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Innovative radio boosted by CPB funding program

The sound of modern African music. San Francisco's inventive Duck's Breath comedy troupe. A West Virginia station's showcase of folk performers. The ``magical realism'' of Latin American writers. If this list doesn't sound like standard radio fare, that's partly because it's a sampling of a big boost public radio has recently received.

The Radio Program Fund - a project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) - is giving $3.3 million to launch 11 innovative series that will be produced and aired on various stations around the country in the coming months.

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``I think it's the largest unrestricted competitive program fund in the history of public radio,'' said Christopher H. Madden, who runs the Program Fund, by phone from his Washington office. ``Our responsibility is to find the best ideas that are out there - from people who can execute them creatively and artistically - and fund those projects.''

Other choices include a new-music review, a Latin American news service, an electronic newsmagazine of minority issues, and other promising subjects.

Mr. Madden calls them ``risk ventures.''

``We can help a program get started,'' he says, ``get on its feet, let it move out into the marketplace, and if the stations [around the country] wish to, they can purchase the program, and we can move on to something else.''

In 1985, the public radio stations collectively asked CPB to let its funding of national programming be done through the individual stations. So now, programs like ``All Things Considered'' and ``Morning Edition'' are bought directly by these stations. But the stations also proposed that CPB keep for itself a fund of about $3 million for national program production. The result was the new CPB project: the annual National Program Production and Acquisition Grants (NPPAG).

Madden says there were four priorities: projects ``that may not initially succeed in the public-radio marketplace; that will take programmatic risks; that will yield one major news service or series; and that will increase the national audience targeted by the producer.''

At first, Madden explains, ``we didn't know whether there'd be five projects or 50.... One year there are lots of station-based productions, another year lots from National Public Radio. Over the years it will sort itself out. This year happens to have a reasonably nice balance to it.''

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Not all the shows funded are brand new. One of them, for instance, is ``Fresh Air'' - a live interview format with writers, actors, composers, and other artists - which has been on a Philadelphia station for 11 years. ``[Host] Terry Gross has picked up renown for her ability as an interviewer,'' notes Madden, ``and has subbed for Susan Stamberg on `All Things Considered.' It's been on a weekly half-hour basis nationwide. The question is: How would it work on as daily basis? How can we tie that in to local station program requirements? What's the investment required?''

The decision was not only to make ``Fresh Air'' daily, but to extend it to an hour.

With all such program choices, says Madden, ``the goal is that it be available nationally.... We insist that it be put on the Public Radio Satellite Interconnection System.''

The choices were made with the help of an advisory panel of 10, ranging from station managers to a deputy city representative.

``They read all 172 proposals,'' Madden recounts, and from their initial choices ``we came up with 60 projects that looked pretty good. Then we invited them to gather over four or five days, and ... they made a series of recommendations. I came to some tentative conclusions, talked with producers about maybe amending their projects a bit here and there, then came up with final decisions.''

Next year, says Madden, the process will take place all over again.

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