NYF International Radio Awards Spotlight Interview: Mark Travis, Producer of The New York Philharmonic This Week

New York Festivals® International Radio Programs & Promotions Awards Spotlight Interview series showcases successful game-changers from the radio community, exploring their individual formulas for success and their thoughts on the radio industry at large. This week’s interview shines the spotlight on Radio Awards Advisory Board Member Mark Travis, award-winning and nationally syndicated producer of “The New York Philharmonic This Week.”  In 2011, Mark earned a Gold Trophy for “On the Music: The New York Philharmonic Podcast.”

Mark Travis, Producer

NYF: The New York Philharmonic This Week, a weekly radio series of concerts hosted by Alec Baldwin includes interviews with Philharmonic musicians, guest artists, and conductors. As broadcast producer of the series, what are your biggest day to day challenges in creating this award-winning program?

MT: The most challenging thing, hands down, is the pace. We broadcast 52 weeks a year. 41 of those shows make use of material from the current season and another six to eight broadcasts are programmed in such a way so as to highlight a special theme or anniversary, such as “Born on February 29th” or “Music by Women Composers,” or “100 Years of Shostakovich.”  This means a lot of time reviewing contracts, chasing approvals, editing performances, evaluating material in the archives, researching and writing scripts, recording VOs with our host, Alec Baldwin, and booking and interviewing artists.  That’s a lot to accomplish week in, week out, with a typical turnaround time of 10 days or less from concert to the airwaves.

Alec Baldwin, Host, New York Philharmonic

NYF: The New York Philharmonic This Week broadcasts are syndicated to more than 400 outlets worldwide by WFMT Radio Network. The Philharmonic’s first live national radio broadcast took place on October 5, 1930, over the CBS radio network and since then the Philharmonic has had an almost continuous presence on national radio. How does it feel to be part of this iconic and pioneering orchestra’s cultural outreach?

MT:  It is a tremendous privilege to be so deeply ensconced in the promotion and outreach of one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions.  I feel a great sense of responsibility as a producer to ensure that the orchestra, its guest-artists, and staff are all represented in the best possible light and that our audience is treated to nothing but the very best music and music-related talk.   The building materials I’m given are top-notch, so most of the time I just try to stay out of the way and let the music (and musicians) do the “talking.”

NYF: You were honored in 2011 with the Gold Trophy for On the Music: The New York Philharmonic Podcast. What did achieving this award mean to you and the team?

Mark Travis accepting the 2011 Radio Gold World Medal from Rose Anderson, Radio Awards Executive Director

MT: That medal was a terrific victory for our team. We had won the Bronze and Silver prizes in previous competitions, so getting the gold made us all feel good about our efforts and suggested to us that we had indeed grown in the medium. It also gave us the opportunity to exit on the proverbial high-note when my colleagues and I moved to discontinue the series at the end of the 11-12 season.

NYF: You co-hosted the On the Music: The New York Philharmonic Podcast with Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York’s 96.3 FM WQXR host Elliott Forrest. What was the inspiration for the topics and interviews?

MT: The Philharmonic approach to podcasting was to essentially give listeners an “audio tour” of the orchestra’s subscription programs. The series was supervised and executive-produced by the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications, Monica Parks, and she brought about an eye for detail and pragmatism that helped direct and shape our creative process.  Elliott and I are different broadcasters. He’s such a gifted announcer and interviewer whereas I feel my talents are more on the writing and technical side of things. I feel like we both brought our strengths to our story-telling and the result of us sharing hosting duties was that our audience had a nice, varied approach to learning more about the Philharmonic’s programs.

NYF: What project are you working on now?

MT: After 12 rewarding years at the WFMT Radio Network in Chicago, I joined the Philharmonic as its full-time Audio Producer in 2011. My chief duty remains serving as the managing producer for The New York Philharmonic This Week. In addition to that, I provide editorial and technical assistance to the orchestra’s commercial releases on iTunes and I also serve as primary interviewer, score-reader and script-supervisor for the Philharmonic’s video projects. Recent highlights include our video productions of the Philharmonic 360 collaboration with the Park Avenue Armory and the orchestra’s 2013 Chinese New Year concert.

NYF: As an Advisory Board /Grand Jury member for the New York Festivals® International Radio Awards honoring the World’s Best Radio Programs™, what are you “listening” for when judging entries. In your opinion, what makes an entry award-worthy?

