An Interview with Becca Pulliam

Senior Producer of NPR's Toast Of The Nation discusses the broadcast.

Becca Pulliam is Senior Producer of NPR's JazzSet and Toast Of The Nation, the annual New Years Eve celebration from coast to coast. Pulliam has been with WBGO in Newark, New Jersey for over 20 years. She was nominated in
2009 for The Willis Connover- Marian McPartland Award for Broadcasting by the Jazz Journalists Association. Mike Jacobs talked with her recently about her work on Toast Of The Nation, which airs Friday on KIOS at 7:00PM.

MJ: Talk about your role as senior producer for Toast Of The Nation and
the process of putting the show together. It must take months to prepare.

BP: First, Berklee College of Music and the Kennedy Center announce their bookings. I look for those around the Fourth of July.
In August and intensely in September, I check the clubs from coast to coast. They may have bookings but not yet show them online. I use email, phone calls, and checking in with musicians themselves to get a picture of the coming New Year's Eve. I try to make sure people know I'm exploring, not quite ready to decide.But after Labor Day through early October, the options are clear. And the idea is to find a line-up that will engage all the way from beginning to end. Different lead instruments, some vocals, small and bigger bands, festive festive festive. And we like people who are having a good year!

MJ: Has there ever been a last minute change in the schedule when an artist couldn't make the gig?

BP:You know, in the late 1980s or early 1990s (really, I've been doing this that long), an artist did collapse just before Christmas and we not only had to change artists, we had to change venues. We moved to the Keystone in San Francisco for Bobby Hutcherson's group. Our NPR technical director and a great lady named Jane Holmes who used to book all our phone lines worked hard to get the phone company to change the order. This was before ISDN lines, these were high quality analog lines. I love thinking about Jane Holmes. She could get a phone line from ANYWHERE. For years at NPR she was hooking reporters up from every corner of the world, but she always gave us the greatest attention for Toast of the Nation.

MJ: Do you have a favorite New Years moment from Toast Of The Nation? A particular artist or venue that sticks out in your mind?

BP: The earliest ones scared me the most. I felt so ON THE LINE. In 1987 I went to the old Dakota (not the new one in Mpls but the old one in St Paul) for the Twin Cities vocal group Moore by Four led by Sanford Moore and then Harry Connick Jr. He was in his early 20s. He was on the rise though. It was extremely cold. The truck from Minnesota Public Radio had a gas stove in it, ran out of propane (?) just after midnight. Harry's suitcase was lost. The Dakota was in a shopping mall. A storekeeper came and re-opened his men's clothing store so that Harry could get something nice to wear. He had just a small band and mainly it was Harry, singing and playing great piano. And exhorting the audience New Orleans style.

MJ: So are you stationed at WBGO on the big night? Do they have a big party planned there for the evening?

BP: For the last five years or so I've been at NPR. We make the party. The offices and studios are pretty full until mid-afternoon, but after that, it's just us. Suraya Mohamed is prepping by loading all the elements -- the one-minute versions of Auld Lang Syne for example -- in the Dalet. The sites are calling in and doing the last line checks. It used to be that we all synched our clocks to US Naval Observatory time, but digital timepieces and cell phones have replaced that ritual. It's a very EXPECTANT feeling as the early Kennedy Center concert begins at 7:30, Boston is just about ready to go (they begin at 8), New York's first set is beginning, in the Midwest they're on a dinner break, and on the West Coast they're about to have a sound check. At one extreme, Gary Mott and Antonio Oliart - the producer/director and mixer/tech dir in Boston - are on the phones to NPR Studio 4A. And at the other, Phil Edwards - the mixer on the West Coast - is still getting the stage the way he wants it. And we know the BIG PICTURE. That's a lot of fun.