When Andy Moore first pitched the idea of a live-music program to the management of Wisconsin Public Television, he never imagined it would revolutionize the way the station airs its goods. His project, 30 Minute Music Hour, turned out to be WPT's first venture into online broadcasting, and it seems to grow more ambitious with each episode.
Now in its second season, the show aims not just to recruit viewers but to confuse and excite them with a roster of musical guests that takes an unexpected turn every time the audience gets comfortable. The June 25 episode features easygoing pop-rock by the Lucas Cates Band, followed by the lo-fi wizardry of Sleeping in the Aviary July 2 and the alt-country of Austin up-and-comer Owen Temple Aug. 20. 30 Minute Music Hour airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television (channel 21, cable 11); full episodes of the show are available online at Isthmus and playing music with his kids and a couple of local bands, says the show's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach eventually sold it to the bigwigs, who were looking to fill programming slots on WPT's new digital stations.
"The switch to digital meant more channels, which meant more content, and it seemed we should be doing at least some original content, not just acting as the Nova nozzle," he says. "Anybody can do that."
The show did venture into space - web space - and far before most. Its inaugural season began last year with live online broadcasts of each episode, which were aired on TV a few days afterwards. Season two features a less frantic schedule of performances, and the online version of each episode won't remain on the web until it has appeared on TV.
The show remains unique: real musicians, performing live on the web and fielding questions from a moderator-turned-stage manager. What's more, the show is filmed three episodes at a time, just one day per month. If the tour bus breaks down or the bass player catches the flu, Moore must scramble to find a replacement.
The value of creating something live in a time when almost everything - particularly music recordings - is engineered to death far outweighs this inconvenience, it seems. Musicians who can cut a truly great album and put on a killer live show are relatively few and far between, and the 30 Minute Music Hour crew put their guests to the test without being jerks about it. In fact, those who sign up for the show view its challenge with gusto.
"So far, I haven't found anyone else on a professional soundstage putting up a live, 30-minute set of music with four cameras and a professional director," Moore says. "Once the artists get it, they're like, 'Oh my God, so our fan base can watch us live? Awesome.'"
While the fan-luring potential of the program draws bands from Wisconsin and beyond to the soundstage, it's the show's gentle touch of madness that makes it most appealing to viewers. A certain off-kilter charm tends to emerge from the banter between Moore and his guests, venturing at times into wacky word associations and even puppet shows - sock puppet shows at that. During the Sleeping in the Aviary episode, Moore sensed that cheeky vocalist Elliott Kozel might not be game for a Barbara Walters-style chat and devised a solution on the fly.
"The band brought their own entourage of 20 or 30 people, and Elliott handed out a whole sack of sock puppets," Moore says. "A few years ago, that would've scared the crap out of me, but I just grabbed a sock puppet and did the interview that way, with the sock puppet interviewing him rather than me."
It was one of the rare occasions Kozel's been caught off-guard, the band later told Moore, and the singer's anxiety mixed with the puppets' absurdity is the kind of thing that could probably only be captured live.
Says Moore: "It's the kind of thing that reminds you that yes, it really is happening right before your eyes."