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NPR PROGRAM TO ILLUMINATE THE CITY OF LIGHT 100 YEARS LATER

They came here from Washington, D.C., to find a city and tell its story.

Reporters from National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" spent five months here, and on Sunday will let the rest of the country know the state of Buffalo 100 years after the Pan-American Exposition.

A two-hour special broadcast "The City of Light," will be aired nationally at 8 a.m. Sunday on NPR. Locally, the special can be heard on WNED-AM 970 and WBFO-FM 88.7. WBFO will also rebroadcast the program at 10 a.m.

The first hour will look at the social and economic factors that have influenced Buffalo over the past century. The second hour will include stories from surrounding areas, including Lackawanna and Niagara Falls.

"Cities are kind of like people; they have life cycles. It's fun to go through them and see how those cycles have played out," said Stu Seidel, editor of the special.

This is not a stuffy public radio discourse with talking heads, celebrities and politicians. There are community leaders and famed personalities, from Mayor Masiello to Ani DiFranco, but the program is dominated by two factors: people and neighborhoods.

"We went to bars, we went to schools and we went out on the streets," Seidel said. "Sometimes, in journalism, we lose sight of the fact that elected officials are not always the voice of the people. The fun thing about radio is to evoke the voices of the people."

Buffalonians have a tendency to be defensive after years of economic downturn and wisecracks from the national media.

"Buffalo has been a punch line for too long," said Liane Hansen, host of "Weekend Edition," Wednesday morning as she sat in the lobby of the Hyatt-Regency Hotel.

"There have been a lot of jokes about Buffalo, but the Pan-Am Exposition anniversary gave us a chance to come here and look at the the city, its history and its people."

Hansen and a crew from NPR were still in town Wednesday making last-minute changes to the program. Talk of casinos coming to Buffalo and Niagara Falls meant more work for them. Hansen was also impressed by the Tuesday "Cruise Night" on Chippewa Street.

"It's all part of how things are changing in Buffalo," she said.

Some of the hard issues covered in the program are segregation, the demise of the steel industry and Love Canal. There will also be lighter material, like the piece on Buffalo's QRS Music Roll Factory, which aired on "Weekend Edition" last Sunday because Hansen said they had too much material to fit it into the upcoming two-hour special.

"Not everyone is going to love it, but we're going to tell about a city that has a sense of community and support among its people," Hansen said.

"Buffalo is on the verge of something - whether it will happen or not, I don't know. But you look at the waterfront and you look at downtown, and you get the sense things are changing."

It's rare for "Weekend Edition" to devote an entire show to a region. They did it once before, with a program last year on South Dakota.

Andrea DeLeon, NPR's Northeast bureau chief, first suggested a piece on Buffalo because of the Pan-Am anniversary. Seidel and producer Phil Harrell followed up.

Local businessman Mark Goldman helped the NPR staff with the project. "I wouldn't call this program a CT scan or MRI of Buffalo, but it's going to be a very interesting outsider's take on the city," Goldman said. "These people are good journalists; they put a lot of time and effort into this.

"I think it can come close to capturing the essence and color of Buffalo, because it's really about the people who live here. It's grass roots; this is not a top-down project, but the other way 'round. That's why I think it will be endearing."

Al Wallack, program director of WNED, hopes so.

"It's a chance to tell the rest of the country what we're really all about," he said. "I have to feel this program is going to be a good thing for Buffalo."

Jen Roth, general manager of WBFO, agreed.

"I'm holding my breath that it makes Buffalo look good," she said. "I have a lot of confidence because of Liane and the journalistic standards of "Weekend Edition.' "

The months in Buffalo have changed Hansen's attitude about the city.

"I like it better now than when I first came here," she said. "Of course, it's June and it's 85 degrees."

Hansen has enjoyed the finer points of Buffalo culture while here doing her research, including chicken wings, a fish fry, architecture, City Hall and, most of all, Buffalonians themselves.

And, then there's the "accent."

"People here speak with an accent," Hansen said. "It's kind of nasal and sounds Midwestern."

And, for Hansen and the NPR staff, it's the voice of the people that matters most in this weekend's special broadcast.

"I hope when the people of Buffalo hear this program, they hear themselves," she said.

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