I’ll be speaking to the Public Radio News Directors this Saturday in Washington and I’ll want to bang all the heads together and make them repeat after me: “We are not radio. We are not radio. We are not radio.” Just as newspapers are not paper, or must figure out what they are after, so NPR must decide what it is after broadcast. I said this to them a few years ago when I spoke to the group in St. Louis and then again when I joined others to talk about new media at NPR’s headquarters. My prescription then:
NPR is not radio. If I tell newspapers they have to stop thinking on paper, so I’ll argue that NPR must throw off the limits of its medium. And I don’t just mean that the can go multimedia, adding photos or videos to their sound. I mean changing the culture, not thinking like a radio network anymore so thewy can see the options the internet opens up to work in every appropriate medium with entirely new kinds of content, from TV to data bases.
I’m seeing the notion of thinking past radio discussed now thanks to the death of one of public radio’s attempts to modernize, Bryant Park Project. It was, as far as I’m concerned, the better of the attempts; the other, The Takeaway, is floundering, earnestly but uncomfortably. NPR apparently doesn’t know what it means to modernize. They seem to think it means losing their legendary polish and releasing their inner “uh’s” and “y’know’s.”
The problem, I think, is that they didn’t understand what the essence of NPR is. They thought it was radio, so they tried to come up with new formats and formulae for radio. But that’s not what NPR is.
Rob Paterson, the very smart consultant who advises NPR, says of the BPP folding:
I think a couple of things are becoming more clear to me. The show was seen as a Radio show with a strong social web element. This is I think the key error that drove the costs and the expectations. If you want to do the new today – you have to break away from the costs of the machine – if a paper, no press and no paper!
I would have launched BPP as a web show with a bit of radio. No small distinction.
He talked about the cost of it, as did John Proffitt. Radio’s also not cheap. And then Rob comes to the bottom line for National Public (Radio):
Just as the presses and the paper is a cost that is killing the Newspapers, so the transmitters are killing TV and Radio. All that can remain for a while are the established shows such as ME and ATC. But if you want some thing new that will scale and make you money – it’s the web all the way.
But again, what is it that moves to the web? And how? What’s that essence of NPR? That’s what I asked the Guardian. It’s what every media organization trying to reinvent itself must ask. What are you saving? What is your appeal? What is your value? What are you?
This afternoon, I happened to be talking with Adam Davidson, part of the team that created that incredible This American Life/NPR News show explaining the credit crunch. On Twitter, Jay Rosen said this was the best explanatory journalism he’d heard. I responded that it was the best I’d heard or read. If The Times had explained the story this well, it would have made it as radio so in their voices we could hear — as someone said in another tweet — their incredulity. So it was great radio but that was merely a choice of media. It wasn’t the essence of it.
So I asked Davidson how he defined that essence. He thought about it and answered that it’s about shows that, at the end of the week, make you say, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about. Now I get it.”
I like that and that essence can be communicated in audio, video, text, graphics, apps, discussion. The intelligence of NPR can now be freed from mere radio to use any and all appropriate media. That’s what we try to teach our students at CUNY: making media choices with every story. So should NPR.
What do you think the essence of NPR is?