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Showing a talent for radio

Brookline's Rebecca Watson, 27, is one of three finalists in the Public Radio Talent Quest. Brookline's Rebecca Watson, 27, is one of three finalists in the Public Radio Talent Quest.
Email|Print| Text size + By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2008

Will a 27-year-old from Brookline become public radio's next star? Although she still has a long way to go, Rebecca Watson has a shot. As one of three finalists in the Public Radio Talent Quest, along with Al Letson of Florida and Glynn Washington of California, the wry and skeptical Watson received $10,000 in September to produce a public radio pilot program.

That hourlong pilot, "Curiosity, Aroused," was finished in the middle of December, and already about a half dozen stations around the country have picked it up. This week, WGBH licensed it to air March 2 at midnight. By spring, Watson should find out if she has backing from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to turn the pilot into a regular show. (All three of the finalists' pilots can be heard at publicradioquest.com.)

Like the best current public radio shows - think "This American Life" or "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me" - Watson's pilot is both smart and funny. As could be expected from the blogger behind skepchick.org and a cohost of the podcast "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe," (theskepticsguide.org), Watson's radio debut focuses on science, specifically debunking urban legends.

With interviews and some amusing musical interludes, her pilot takes on television reports of ghosts and visits a psychic fair. Along the way, she chats with an Australian myth-buster, toxic-substance experts who question whether the lead in lipstick really is poisoning women, and a psychologist who has studied what is supposed to be the world's funniest joke.

"The show is not exactly what I had in mind at the beginning," says Watson. "But that's because my mind was everywhere. Having done it, I know that if I get to do more, episode two will be a bit different: tighter, more focused. One really good one might be on the creationism-and-evolution debate. I think it's important to do, and we'd have fun with that."

"She's a sensational writer," says Richard Paul. A public radio veteran, the D.C.-based Paul worked with Watson on her pilot as her mentor and producer. "She also's got this fun, quirky take on something that many people see as being dull, which is science."

Whether the team will be making future episodes depends in part on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As part of the contest, the three finalists' pilots are being submitted to the group, which will consider funding at least one of them. The process will take a few months, says Bruce Theriault, CPB's senior vice president for radio. "This is really about trying to find and invigorate the service for the audience," says Theriault. "To make sure public radio stays relevant and exciting and interesting."

"I'd really love to keep doing the show whether it gets picked up or not," says Watson.

Paul, she says, advised her she would need "a ballpark $20,000 a show," which could come from another source, including sponsorship by an individual station. Even if the money is not forthcoming, says Watson, "I'd like to keep going, turn it into a podcast."

Just making it this far "is quite an achievement," says Jake Shapiro, the executive director of the Cambridge-based Public Radio Exchange, which ran the contest. "We had over 1,400 entries."

Watson, Shapiro explains, was a long shot, particularly in the contest's early rounds, which combined open voting with judging by public-radio professionals. "She was the one that made it all the way through most improbably," Shapiro says. "She was a popular pick. She wasn't one of the judges' picks. What I think is part of [Watson's] success is that she earned the judges' respect."

The entire process, says Watson, has been inspiring.

"I learned that I could do it," she says. "That you can put me in front of a microphone, and I can make it happen. It makes the whole process less daunting."

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