fantasy project he has been wanting to do for a long time. When we sat down in North Beach’s Cafe Zoetrope recently to discuss the project, Talbot had a pilot just about wrapped up and was getting ready to submit it to the heads at PBS. It would either air as a stand-alone program, or be approved for development as a series. Despite the program’s uncertain fate, Talbot spoke confidently about his chances, “I mean, I was really happy at Frontline World,” he said, “and probably would have been a little more financially stable staying there, but I figured, what the hell, you know, I’m excited about this. I’m gonna give it a shot.”
By the time Talbot told me this, it wasn’t a total shot in the dark. PBS had already seen a promo reel highlighting the basic elements of the show: relatively young reporters, traveling to exotic locales, and most importantly, recording electrifying music. Talbot’s calm confidence is perhaps the result of the type of career accolades few achieve: Emmys, Peabodys, an Edward R. Murrow award, with a perhaps unrelated Edgar Allen Poe award for mystery writing thrown in for good measure.
The format of Sound Tracks may be familiar to 60 Minutes and Frontline World followers: three short investigative journalism pieces, followed by a “dessert course.” Working on Frontline World, Talbot began experimenting with the end segment’s content, and this became the genesis for Sound Tracks. While working with Frontline World in Boston, Talbot approached Marco Werman, host of Public Radio International’s The World, and asked him to cover music features. Werman agreed. “The very first story I commissioned was in 2002. I sent Marco and a crew of friends to cover the annual Icelandic Airwaves Music Festival. It’s a trip, because Iceland is a strange place and you stay up all night and see a lot of great music. They settled on this one quirky band and brought it all back. The editor David Ritsher (now on Sound Tracks) and I worked with Marco to shape the story.” Talbot said the response was really popular, with people saying how they had never seen anything like it on PBS or Frontline World. That story became Talbot’s model, and he tried to recreate it whenever he could, but with Frontline airing only four or five times a year, opportunities were limited.
Now with Sound Tracks, what was an end note has become the center of the piece. Talbot has recruited a number of reporters–a starting line-up including Alexis Bloom, Arun Rath and Mirissa Neff–in addition to having Werman return to split hosting and reporting duties. Given the new program’s room, the stories are expansive. The first episode uncovers the roots of a propagandic dance pop song from Russia entitled “A Man Like Putin.” It details the faux-Kazakhstani anthem created for the movie Borat, and the heartwarming international attempt at reconciliation that followed. And it catches up with the musical progeny of Nigeria’s unofficial “black president,” Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Each episode, with an emphasis on format, will have a theme, this one being “Presidential Suites.” In the case of Sound Tracks, rather than Andy Rooney, the dessert course will be a “Global Hit,” a session of uninterrupted music, highlighting a frequently unknown or underexposed artist giving one great performance. Fado singer Mariza is featured in this segment of the pilot.
That pure performance is relegated only to the end, distinct from the other segments, distinguishes Sound Tracks from previous music shows. “Look, there’s a big appetite for music and PBS has exploited it to a certain extent for pledge programs, some of which I think are good and others horrendously embarrassing,” Talbot admitted. “But they clearly know that there is an audience out there that likes music. So, they’ll always have Austin City Limits and music-performance kinds of shows. But again, I come back to this idea because I’ve mentioned this to them so often and they finally get it, which is why they’re excited about it– Sound Tracks is different because we are trying to mix stories that have a lot of music in them, and you get the musical performance Global Hit at the end, but really, this is about stories and journalism and looking at the world through music.” Asked what models he had for the show, Talbot cited the 1999 documentary by Wim Wenders, Buena Vista Social Club. “It was a really great film and an even better soundtrack, so the idea of doing something like that, in shorter form, on Sound Tracks is very appealing, and I know we can.”
All of the stories I watched were captivating. The journalistic bent foregrounds story in a way that is quite different from the usual band-tour or album-release publicity onslaught. The program makes great use of the HD technology that many people have in their living rooms or on their computers; it also clearly expresses Talbot’s belief that “The story about that music is really what draws you in, so it’s got to be shot really well, edited really well, have good, interesting reporters and be compelling.” Otherwise, he argued, “Why watch music on TV? If you’re just purely into the music, you’ll go see live music, which is fantastic, or you’ll download or go to the store and buy a CD.”
