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'QED spends time with news

Sunday, January 16, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Don't expect news reports, delivered live from a chopper hovering over the city. Or a weather system powerful enough to detect a snowflake about to nose-dive into Lake Erie.

But do expect WQED's new magazine show, "On Q," to take five to eight minutes to present a story -- not counting follow-up discussion. In commercial television, where soundbites are shrinking faster than a cheap T-shirt, that would be an eternity. And a luxury.

This is public television, however, where ads won't chew into the half-hour and where the approach can -- and must -- be different.

"One of the things that's so attractive about this new show is the content. We're hoping and trying our best to be more in depth, to break new ground on issues on a daily basis, not just in sweeps periods," says reporter Michael Bartley, who has been hired for "On Q," debuting tomorrow on WQED and WQEX.

WQED-TV's new weeknight magazine show, "On Q," has a trio of hosts: fromleft, Stacy Smith, Chris Moore and Carol Lee Espy. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

"On Q," which has been more than two years in the making and twice that long in the talking, will be hosted by Chris Moore (while continuing with "Black Horizons"), KDKA-TV anchor Stacy Smith and singer-songwriter Carol Lee Espy. It will air live weeknights at 7:30 and try to reinvent the concept of a magazine show.

Bartley, a 1980 Central Catholic High School grad whose office looks out onto his alma mater, is teaming up with Moore on a report scheduled to air tomorrow. Since the debut coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the two put together a story that's about hope -- while not ignoring despair -- in the Hill District.

"I'm going to introduce them to a man who's wealthy, who has a beautiful house, a very successful family and I hate to say it, but I think that's something people will be surprised at, when they consider Pittsburgh's Hill District. It's a fascinating story. We're not going to ignore the problems, but we're going to find out through two people's eyes whether King's dream and vision have been realized," at least in one neighborhood.

'ON Q'

When: 7:30 weeknights, starting tomorrow, on WQED and WQEX.

Hosts: Carol Lee Espy, Chris Moore and Stacy Smith.

A title to remember

So, why the title "On Q"?

It was the product of considerable brainstorming, says Deborah Acklin, executive producer. And settling on a name was no easy chore.

"We presented some of the [suggested] titles to focus groups," she says. "We toyed with putting Pittsburgh in the title," including the idea of adopting "Pittsburgh Magazine" from QED's monthly publication. "But we scrapped that idea."

Too provincial, most thought.

Then came "On WQED" and, finally, "On Q," which had the benefit of a double meaning -- clear identification of the station within a term (on cue) common to both broadcasting and theater.

Better yet, it's catchy. Acklin says it caught on quickly with station personnel and people on the outside.

End of name game.

-- Barbara Vancheri

Cue the credits


Quite a change for an anchor-reporter, most recently working in Milwaukee, where he tracked the grisly crimes and bludgeoning death of Jeffrey Dahmer and where he was dispatched to London for Princess Diana's funeral.

But Bartley, the youngest of six children, is happy to be back in his hometown and living with his mother, Ellen Bartley, in Greenfield, only minutes from work. "I've been scratching and clawing to get back home for years, and this was a perfect fit."

"On Q" may be new, but many of the 21 contributors will be familiar faces. Among them: Patti Burns, in her first regular TV gig since leaving Channel 2's anchor desk Jan. 16, 1997; Rick Sebak, the scrapbook documentarian who will offer bite-size pieces of Pittsburgh; and Chris Fennimore, co-host of "QED Cooks." Burns' first story, a look at new development in the Mon Valley, is scheduled for Tuesday.

To help viewers understand what WQED is hoping to do, executive producer Deborah Acklin has assembled something she calls "On Q 101" for airing this week. "We're basically going to explain to viewers what the program's about, what they can expect to see, how it's all structured. We'll be showing them the process."

And that process is about being a magazine show, not a news or public affairs program.

"There isn't going to be weather or sports. People shouldn't come to us for breaking news, but context and perspective, issues-oriented pieces not being done anyplace else." You can look for details on guests, topics and other links on the station's Web site, www.wqed.org.

In a world where hosts or anchors usually take a cue from Noah's Ark -- and come in pairs -- "On Q" will be helmed by three people. "From the beginning, I wanted to telegraph the fact the program was different, to break out of the usual male-female co-anchor setup," says Acklin.

"There's nothing wrong with it, but I didn't want to do that with this program. We knew we had a real asset with Chris Moore, were pleased with what Carol had to offer, and it's nice to have a newsman there. ... All three have individual strengths," and the presence of three hosts in various configurations will provide transitions in a show that won't be able to use commercial breaks for segues.

Acklin expects "On Q" will have two taped pieces a night, a lead package of between five and eight minutes (followed by an in-studio discussion with people who weren't necessarily part of the report) and then a shorter story from a contributor. A third segment may be a live performance in the studio or a "good old feature piece, the kind of thing 'Evening Magazine' used to do or Dave Crawley [of KDKA] still does."

On Fridays, part of the show will be turned over to what is unofficially being called the "fearsome foursome." With help from the hosts, they will talk about news of the week.

The talkers will rotate, but the first four are expected to be: Lynn Cullen, WPTT-AM talk-show host; Fred Honsberger, KDKA Radio and PCNC talk-show host; Alan Cox, a disc jockey on WXDX-FM; and Jerry Bowyer, director of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. Down the road, Chris Fletcher, publisher and editor of Pittsburgh magazine, "Black Horizons" producer Minette Seate and WYEP's Rosemary Welsch will rotate in.

Acklin, a onetime KDKA producer who worked on "Evening Magazine" and in the news department, traveled to other cities around the country where PBS stations have local shows. The one that served as something of a loose model for WQED was "NewsNight Minnesota" in St. Paul, Minn.

