Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: The Human Genome Project

AUTHOR: Loretta Williams

November 1998: Preparing for a Live-to-Tape Broadcast

I arrive bleary-eyed in New York, check in to my hotel, and go over the preparations one more time for the taping of our roundtable discussion on the Human Genome Project. It wouldn't seem that getting five people together for an hour's talk would be all that difficult, but the logistics rival the preparations for a formal wedding, albeit sans food. I flash back to the first hurdle: the "guest list"...

There are a lot of knowledgeable people who can discuss the Human Genome Project, but what particular mix of people do we want? How can we ensure that the group will mesh well without coming off as a bunch of insiders? Do we want everyone to be a scientist, or should we go the other extreme and create an eclectic group à la the late-night program Politically Incorrect? Perhaps we can examine the issues of the Human Genome Project from unusual perspectives-a science fiction writer could speculate about the future, a journalist could give us an overview of the issues via news events associated with the Project. What about a politician to talk about bills introduced in Congress to fight genetic discrimination? Maybe we should hear from someone whose family is directly affected by a genetic disease. On the other hand, we could just go for a "biological big thinker"-someone like Stephen Jay Gould or E.O. Wilson. And should we consider adding a perspective that's based primarily on gender or race?

My computer monitor bristles with Post-it(r) notes of contact information. I've lost track of how many people I've called to create our "short list" of possible interviewees. We dropped the idea of the science fiction writer and the big thinkers early on. We need folks with more specific knowledge. A politician would be nice, but all the talk about impeaching the President seems to be monopolizing the attention of everyone on Capitol Hill. Fortunately, Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health Director of the HGP, is available and says yes quickly; that means we can focus on finding people who will complement his knowledge. I buy a new bottle of Tums(r) for my desk. Georgia Dunston and I play phone tag for days then have one long late-night conversation that convinces me that she has intriguing ideas that I haven't heard before. The guest list s-l-o-w-l-y clicks into place. Thomas Murray, a bioethicist I'd heard on another radio program, will be traveling but is willing to participate if we can find a studio in Oklahoma where he can join in. On the Friday before the taping I finally connect with Vicky Whittemore, who fits my requirement of having a family history of genetic disease.

Now we have to make sure that we can pull this off technologically. The host is in New York, Thomas Murray is in Oklahoma, and the rest of the guests are in Washington, D.C. Another round of phone calls ensues. Is there a studio at NPR in D.C. that's big enough to accommodate three people? The answer comes back rather quickly. No. Not on the day we need. OK, how about at the local station WAMU? Another day of phone tag goes by. Yes? Great. The big problem is our guest in Oklahoma. He's nowhere near Oklahoma City, the studio close by in Norman is being rebuilt, and there is no satellite system or ISDN line. We'll have to use the telephone, record his end at the student radio station in Norman, then drop his part of the conversation in during the editing process. Yucky, but do-able. I check the back of the Tums(r) bottle. How many of these things can you safely eat in a day?

In between the phone calls and faxes I write the outline of the program. Because the program is taped as if it is airing live, the order of the questions is important. The goal is minimal editing-certainly no editing to reorder the material later. Each of our guests has a particular expertise and perspective; the questions need to take advantage of their knowledge. And I have to try to forget all that I know about the Human Genome Project to devise questions that our listeners would want to ask. At least the first question is easy: What is the Human Genome Project and why is it important?

Finally it's the morning of the taping. I walk into the studio with a notebook and two CDs. The notebook has the program outline and contact information for all the studios and the guests. The CDs have our theme music and tape that was collected in New York and San Francisco with questions for the panel from people on the street. We also have bits of upcoming programs that will promote the rest of The DNA Files series while serving as breaks for the hour.

Caryl Wheeler, our engineer, starts the technical wizardry that gets all the studios hooked together. Thomas Murray shows up in Oklahoma, and we hear from WAMU that we have two of our three guests in D.C. From here in New York, John Hockenberry chats up the three guests while we wait for the fourth. I recheck the CDs and my notes. I punch fifty minutes-the actual time that this segment needs to be-into the clock. We're still missing our fourth guest.

Caryl and I review the CDs and where she'll play them in the hour. Still no fourth guest and it's after 10 a.m., the time we were supposed to start. I grab the notebook and start making phone calls. There is always the horrifying thought that in the tons of e-mail, faxes, and phone calls a significant fact was transmitted incorrectly, like the date...or the time...or the place. But after a quick check with the missing guest's office and home, it seems that indeed our fourth participant should have arrived.

Hockenberry and I confer. Do we try to reschedule? No that's out. Do we go ahead with who we have? How long can we wait for the fourth guest? We have two hours of studio time for fifty minutes worth of taping. We can afford to wait until 10:30. I check my voice mail to make sure our guest hasn't tried to call me back in California. No message. I dig around in my purse-damn, I forgot to pack the Tums(r). At 10:30 we call the other guests back into the studio. We'll go with who we have. Just as they settle in, our fourth guest arrives, apologetic and out of breath, a victim of the unpredictable traffic on the Washington Beltway. I smile in relief and say a little thank-you to the radio gods. We're ready. I nod to Hockenberry. We roll tape.