National Public Whatsis

I’m headed to Washington to spend a day and a half with NPR and some of my favorite thinkers-out-loud: David Weinberger, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen, Robert Paterson, Euan Semple, and more. We’re there to brainstorm how NPR should play in the new world. Paterson has been doing good work with them for sometime and they’ve done many forward-thinking things (like freely podcasting their best shows). So one wonders why we’re there. But I’ve seen before that those who are the farthest ahead try not to think they’re far ahead so they will get farther ahead. And I certainly wasn’t going to argue with this opportunity for good conversation.

They’ve said the meetings are bloggable, so I’ll start by blogging some of my notes going in. I’ll find out they’re already doing half of this and the other half is wrong. But I’m eager to hear your ideas and dreams for NPR, so here’s my fodder:

* 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. So change the name: It’s National Public Media, except that Doc will scold me that this is more than media. It’s National Public Whatsis.

* NPR should be a network of networks. No longer limited by the clock and the tower, they can explode with new content, new audiences, new communities, new service. And they don’t have to produce and own them all; they can enable more networks to grow. A BBC News exec said recently (will find the link later) that the Beeb must start new services and brands to serve people in the mass-of-niches. I’d argue that they also need to enable others to start theirs and then to have a loose network confederation that can share content, promotion, knowledge, technology, and in some cases revenue. I am not arguing that NPR should water itself down. It should still be a meritocracy; it should still mean — as they like to say — “NPRness.” But this also does not mean that they should be just one brand. They can link many brands.

* NPR can be a training ground for great media. They should share their knowledge, working with other organizations that are already trying to do this, and with journalism schools (come on over to CUNY). In an ever-expanding network of networks, it is in everyone’s interest to make better media and NPR can help people do that.

* NPR should add to its mission finding and nurturing new talent. An NPR affiliate program director said at the Public Radio Program Directors’ confab two years ago that she can now try out talent online instead of in one slot on Sunday nights on her station. Now she can also find talent online. That should mean not just on-air and reporting talent but also cultural talent. Help the community discover its worthy stars.

* NPR should realize that it doesn’t need to build a community, it already has a community — and a damned smart and interesting one. The question to ask is how to enable them to share what they know and like, how to open up the windows to all the people gathered around NPR so they can talk with each other. I want to know what entertainment they’d recommend. I want to know what they know about their towns. Is that Gather? I think it’s something else, but I’m not sure what it is yet. Thus the brainstorming.

* NPR should work in collaboration with its public on journalism and culture. Jay Rosen can speak to that with his project. NPR and its stations can assign listeners to gather information and sound. They can take contributions that are directed toward getting specific projects done and programs made. If anyone should be taking the NewAssignment model and adapting it, it’s NPR.

* NPR can become an agent of open education: Teachers and students record lectures from universities and classrooms and NPR serves them from this new non-radio network.

* NPR can become the agent that helps people open up government with microphones. Why not tell every local citizen that they should record their government meetings — school boards, town boards, any public meeting — and NPR will host the podcasts? No, none of those recordings will get a large audience, but they don’t need to anymore. All they need is the interested audience. (I can’t go to my school board meetings because, ironically, I have kids, but I would listen to them — better yet, an edited podcast of them.) And by putting all this in a public place, reporters — professional and amateur — can dig up the news in them. And public officials will work in public. This is extreme openness.

* Help local affiliates become hyperlocal with devices like those above. This is a huge challenge for NPR as the value of its affiliates’ distribution diminishes in a world of ubiquitous distribution, podcasts, and all that. Local stations can fill in the void in local reporting in radio that, frankly, has always been there (even before Clear Channel). They can’t afford to do this with staff but they can enable the community to gather and share news.

* NPR can put up its full reporting so that people can remix it and find new stories of interest to new audiences. Look at the example of Frontline putting up transcripts of its cutting-room-floor interviews so we can mine more news there. So much of NPR’s reporting is lost to the clock. Once such a repository exists, others can contribute to it.

I’m eager to hear what they see as their next frontiers ad what you think they should be.

  • Kenneth Hein

    Great post. I’m working on an article and would love your thoughts. Please shoot me an e-mail. Thanks.

  • Excellent ideas and insights, Jeff. These will help us (local blogging and journalism community in North Carolina) think about how we can engage our own local NPR affiliate.

  • Andy Carvin is doing some great work over there to help NPR adapt to the new possibilities that are opening up.

    Look forward to hearing your blog posts from your day there.

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  • Disassociate from the Government

    I’d suggest that NPR/PBS etc. dis-associate themselves from the government and become a fully, public subscription, member, owned corporation with each member having a single vote. The current Public/Government ownership means that the public, its non-ad advertisers, and foundations, support most of it while the Government, Democratic or Republican, appoint the Board of Directors. This leads to the problems that we have seen in the past.

