It's better to be lucky than smart, the saying goes, but being both is best of all, if you can pull it off. The first season of thinkspeak, the summer lecture series produced jointly by KERA and AT&T Performing Arts Center, managed to do that, wrapping up earlier this month at the Winspear Opera House with a talk by Sarah Koenig, creator of the record-breaking investigative podcast Serial, ending a season successfully aimed at drawing a younger, hipper audience of the sort usually turned off by subscription series.
Koenig's was one of four performances — the three other lecturers were Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and This American Life host Ira Glass — that were meted out throughout the summer, one each in May, June, July and August. It was so successful that Becki Howard, director of programming at AT&T Center, is already planning next year’s series.
“It was a happy accident,” says Howard of thinkspeak’s creation and immediate success. “We’d already had [Ira Glass and Neil deGrasse Tyson] booked as one-off engagements that were going to be their own deal.” Then, in discussing the center’s mission and audience-building efforts, Howard and her team landed on the idea of building those shows into a larger series. “We know that a lot of other people do speaker series and we didn’t want to replicate any of those. What Arts and Letters Live [and the Tate Lecture Series] do is great and they’re really good at it.”
Howard’s team decided to differentiate thinkspeak by running with an NPR tone (Tyson, the only non-radio person of the four, has appeared on Radiolab) and took on KERA as a partner. “It seems like there’s a really good overlap in the Venn diagram of our audiences,” Howard says. KERA and AT&T have collaborated on individual events before — such as when the StoryCorp truck, an oral history project, camped in front of the Winspear — but this was their first major collaboration.
Ira Glass is currently touring Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, a show he developed with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, in which journalistic radio pieces are illustrated with dance performances, so his thinkspeak “lecture” was already set to be outside the box. Then the opportunity arose for Howard to book Jad Abumrad’s Gut Churn (the name references the motivating anxiety he felt as he developed his science-focused radio show), with accompaniment by cellist Zoe Keating. At that point, thinkspeak’s unique goals as a series became even clearer. “Jad’s event and Ira’s event kind of encapsulated what I think the difference is,” Howard says. “Yes, you’re speaking and you’re telling stories, or you’re giving a talk, but there’s also this really creative element to it.”
Of his many lectures, deGrasse Tyson delivered An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, where he debunked or explained science in popular films such as Ted and Interstellar. As a performing arts center, AT&T seeks out speakers with specialties in the arts, but Howard says she still feels deGrasse Tyson was a good fit for the series. “He also had some acting experience with his Cosmos stuff,” she adds. There’s no doubt he was a big get and the crowd for his show was arguably the most energetic of the four.
Sarah Koenig was booked last. Since she only just became a pop culture icon, this is Koenig’s first time to tour, so her lecture was a more straightforward account of the making of Serial, which has been downloaded, she told the audience, in every country but Eritrea and North Korea. “We wanted this season that is about smart people to include a woman, so it was really nice that that it all came together that way,” Howard says. Koenig was already in Dallas because she’d spoken at the podcast convention in Fort Worth the weekend prior, and Howard says Koenig likely gave the same talk there. “We’re not in a financial position to commission work for this kind of a thing or a new work.”
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Despite thinkspeak’s white hot first lineup, even Howard was surprised by how many four-show packages they sold. When we called a day or two after they went on sale, the cheapest ones (at about $120) were already sold out. “More [subscribed] even than we were anticipating,” she says. The demographic that regularly buys subscriptions — most often to theater or opera — is generally older. It can be hard to persuade young people to commit to a string of events, some of which may be unfamiliar, way in advance. For that reason, the AT&T Center consciously avoided use of the term subscription in their marketing. “Someone very smart in our ticketing department brought up that because the target demographic for this audience is going to skew a little younger, subscription might be a scary word,” Howard says. “We just said, ‘Buy all four for X dollars.’”
That tactic appears to have worked, as thinkspeak is set to become a fixture for AT&T and KERA. It will be a challenge to top the cohesiveness of this year’s lineup — the speakers’ work had a lot in common, and in several cases they had worked together — but Howard is ready to take it on and to offer something different next year. “We’ve got a couple booked already and we’re in the process of finalizing the other two. Next year will have a less specific NPR bent but I do think it’s going to appeal to the same audience.” She hopes at least one show each season will be of the hybrid nature we saw this year, mixing different media, and she’s especially interested in bringing talent that doesn’t ordinarily visit Dallas. “We hope [the series] will allow people to know that entertainment like this, you don’t have to go out of town to see it. We’ll bring it here for you.”
The only disappointment was that taking advantage of the subscription model in some cases seemed to result in worse seats. At $45 a pop in the $180 package, we’d expected decent ones, but we were in the nosebleeds for each performance. Even the cheap seats at the Winspear are enjoyable (all of the events were there except Abumrad’s, which was at Dallas City Performance Hall), but it was still a disappointment. Tickets in the orchestra for some shows were going for $50 the day of, so unless you’re worried about the series selling out, next summer it may be best to take your chances and buy individually. You stand to get better seats for more or less the same price that way.
Thinkspeak’s first season did have one strong argument to make for subscriptions. Packages tend to encourage people to attend performances they might not seek out otherwise, and those performances could prove to be the strongest ones. While Ira Glass and deGrasse Tyson were likely the biggest attractions of thinkspeak this year, their shows felt a little scattered. It made sense for Glass to go for something different — he’s given straightforward lectures in Dallas several times in the past — and he’s such an endearing figure that it was worth the price of the ticket simply to watch him twirl a baton. Likewise, deGrasse Tyson could make fart jokes on stage for two hours and earn our affection. (Who didn’t love the teacher who rolled the TV into the classroom?) Our favorite evenings, however, were the ones with newcomer Sarah Koenig and lesser known Jad Abumrad. Their talks were well-thought-out, well-executed, educational and innovative in a way that really demonstrated the value of Dallas’ newest summer speaker series.