When the highest high-rise office building in Dallas outlined itself in neon green, people had strong opinions, pro and con. They had the opportunity to exchange them on National Public Radio's (NPR) Dallas affiliate, KERA-FM, and its ``Evening Talk Show.'' ``We need that,'' says the show's host, Karen Denard. ``If it's on people's minds, we need to put it out there and talk about it.''
She laughs at herself and what she admits is a much-used soapbox, but she continues: ``I am always amazed at the level of awareness and concern out there, and at the good ideas for working things out, for finding solutions.
``It's got to start somewhere. It will be in participating and listening and figuring things out; that's where understanding each other will begin.''
She doesn't climb on her soapbox for her own show alone, but for all the two-way radios on the airwaves today. Call-in talk shows are enjoying something of a boom, from network or syndicated shows to local programs devoted to public affairs or to topical matters like home repair, gardening, or pet care. Ms. Denard thinks it's a development due to a ``hunger to understand.'' Despite the unprecedented flood of information available today, or perhaps because of it, she says people need discourse, an unhurried exploration of issues, debate, or just an explanation by someone who understands.
Radio is becoming such a forum, and public radio is no exception. Of NPR's 320 affiliated stations, many have some version of a talk or call-in show. Ms. Denard says KERA has made one of the greatest commitments in its five nights a week ``prime time'' show (7-8 p.m. after the highly rated ``All Things Considered''). The show marks its second anniversary Jan. 23. While it wouldn't be called intellectual, it could aptly be described as smart.
Women serve as hosts to many radio talk shows, but usually in specialized areas or along the ``advice'' line. It is a little unusual to hear a woman handle a public affairs program, and rarer yet for it to be a black woman at the microphone. Ms. Denard, with a big, deep timbre in her voice, belies the airwave impression by being small and dainty, a stylish young black woman with short curly hair, big eyeglasses, and a large and usually mischievous smile.
After two years at the helm of the nightly show, she has become a local repository of knowledge about who in the North Texas radius of the radio station is an expert on any given body of information. Knowing where and how to find experts, and how to get them into the studio night after night, is as necessary as the more obvious job requirements of tact, curiosity, and a quick and articulate mind.
She did not deliberately prepare herself to become a talk show host. In fact, she began her radio career as a bookkeeper for a Seattle rock-and-roll radio station in 1973. That was the day of Federal Communications Commission-mandated public service air time. Because the bookkeeper was willing and, as it turned out, able to produce the public affairs programming, she got the job, and it led to a position with the public broadcasting station in Seattle, and then to news, a television talk show, and a television anchor slot. And most recently it led to Dallas, when KERA wanted to expand its local public affairs programming.
While local issues are popular topics, listeners have strong opinions and like to express them when the program turns to international events, terrorism, theater, politics, art, education, taxes, or foreign policy. Even authors on tour for currently published books are welcomed, but with a difference. When Kurt Vonnegut was in Dallas recently, he was interviewed by most of the media, but Ms. Denard says with satisfaction that when he spent an hour on the Evening Talk Show, the listeners got to ask the questions.
Her ideal program has two experts, one from either side of an issue. She says this is the most requested format when controversial issues are scheduled. Sometimes there is just one expert, as in the discussion of the new nighttime city skyline, when a native architectural expert acted as moderator.
Ms. Denard doesn't try to become an expert herself, but she likes to be familiar enough with the evening's material to be comfortable with the discussion. The area that requires the most preparation by her is the Middle East, she says; for example, understanding the complexities of the Lebanon situation, or the different sects of Islam.
Her favorite topic is ``parenting,'' including any aspect of the responsibility for which she believes no one ever is quite prepared. The only subject she would like to avoid is child abuse. Her usually big smile fades as she says, ``It happens, and we have to discuss it, and we do.'' But she has found herself scheduling the topic on nights when she will be away, ``because it is so sad.''
A New Yorker, Ms. Denard married young and had a son. After a divorce, she moved to Seattle as a single parent, and became involved in community activities, serving as a mayoral appointee to a Seattle-King County Drug Commission and on the boards of the YWCA, the Washington State Black Women's Caucus, and Planned Parenthood.
She has talked with many of the leading figures in every area of endeavor in North Texas, acting as host to them in the small, easygoing quarters she shares with the news staff of the radio station. Occasionally she has taken the show outside the studio. Once she tied her phone-in listeners into the Neiman-Marcus Fortnight, an annual two-week city-wide celebration of the culture of one country. She plans to put listeners on the floor of the Legislature, where they will be able to question their lawmakers directly while laws are being made. Her plans call for other intriguing hookups.
``With the satellite dish and all the technology we have now, why not?'' she asks, hinting that there is no limit to where the radio call-in talk show format can lead.