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'Farm Aid' goes high-tech

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Dec. 3, 2003 at 7:02 PM
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- "Farm Aid," the long-running fund-raising telethon on behalf of America's family farms, is changing its ways this year -- chucking the traditional day-long cable telecast for a more compact, two-hour Thanksgiving presentation on PBS.

This year's benefit will be televised as a special presentation of "Soundstage," the PBS music series that featured intimate concerts before small audiences by such stars as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Benny Goodman and the Temptations during its original run from 1974-85. PBS brought the series back recently, and the new incarnation has presented shows by such contemporary artists as Peter Cetera, Amy Grant, Trace Adkins, Tori Amos and John Hiatt.

Randy King, Executive Producer of "Soundstage," told United Press International a prime motivation for moving "Farm Aid" from cable to broadcast TV was the opportunity to take the fund-raising appeal to a larger viewership. He also said the demographics of the PBS audience are a good fit for the show.

"The PBS audience is ... socially active and aware, concerned about ecology and organic foods and family farms," said King. "And they're used to going online and getting involved in causes. This is the perfect match."

This year's model is radically different from past "Farm Aids," which presented longer sets of music by featured performers, broken up by fund-raising appeals between sets. The sets are shorter and the appeal for donations is mainly accomplished by directing viewers to a Web site where they can learn more about family farming and order a DVD of the show which also includes more information about the Farm Aid organization.

The actual concert was a day-long affair, taped in September. It features peformances by "Farm Aid" stalwarts Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews -- as well as such music stars as Brooks & Dunn, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris.

Veteran record producer Joe Thomas, who directs the "Soundstage" shows for PBS, also directed the upcoming "Farm Aid" telecast. He told UPI that the truncated version should be much more appealing to viewers, who may have thought past "Farm Aid" shows were too long and drawn out.

"The new Russell Crowe movie ("Master and Commander") -- best movie of my life, but I don't think I could watch eight hours of it," said Thomas. "At some point you have to step away."

Thomas said the new, shorter "Farm Aid" is largely a response to the channel-changing habits of viewers. He suggested that the old-fashioned telethon is probably a thing of the past.

"Except for Jerry Lewis (the annual telethon on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association) -- and they did a fantastic job with it this year -- it may not work anymore," said Thomas.

Thomas also comes to the project with an appreciation for what the artists went through in past "Farm Aid" concerts -- changing over band equipment between sets, and under constant pressure to get back to music for the TV audience. He played "Farm Aid" in the mid-'90s with former Beach Boy Brian Wilson's band.

"It was always rushed," he said. "There was always this TV tension. As good as the 'Farm Aid' live production staff is, it's an impossible task for them."

This year's presentation does include some direct fund-raising appeals between sets, but they are considerably briefer than they have been in the past. The spots feature Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews making a pitch for the virtues of family farming and organic farming.

"If you want good food on your table -- healthy food on your table to feed your family -- you should go to someone who makes healthy food from healthy land," Matthews tells viewers. "And that's who the family farmers are."

Young framed the campaign as a "good fight" against agribusiness.

"We're David and there's an army of Goliaths against us," said Young. "Farm Aid is a real thing about protecting something that's sacred in this country."

Apart from Young's T-shirt -- with the words "Stop factory farms" across his chest -- the show contains little in the way of overtly political messages. Nelson's T-shirt says "Customs Police" across the back and Crow sports a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt.

"I think they were respectful and maybe overly cautious because they knew it was on PBS, and PBS doesn't want any political statements," said Thomas. "But we would not have edited it out."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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