NPR's radio program on the arts, where seconds are crucial

It seemed too good to be true--a new five-hour radio-magazine show devoted to the arts. But NPR has gone and done it, with courage, style, and a commitment to quality normal for that remarkable network but still surprising in this ''we'll-get-by-with-the-bare-minimum'' day and age.

I spent last Sunday here in Washington watching the dedicated crew of ''The Sunday Show'' go through their paces from noon till 5 p.m. They are like aerialists on a slender wire. Every second is watched, counted, weighed. If a segment goes a few seconds over, there is tremendous concern. If there is an almost insignificant factual error that was missed in the final script editing, for instance, producer Deborah Lamberton is instantly on the phone, calling all over Washington to the writers and sources, to be absolutely sure the statement or fact is correct.

It was a draining five hours, following Deborah back and forth from the ''live'' Studio One to the monitoring studio (No. 2) as she checked with director Rosemary Tobin on any new wrinkle that arose. And what wrinkles! This Easter Sunday program was tied together by a full-length bell pealing at the Washington Cathedral - live coverage of what ended up being a 31/2-hour event, from the opening 10-bell peal through the incredible array of variations. If at any point in the sequence the timing is off, the entire peal fails and we do not get to hear the return of the original peal that concludes the event.

Every so often, the venue would switch to the live location, while back in Studio One, the executive producer and show host, David Ossman, would be given a progress report by Richard Dirksen, bellmaster at the Washington Cathedral, who was monitoring the peal in the studio.

The particular drama of this week's preparations involved the projected conclusion of the peal--a time window that changed every now and then depending on the speed of the progression and Mr. Dirksen's frankly mathematical projections. It looked as if that final peal might occur during a required station break. In the end, several segments were altered or reprogrammed to accommodate the bell-peal finale.

And since live sequences are an important part of ''The Sunday Show's'' profile, there will probably never be a quiet moment for those indefatigable wielders of the stopwatches, Miss Lamberton or Miss Tobin. Certainly, even if everything is meticulously planned and works according to schedule, Rosemary will bear the brunt of the mechanics of the show, for in her job as director, she must see to it that all the sequences - live and taped--fit together on schedule.

She sits to one side of the control center--a huge sci-fi-fantasy board, surrounded by five reel-to-reel tape recorders, lights, VU-meters, etc. She is the authoritative but kindly general, calling the shots so that the maneuvering of all the buttons and some 40 reels of tape is skillfully orchestrated into an apparently seamless totality.

Between live interruptions of recorded interviews with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, musicologist-performer Joshua Rifkin, and others, Miss Lamberton noted that ''we've got as many ladies as guys in tough jobs.'' She appreciates that. For until recently, broadcasting, like so many other areas, was male-dominated. Miss Lamberton admits that in her time at NPR, she has had to learn and master her craft. That training has paid off in her current responsibilities as a creator/innovator/producer.

I had a chance to talk to Mr. Ossman during the pre-recorded sections. He told me that he left ''Firesign Theater'' to take on this job of executive producer for ''The Sunday Show,'' little realizing that he would be its host as well. But as the concept for the format progressed, it was imperative that the host not smack or even hint of the stuffy, rolling-voiced ''classical music'' radio show host.

And indeed, Ossman brings a touch of the casual, making the listener feel utterly comfortable, as the program careens from Bach on a guitar to sakuhachi music, to a selection from Joshua Rifkin's lean, ascetic, controversial version of Bach's ''B-minor Mass,'' to an interview with poet James Dickie, to bell-pealing, to Richard Stoltzman in conversation and in concert to . . . .

What can ''The Sunday Show'' do for radio listeners, I asked Ossman.

''In places where there's more than one classical station, it can provide an alternative to the standard fare,'' Ossman said. (In places where the NPR affiliate is the only such station, it offers a wide variety of music, interviews, insights, and features, to keep the regular listener well rounded.) ''We hope it will catch the ear of a lower demographic than NPR has caught in the past,'' he continued.

''Generally, classical stations have been bastions of elitism, playing only white European music. Here today, we have heard Richard Stoltzman play Ornette Coleman, we have heard music on the sakuhachi, as well as the Rifkin Bach, and so on. We've discovered, through various kinds of audience testing, that the listening audience changes rapidly on a Sunday afternoon.'' Ossman's aim is to catch the attention of the dial spinner (or, for those who own the new digitally synthesized tuners, button-pushers).

''It's high tech and as complicated as a TV news program,'' Ossman observes. Yet it all sounds effortless over the speakers. Most of the music played has been recorded in concert, lending a more immediate air to the selections. ''We set this show up as an arts magazine and a place where the unusual performance could be heard.''

There are such ongoing events as a complete Beethoven sonata cycle (featuring the likes of Rudolf Firkusny, Jean-Bernard Pommier, and Emanuel Ax) and tributes to famous people and institutions. Next Sunday, for instance, will feature a segment devoted to the 100th anniversary of Leopold Stokowski's birth, with a focus on the ''Fantasia'' sound track he recorded. The Sunday after next will include a concert of music written 50 years ago, around which a theme will be explored of just what went on in the all the arts back then. May 1 offers a tribute to the centennial of the founding of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The director of performance programming for NPR is John Bos. He observed that this show has been in the works since September of 1979, when the idea of an arts magazine was first kicked around.

''People have been asking why NPR would wish to undertake a project budgeted at $1.2 million''' he said, ''at a time when funding is being cut back. I respond that this is precisely the time--at the crunch--to branch out and go for new bases of support, be they corporate, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.''

And how is ''The Sunday Show'' doing after a mere two installments? Ossman cites a quantity of letters all beginning with ''Bravo!'' Bos notes that 137 stations have picked up the program, 85 opting for the complete five hours, the rest choosing either the two--or the three-hour segment the show is conveniently divided into. Many other stations are waiting for it to sink or swim before taking a stand. In some cities, like New York, the affiliate needs at least a month to fit this five-hour block into its schedule.

The afternoon I sat in on certainly proves that there is a vast variety of material to choose from and that the production team putting this together is imaginative, skillful, and especially adept at keeping the format lively without lapsing into slickness; informative without becoming didactic; varied without pandering to hokum to draw in its audience.

''The Sunday Show'' is clearly something to cheer about. It breaks through the tyranny of the Sunday afternoon concert-format radio program with a vigor and a style that should make it quite appealing once everyone has found his or her ''sea legs.'' As John Bos put it, ''I don't even know what the thing can do.'' Finding out is going to be tremendous fun for staff and audience alike.

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