The pilot’s story “A Man Like Putin” illustrates the hybrid format Talbot aims for, as it investigates a song’s background, which either satirizes or honors the former president and current prime minister, depending on who’s being interviewed. The story includes interviews with the songwriter in a Pearl Jam T-shirt, saying he wrote it on a dare; the two beautiful women hired to belt out the song (and who believe in its message); and a reporter from one of the only remaining alternative media outlets criticizing the state, its head and its propaganda. The show fascinates precisely because of the gap between these perspectives, giving insight not only to contemporary Russia, but also of international popular culture and its global pathways.
While entertained by the program, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways Sound Tracks is a news show for people who don’t like politics or issues–that the sounds are the sugar that help the medicine go down. My response is in part owing to the format and in part to the seriousness of the content. But Talbot shook his head at this perspective, saying that story–political or otherwise–as it related to the music, was central: “In our story, the broadcast version of it, we wanted to have the criticism of Putin, and that’s the guy from Echo of Moscow, which is the last alternative national media in Russia. He’s very outspoken, he hates Putin, he hates what’s happening in Russia, so we wanted that viewpoint expressed. But we decided that there just wasn’t the time to go into a really long discussion or have a lot of footage about the politics of Russia. We were making the decision, we’re gonna look at Russia, through the making of this propaganda song.” So, while a protest in Russia or a shooting in Nigeria would be the core of a Frontline story, such incidents in Sound Tracks are only presented only as they relate to the artist and music material at hand. With a limited amount of time and confronting tough issues around the edges, the show will often choose to focus in on lighter fair.
Talbot’s reference to the program’s “broadcast version” is significant, as he’s eager to use the companion Web site as a launching pad for related stories and also to expand upon subjects only glanced over in the limited air time. “These days everything on TV has a Web site, you’ve got to have it,” Talbot said. “To create a quality site but also do stuff that is different and new–that’s an interesting challenge.” To this end, he has both the previous experience of launching an award-winning site for Frontline World and the good fortune of being brother of Salon.com founder David Talbot (partner in The Talbot Players.) “The last six years while I was working at Frontline World, we built a really good Web site that ended up winning Webbies and all sorts of awards. We pushed the idea of online video, and then we took a lot of that online video and put it on TV eventually, on the show. But it was also an outlet to experiment. I’m a big believer in trying out interesting experimental stuff on whatever Web site we create for Sound Tracks.” For the Putin story, sidebar videos will include a political protest that the crew encountered, as well as a humorous encounter between between Putin, Stalin and Lenin impersonators. The plan is to reach out online, providing content to related subjects, in addition to providing more artist information and links to hear and download the week’s songs.
The site promises to be a key component of a larger synergistic strategy, not only promoting but broadcasting the show across a variety of media. Marco Werman will be presenting the Global Hit and other stories from the show on his radio program as well. Eventually, Talbot would like to put on concerts for groups that deserve broader exposure. But that’s all down the road–and Talbot talks about it in a dreamy way, with fingers crossed. For now, bigger issues loom. With Sound Tracks currently being pitched to public television and the underwriting still unsettled, Talbot seeks funders. He has made the show as appealing as possible, and in the Talbot Players officea few floors above Cafe Zoetrope, I got to see a just-finished animated opener created by the Ebeling Group that demonstrated the show’s smooth production and fresh ideas.
“We’ve really insisted that this be a prime-time show," Talbot had said earlier. "That’s the only game we want to play. Frankly, that’s what’s really exciting about this. I’ve been in the system long enough to know how far a stretch it is to launch a series from scratch, get it on prime-time and make it stick. And that’s the shot we’ve got.”
Long shot? It didn’t look that way to me, but even if public television didn’t work out, the program would easily find a fit on cable or elsewhere. In any case, Tabot makes it clear that his crew is ready, “We’ve all been talking about and developing stories, so we’ve actually already gone out and shot bits of stories as tests, and we’ve researched a lot of stories, creating mock episodes of the series on paper, with different themes, different lineups and different stories. So, if PBS says yes, were ready to go next year.”
PBS will broadcast the premier of Sound Tracks January 25, 2010 at 10 p.m. and will stream it online in advance. Regarding the possibility for a series, they are soliciting feedback from viewers.
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