MT:The late John Judson McGrody, to whom I give much credit for putting me through radio “finishing school,” used to say, “Settle for perfect.”  My other great mentor, Lois Baum, always emphasized the importance of being respectful of one’s audience. I adopted both of those bits of advice to be my own standard. A compelling story or world-class performance needs to be at the heart of a broadcast—and if it is truly exceptional, that might be enough for me to put something through to the finals. Once we reach the medal round, however, I find that craftsmanship plays an even greater role in my evaluation.  Is the editing smooth and nuanced? Are levels balanced throughout the piece?  Does the narration stand out from the actualities? Is the editing and sound design only good enough for iPods and car stereos?  Or could the piece hold up when played on studio monitors or in a movie theater? How engaging is the host?  What action words describe my experience with the subject or musical performance as presented?  Of the 50+ works I audition each year, I’d say that one or two typically earn my top score.

NYF: Is there a particular program that you hosted or a project that you undertook that was a defining moment for you?

MT: Hmm. My first “aha” moment probably came while serving as board-operator and production assistant for an on-air fundraising event for Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Fall of 1999. At some point, I took note that Studs Terkel was seated to my left and Norman Pellegrini to my right. I was 25 years old at the time and I felt as though I was a rookie on the bench between two Hall-of-Famers. I think it was the first time I realized that I didn’t just have a job; I had a career.

The other most memorable experience was when I had the chance to accompany the Philharmonic on its trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, in February, 2008. A producer’s job is first and foremost about planning, so to be charged with hosting and producing a broadcast from a mysterious city with almost no forward knowledge of the venue, much less the technology that would be available to me, was nothing short of thrilling. But we did it and the success of the concert has, of course, been well-documented—both in the news and on DVD. For me, however, my most treasured memories are less about the concert and broadcast and more about my experiences in the city itself—particularly my last night there. The orchestra had already left, my visa was set to expire the next day, and it was discovered that, through a clerical oversight, I had no return ticket. As I anxiously awaited a new ticket to be negotiated for me, hopefully, I had time to eat, drink, and even sing karaoke with my North Korean “minders.” While it was perhaps inevitable that we spent a little time speaking candidly of the tension between our nations, we mostly came together over common ground—notably our love for music and our love for our families.  We were just men, sharing our stories as friends do.

NYF: Has social media changed the radio industry as it relates to talk radio and The Arts?

MT: I don’t know that it has changed the industry so much as it has enhanced it. Social Media creates an opportunity for active participation in radio and television that really only used to exist with call-in shows. This is obviously exciting to the audience as it gives voice to many more people than a typical 2-hour time slot allows. It also invites out-of-market fans and those less comfortable with public speaking to enter a discussion and share a viewpoint…and it provides an interesting cyber-café for like-minded fans to connect with one another.  But it isn’t just exciting for the fans; I think most announcers and producers also appreciate the immediacy of those social media exchanges. Nobody has to wait for Arbitron or Nielsen ratings to find out if something is working; chances are you’ll hear about it—good or bad—by the end of the day.

NYF: How has new technology changed your role in broadcasting and the industry in general and what are the qualities or characteristics that one needs to have to do well in today’s radio industry? Any advice for young broadcasters hoping to emulate your success?

MT: I remember the pianist Jeffrey Swann once saying in an interview that “…music is never something that is ‘finished.’” I think the same can be said of the TV/Radio/Film industry.  It is perhaps more of a vocation than a profession; it requires a lifetime commitment to learning, adapting, and generally staying current.  I don’t know that technology has affected so much what we do as who is doing it and how quickly. The fact that one can do a pretty good podcast on a run-of-the-mill laptop with a very minor investment in software has created a new breed of content-producers. That said, I think the work of a “master-user” and an experienced broadcaster continues to assert itself in a content-dense world.

NYF: Was radio broadcasting your first career path? If you weren’t working in radio what would you be doing now as a career?

MT: I always thought it would be fun to be “on the radio,” and that was my mindset when I replied to an ad for a part-time weekend announcer for a classical station in DeKalb, IL (my college town.) Even after landing the job, though, I couldn’t have possibly imagined that radio would become my “bread and butter” for the better part of 18 years. What would I do if I wasn’t doing this? Well, though singing was my meal-ticket to college and I even enjoyed some modest success performing operas and oratorios in my 20s, I honestly think that given unlimited resources, I’d probably be a fishing guide. It may seem incongruous, but it would tap into many of the things I love most about my work: travel, research, time in the field, and—most importantly—telling stories. I’d just get to be outside and see the sun a little more often.

Join us in New York City as we honor the Grand Trophy, Production Company of the Year, Broadcaster of the Year, UNDPI, Gold, Silver and Bronze Medal-winning programs.

Save the Date! The 2013 New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promotions Awards Gala will take place on June 17, 2013 Manhattan Penthouse, New York City. To purchase tickets visit: NYF Radio Gala

 

 

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