Cambridge, Mass. — It has the familiar National Public Radio tone, all right - nicely inflected voices, smooth transitions, thoughtful topicality. But NPR's ``Performance Today,'' which has begun airing in more than 50 stations around the country, is a distinctly different kind of show: a daily national radio program devoted to covering the arts. Call it a thinking person's ``Entertainment Tonight'' or an arts-oriented alternative to ``Morning Edition,''- the program offers a highly selective but skillfully integrated diet of classical music and arts features.
For example, an interview with modern composer Earl Kim the morning after the premi`ere of his new composition; a talk with bagpiper Nancy Krutcher Tunnicliffe; and an audio portrait of Clementine Hunter, the 101-year-old primitive folk artist.
Offered Monday through Friday from 8 to 10 a.m. (check local listings), ``Performance Today'' has a familiar classical deejay format, with host Kathryn Loomans sandwiching sprightly commentary between musical selections.
But it also adds a timely mix of interviews, on-location concerts, on-air phone talks with listeners, and other segments. These are usually related to music, but they also cover the other arts and add up to a continuing overview of the cultural scene.
``It's three-fourths music and the rest is information about the arts,'' said Wesley Horner, executive producer of ``Performance Today,'' when we chatted while he was in Boston in connection with the show's area premi`ere on station WBUR-FM.
``The music is a combination of compact discs or performances that we've extracted from concerts that happened in very recent days or weeks,'' he notes.
``It includes information on all the arts - dance, theater, film, books.''
Ms. Loomans, who was also in Boston for the occasion, said, ```Performance Today' is interested in the big national stories of concern to anyone who wants to know about the arts. But it's very important to me to reflect the arts in the small towns all over the country and not just in the major metropolitan centers, and I think we're well set up to do that. We have three features producer who are regionally assigned.''
What part does Loomans play in preparing the material she reads on the air?
``To tell you the truth, at this point I write very little of it,'' she said. ``But I've spent a lot of time reading newspaper and magazine clippings from all over the country to help contribute to what we might have on the air. The staff is very informed and they talk to me on an ongoing basis.
``I take great care to go over the material, to do some rewriting, to make it my own. And I would expect that, down the road, I would be a little bit more involved in specific features, and then in the writing of those features.''
On the air, Loomans strikes a tone that is just right for a music-listener who wants a host who has individuality without being assertive.
Loomans's clear voice and intelligent readings should wear very well in the months ahead. She is not a media ``personality'' but a communicator whose approach seems to say she's there to give arts lovers chance to get their fill in a catchy but not obtrusive way.
But more than Loomans's style and the ``Performance Today'' content determine what listeners hear. Local stations are encouraged to customize the basic national program they receive from NPR. How much of this they do depends on the size and production capabilitites of the station carrying the show.
``The program will not sound the same anywhere,'' Mr. Horner points out, ``because every station will insert local information about the arts in their community and local features, and local performances if they like.
``We're providing a vehicle through which local stations can create a window on the national cultural world. It's very, very flexible. I suppose a station could carry as much as six hours of it and make it continuously different.''
In fact, a few large, capable stations put so much of their own stamp on the program that listeners may not always be sure exactly where it's coming from:
``I'm Dennis Boyer with Kathryn Loomans on WBUR's `Performance Today,''' says a Boston host in a local segment on one of those larger stations. In this case, the national and local identities of the program have merged so seamlessly that it's being called ``WBUR's `Performance Today''' and the names of the two hosts - one in Washington whose voice is being ``fed'' nationally, the second in Boston speaking in local inserts - are billed as being together.
This is just fine with NPR, according to Horner, since NPR has designed the show to allow such integration.
He does hope, however, that local versions of ``Performance Today'' retain ``some identity with NPR, because the bulk of the funding is coming through NPR to create the program in the first place.
``And in most places,'' he says, ``the program would clearly have a stronger NPR identity than a local one. WBUR is contributing a lot of national material, and its local material is the reverse of the typical.''
Steve Ellman, WBUR's producer for ``Performance Today,'' explains that ``WBUR's objective is to produce pieces on our level and about Boston arts that will be just as good as the NPR pieces.''
At the WBUR event, Mr. Ellman stated, ``Our style is one that has been used as a kind of model for other stations in the network. When `Performance Today' was brought to network affiliates at a kind of convention a couple of months back, they asked us and a couple of other stations to produce our versions of what we would do with the program in a local fashion,'' and the results were played at the meeting.
In the weeks ahead, listeners can anticipate coverage of the Salzburg Festival on Jan. 23, Mozart's birthday on Jan. 27 (when celebrities will be asked to request their favorite Mozart compositions), and - on Jan. 28 - a feature on Artur Rubinstein's birthday.
Alan Bunce covers radio for the Monitor.