"NewsNight Minnesota" won a prestigious Silver Baton in the 1998 DuPont Columbia University Awards for a series about the impact of downsizing on long-term employees of Unisys Corp. The stories were hailed for their sensitive and penetrating profiles of hard-working people who joined the ranks of the unemployed.

"Theirs has a much newsier feel, with headlines every night," Acklin says of the Minnesota endeavor. "If there's an emergency situation, we need to acknowledge it, but I don't think we'll be chasing tornadoes."

Before anything could happen, of course, Acklin needed to chase money from foundations, which eventually provided $1.5 million annually for three years. "Everyone I talked to said how badly this region needs this kind of program, which really kept me going. ... People feel news stations are doing their job -- and, for the most part, doing it well -- but it's not the whole story of what's going on here. It's not the whole story of life here."

For Smith, adding the show to his noon and 6 p.m. anchoring duties at KDKA will make for some long, but he hopes, satisfying days. "Barring snow or traffic jams, I will make the trek from Gateway Center to Oakland and WQED. So far, I've done it a couple of times and last night, I left here at 7 o'clock and walked in about 7:18, maybe 7:20," he says.

If Smith is delayed or late, the show will work around it. And if a news emergency, such as a tornado or flood occurs, KDKA will come first.

Smith is no stranger to WQED, having been brought in for some special projects, including debates between county executive candidates in spring 1999. WQED "approached the station to ask permission to talk to me, and it sounded like something I would like to do. We used to have a program here on KD called 'Weekend Magazine' I hosted," which was heavy on interviews about local, national and international subjects.

While Smith never pinch-hit on the station's feature-driven shows, he says, "As I tell a lot of young people, you're a jack of all trades and master of none." But that's just what a host needs to be.

For Moore, "On Q" has meant a return to full-time status at the station and the opportunity to be part of something new, exciting and well-funded and supported. The show has 10 full-time staffers, plus its raft of contributors.

"They call this work. Are you kidding?" he says, with characteristic congeniality. "This is the first time in my life I've had this many people behind me. ... I can appreciate this, having been a one-man band for so long on 'Black Horizons' and all sorts of public affairs shows I've produced before."

Moore, who has been at WQED long enough to witness the good times and the bad, says, "My mouth is agape, to tell you the truth, about the possibilities. They have assembled a really good staff; they're making things happen. New equipment. People. People with energy who seem excited about what they're doing, who are making things happen. ... Stuff is getting done."

Like others, Moore sees live television as an invigorating challenge. "That's the exciting part. You get one chance, and once you do it, it's in someone's living room. It's like working without a net," which Moore does every weekend on KDKA Radio and Smith has been doing on Pittsburgh newscasts since 1983.

In addition to hosting, Moore wants to contribute stories. "It would be nice to just sit there, but too many ideas are banging around in my head." Among them is a portrait of family farmers, a group whose ranks dwindle each year.

While Pittsburghers probably are familiar with co-host Carol Lee Espy's voice -- she once worked for WDVE and Y108 and has done lots of voiceovers, including the "Close to home" Foodland jingles -- they may not recognize her face. Yet.

She is a singer-songwriter who has released two albums, "Merciful Landings" and "Stars in the Back Yard." Along with such notables as Joan Baez and Graham Parker, she is on the double CD of in-studio performances that WYEP recently compiled.

She and husband Jim DiSpirito, percussionist with the band Rusted Root before its breakup last year, are parents of a 2 1/2-year-old son, Daniel. While her new job means Espy won't be home making dinner and putting her son to bed, as usual, it means she is making the most of mornings and has furnished her office with a little mat so Daniel can play with his "Thomas the Tank Engine" toys.

It was Espy's ability to perform, live, before an audience and to think on her feet that apparently led to her job offer. "They always felt there would be a place for me. I never saw it personally and couldn't understand what my contribution to television would be."

But she subbed on one of WQED's programs and, like her fellow hosts, passed the focus group tests with flying colors. "I was so surprised; it still doesn't feel real," she said of her new position and a profile that will be raised considerably after tomorrow.

"I'd rather it happen in Pittsburgh if it were going to happen in any place. I absolutely love Pittsburgh," says the Johnstown native. "My husband and I have done extensive traveling. And we still come back here and say this is just the best of both worlds -- it has a smaller-town atmosphere but also all of the accouterments of a big city."

Espy is getting to know the other two parts of the hosting triangle. "We haven't had a lot of contact, which I almost think is kind of good. The chemistry is starting to work now, and it will be so much fresher when we go on the air.

"I absolutely love Stacy, I have so much respect for him. Chris is just so much fun. It feels good to be around both of them, it feels like I'm in really good hands" in the TV studio.

So, will Espy be one of the singers performing live on the show? "I don't think so. I don't want it to turn into a Kathie Lee Gifford schmaltzy thing, and I think the station respects that. I have talked about maybe in the future conducting a Songwriter's Circle. I do them up in Franklin in a big theater, and it feels like 'Mountain Stage,' " a critically acclaimed public radio show.

In the meantime, "On Q" will provide a musical touchstone to home. Husband DiSpirito and Dave Hanner, from the Corbin-Hanner Band, did the music for the program. Acknowledging that she sounds like a boastful wife, Espy said their music is as good as anything that serenades national viewers. "It's very uplifting."

For Moore, "On Q" returns the 7:30 p.m. time slot to Pittsburgh viewers, in a way that game shows and programs trafficking in breathless Hollywood gossip never could. "I think the airwaves are pretty much saturated with that. I think Rick Sebak and others have proved this community wants to see a mirror held up to itself. ... There's a market for people wanting to see themselves and their communities reflected."

And "On Q" hopes to do just that.

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