Neda Ulaby

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.

Scouring the various and often overlapping worlds of art, music, television, film, new media and literature, Ulaby's radio and online stories reflect political and economic realities, cultural issues, obsessions and transitions, as well as artistic adventurousness— and awesomeness.

Over the last few years, Ulaby has strengthened NPR's television coverage both in terms of programming and industry coverage and profiled breakout artists such as Ellen Page and Skylar Grey and behind-the-scenes tastemakers ranging from super producer Timbaland to James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features. Her stories have included a series on women record producers, an investigation into exhibitions of plastinated human bodies, and a look at the legacy of gay activist Harvey Milk. Her profiles have brought listeners into the worlds of such performers as Tyler Perry, Ryan Seacrest, Mark Ruffalo, and Courtney Love.

Ulaby has earned multiple fellowships at the Getty Arts Journalism Program at USC Annenberg as well as a fellowship at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism to study youth culture. In addition, Ulaby's weekly podcast of NPR's best arts stories. Culturetopia, won a Gracie award from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation.

Joining NPR in 2000, Ulaby was recruited through NPR's Next Generation Radio, and landed a temporary position on the cultural desk as an editorial assistant. She started reporting regularly, augmenting her work with arts coverage for D.C.'s Washington City Paper.

Before coming to NPR, Ulaby worked as managing editor of Chicago's Windy City Times and co-hosted a local radio program, What's Coming Out at the Movies. Her film reviews and academic articles have been published across the country and internationally. For a time, she edited fiction for The Chicago Review and served on the editing staff of the leading academic journal Critical Inquiry. Ulaby taught classes in the humanities at the University of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University and at high schools serving at-risk students.

A former doctoral student in English literature, Ulaby worked as an intern for the features desk of the Topeka Capital-Journal after graduating from Bryn Mawr College. She was born in Amman, Jordan, and grew up in the idyllic Midwestern college towns of Lawrence, Kansas and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When Rob Thomas created Veronica Mars, his show about a sharp-elbowed girl detective, he had an ulterior motive: He wanted to kill off the reigning queen of teenaged sleuths — one who's been around for more than 80 years.

"Nancy Drew," Thomas says, his soft-spoken affect barely betrayed by a trace of a snarl. "Like, I feel like she had her run."

Hundreds of visual-effects artists are planning to picket the Academy Awards on Sunday for the second year in a row. They're hoping to bring attention to what's been happening in their industry.

The field is losing jobs and relocating to countries with bigger subsidies for employers. It's the result of a technical revolution that's changed the profession since it kicked off in the 70s with Star Wars creator George Lucas' visual-effects company, Industrial Light and Magic.

Let's be clear: Olympians handle the physical challenges of childbirth differently than most of the rest of us.

Aretha Thurmond is a discus thrower who'd already competed in two Olympics when she went to the hospital in labor.

"So I get there and they're like, 'Yeah, whatever, you're 4 centimeters dilated. Go walk around the hospital and come back,' " she says.

Thurmond's hospital was part of a university, so she headed straight for its track, where she power-walked for the next two hours. Then the school's discus throwers came out.

How do you measure love?

OK, it's a huge question. And maybe not one generally applied to television. But the metrics of success determine whether a television show lives or dies. (If this is the sort of topic that seems frivolous, consider the billions of dollars TV and other copyright industries contribute to the U.S. economy. The stakes start feeling higher.)

One of America's most important — and controversial — literary figures, Amiri Baraka, died on Thursday from complications after surgery following a long illness, according to his oldest son. Baraka was 79.

Baraka co-founded the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. His literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through, from his childhood — where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library — to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. His poem about that attack, "Somebody Blew Up America," quickly became infamous.

One of the most popular channels on YouTube is aimed toward people who play video games. It's got tons of content — thousands of game reviews, how-to videos of people gaming away enthusiastically, even little homemade movies that people have made using video-game software.

That last format is a user-generated phenomenon called machinima — "little m" machinima. "Big M" Machinima is a company, and it wants to be a new media empire. It's the entity behind that YouTube channel.

If you've seen the 2012 science fiction movie Looper, you might remember a telling exchange when a time-traveling hitman (Bruce Willis) sits down with a young version of himself (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and offers some advice.

"You should go to China," Willis says firmly.

Gordon-Levitt resists: "I'm going to France."

Blockbuster is going to shut all of its company-owned stores. Some franchise stores will stay open. At its peak, the video rental chain had about 9,000 stores.

One of rock's most beloved and contrarian figures has died. Lou Reed epitomized New York City's artistic underbelly in the 1970s, with his songs about hookers and junkies. He was 71.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, three brand-new cable channels all share the same problem. How do you persuade 20-somethings to look up from their phones long enough to gaze at an old-fashioned, regular TV? In Los Angeles, NPR's Neda Ulaby visited one of the channels that's trying to do that.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This could be the set of any cable news show about to go live.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TAKE PART LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Three minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: As character) We've got three minutes to air.

One of the strongest new sitcoms on TV this season has the worst name, but its title, Trophy Wife, was intended to be ironic. The show's creators, Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern, are self-professed feminists who wanted to take on a type generally scorned in popular culture.

The show's eponymous character, Kate, is a reformed party girl trying to find her place in a family that includes a much older husband, Pete, his two ex-wives and three kids. When Kate inadvertently breaks Pete's nose, the situation is expertly handled by ex No. 1, an intimidating surgeon.

Sure, Bob Newhart may have won his first Emmy for guest-starring as Professor Proton on the hugely popular show The Big Bang Theory, about four young scientists at Caltech. But behind the scenes is a real-life professor, David Saltzberg of UCLA.

Saltzberg studies high-energy particle physics and high-energy neutrino astronomy, using radio-detection techniques when he's not working as The Big Bang Theory's science consultant.

Seriously, if you were being attacked by zombies, you might yell out the word f- - -! But no one does on The Walking Dead. When it comes to language in this golden age of basic cable dramas, the rules are idiosyncratic and unclear.

"It's so arbitrary, hon," says Kurt Sutter. "It's just basically people in suits making up the rules."

No place seems safe these days from someone's terrifying, post-apocalyptic imaginings. Los Angeles is wrecked in the movie Elysium, the South is zombie-ridden in TV's The Walking Dead, and now— thanks to writer Ben Winters — even the quiet streets of Concord are at risk of annihilation.

This summer, NPR has been looking at comebacks — from politicians reinventing themselves to the recovery of once-endangered species.

And there's a special place in comeback heaven for disgraced movie stars — like Winona Ryder, who more or less made everyone forget about her 2001 shoplifting arrest with her role in the movie Black Swan, where she played an aging ballerina in a jealous frenzy.

But then people root for Winona Ryder. Film critic Wesley Morris has, ever since the 1988 movie Beetlejuice, where she played the ultimate depressive goth chick.

More than 90 percent of Americans say public libraries are important to their communities, according to the Pew Research Center. But the way that love translates into actual financial support varies hugely from state to state.

Vermont, for instance, brags that it has more libraries per capita than any other U.S. state. Some of them are remarkably quaint. In Ludlow, one library is a white clapboard Victorian, slightly frayed, ringed by lilies and sitting by the side of a brook.

For the next year, NPR will take a musical journey across America, which is one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth. We want to discover and celebrate the many ways in which people make spiritual music — individually and collectively, inside and outside houses of worship.

The founder of the choral group Sounds of Africa is Fred Onovwerosuoke. He was born in Ghana and brought up in Nigeria, and his choir in the heart of the U.S. — St. Louis, Mo., to be exact — has recorded his arrangements of African sacred music by a composer named Ikoli Harcourt Whyte.

We've got two words for you: Goth Barbie.

Not only does such a thing exist, but after Barbie, it's the best-selling doll in the world. The dolls of Monster High are bone-thin beauties all related to famous monsters. They come with books and Web episodes that follow their stories in that place where everyone feels like a freak — in high school.

The long holiday weekend follows on the heels of a record-setting May and June at the box office. This month begins with the return of the lucrative family-friendly franchise: Despicable Me 2.

Two years ago, in 2011, 90 percent of Lego's consumers were boys. A tough statistic to swallow for those of us who grew up playing with Lego's gender-neutral buckets of bricks. But the statistic came straight from Lego, which was then focused on boys with franchised sets based on properties like Star Wars and The Avengers after weathering a disastrous period in the 1990s that left the company on the brink of collapse.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Two years ago, 90 percent of kids playing with Legos were boys. You heard that right. Nine-zero. That's partly because Lego had turned from gender neutral buckets of bricks to selling heavily franchised sets such as "Star Wars" or "Avengers." For our series about kids and culture, NPR's Neda Ulaby looked at Lego's recent gamble on girls.

One of the most anticipated shows of the summer, Under the Dome, starts Monday on CBS. It's about a tiny New England town that's suddenly and mysteriously sealed off by an impenetrable dome.

The series is the first on-screen collaboration between two of the biggest Steves in popular culture — Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.

"The Steven Squared, we call it," cracks Neal Baer, an executive producer of the show.

I visited Toy Fair in New York City hunting for ideas for our summer series about kids' culture. One of the big takeaways was the increasing popularity of construction games such as Legos. Sales shot up nearly 20 percent last year. Now, it seems, every major toy manufacturer is scrambling to add new games geared toward kids building things.

Count plenty of grown-ups among the millions of fans of Adventure Time, a kids' show on Cartoon Network. Some are surely Emmy voters. (It's won three.) Others are very possibly stoners. Still others are intellectuals. Lev Grossman falls in the last category. He wrote two best-selling novels, The Magicians and The Magician King, and he's Time's senior book critic.

Grossman's critique of Adventure Time? "It's soooo smart! It's sooo intelligent!"

Hang on. He's just getting started.

For today's All Things Considered story about people sharing their Netflix or Hulu Plus passwords, producer Sami Yenigun latched on to what could've been an ordinary entertainment-business story and front-loaded it with snippets of sound from Game of Thrones — attacking dragons, evil kings, treacherous harlots. He made it hilarious.

This summer, NPR is taking a closer look at media for kids, taking it as seriously as what's offered to adults. Our first piece looks at a new show starting Monday night on ABC Family.

Arrested Development returning via Netflix? Just another old-media brand reviving itself on new media.

The TV show, which originally ran on Fox from 2003 to 2006 and unveils new episodes on Netflix next weekend, finds itself in splendid company. Radiohead, Louis C.K., Veronica Mars — all found their audiences with promotion and distribution from big studios and networks. Radiohead was signed to a major music label. Louis C.K. enjoyed HBO specials and TV shows. And Veronica Mars ran on two TV networks for three years.

What happens when fans stop talking about a show that used to be their favorite? Take American Idol, for example. Last week's finale was way down from last year's finale. It was the first time a finale did not reach the 20-million mark.

When actress Geena Davis was watching children's shows with her daughter a few years ago, she became so troubled by the lack of female representation, she started a think tank on gender in the media. The Geena Davis Institute recently partnered with University of Southern California professors to conduct a study analyzing gender roles and jobs on screen.

The good news? Prime-time television's pretty decent at depicting women with careers.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now online streaming is playing a bigger and bigger role in news events. Many people listened and watched the Boston bombing coverage on their laptops. And on Friday as the manhunt came to a close, tens of thousands of people were listening to police dispatches live online. In the entertainment world, video streaming is also having a big impact.

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