    I’d prefer that the NPR/PBS system was fully funded outside the Government, after the transition to Digital and the transfer of frequencies to the Public corporation, and thus we, the members would both support it and control it.

  • Mike Liveright makes an excellent point. I don’t know if public-only supported NPR would survive, seeing now that they can barely meet their yearly goal WITH government funding, but I would definitely prefer the government to stay the hell away from NPR/PBS affairs as far as content is concerned.

    I’m glad NPR is moving towards the digital future. I just checked iTunes and NPR has the top 3 podcasts and that just proves how much people love NPR content. PBS should be following in the footsteps of NPR because looking at their podcasting, they’re doing a disservice to their audience by putting few lousy clips as podcasting. Just look at the customer review of “Frontline” at the iTunes store and you’ll know what I mean.

  • I was listening to All Things Considered yesterday and every story was about somebody begging the government to do something. New Orleansers whining that some aid program for getting entirely new houses free wasn’t moving fast enough for their taste. Women who’d had stillborn babies wanting the government to provide birth certificates to recognize their loss. A story about UNICEF saying the US was the worst place to be a kid in the industrialized world because there aren’t enough government programs for this, that and the other. Judges wanting the government to protect them from mean nasty bloggers. And so on.

    I mean, I’m not some hardcore Ayn Randian or something, but Jesus, every single story started from the assumption that it was the government’s obligation to get you up in the morning and point your wanger for you when you peed. There wasn’t, of course, a single point of view suggesting that maybe New Orleans had been ruined by decades of dependency, or that a life and a death is not given meaning by the issuance of a piece of official paper by some bureaucrat, or whatever. I’ve greatly reduced my NPR listening over the last few years just because of a deep feeling that every report on Iraq is, fundamentally, the exact same report, and this thorough statist bias is another good reason why

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  • I’m working on a new independently produced radio show/vlog with Nina Simonds and Sue Schardt.

    Looking to get it picked up on radio via PRX:

    The vlog is:
    Spices of Life

    It’s a fun project. We have two videos and two radio segments up right now and I just finished editing a third video that will be up in a day or so about Chinese New Year and all the amazing food.

    Have fun in DC!

  • Local radio news is fast disappearing around the country as chains buy up and consolidate ownership of the local stations, shutting down local news operations because of the expense. If NPR could do something to fill that gap, it could probably dramatically increase its share of audience, I believe. I think you are on the right track with your suggestions in that area.

  • I always consider a name change as a VERY strong hint an organization is doomed. Either they’re trying to run away from something, or they’re thrashing about gasping for air… both of which are very bad things.

    I feel that a name change for NPR would be a very bad thing. They have a very good reputation and strong identity. This is a huge asset for them. Let’s not waste it.

    Otherwise, I totally agree with you.


  • Antonin Moriarty

    When you go to NPR, give them a map. And point to the area outside the Beltway.

  • Mr. Jarvis, good luck with the brainstorming. I’m a local NPR affiliate member station manager and I view public radio as an enigma that works BECAUSE of its balance of service and also of funding.

    Public radio wouldn’t be what it is today without public funding. Local stations would never have had the seed money to start what they did without public funding. Maybe stations could now operate without the federal funding because now public funding is usually a smalller percentage of the overall revenue, but what business wouldn’t be significantly affected by a revenue reduction of 10-20%.

    NPR wouldn’t be what it is today without local stations because it’s the local stations that “own” the network and purchase the product that NPR provides. (Originally NPR content almost totally came from its member stations…and I believe is currrently too much from NPR staff and not enough of member station produced content.) So, you can’t be an owner if you don’t purchase the product.

    Local NPR member radio stations see a need for NPR to be in the “new space” and those who have the staff sizes are working to be there themselves, but I hope we avoid seeing NPR run off on “its own” and leaving the stations behind.

    Admittedly, there continues to be a balancing act between member stations and NPR that is not perfected yet. You can imagine the tension created when we stations (owners), who provide the audience for the product that NPR produces, see NPR providing content outside the usual channels through the stations.

    Back to the “enigma” properties and what makes this arrangement great was the “NPRness” or standard to which local stations can strive towards and the compelling stories that NPR can draw on from around the country through the member stations which gives NPR a reporting base that would not be sustainable by itself.

    Likely, there is a key insight to how to “activate” each station’s listner/members. We will still need to strike some balance between maintaining the network standards and keeping the ownership of the local member station as local and connected to its community.

  • As a former contributer to WBEZ and WNYC and as someone who has recently left public media behind for the elyssian fields of electronic publishing and interactive entertainment, I can tell you that NPR is doing just enough to stay with the times and the trends.

    I think that you’re points are valid but that you might be asking NPR to take some steps that would separate it from its old “NPRness” as well as the mission of the CPB. Providing podcasts of local meetings and the like isn’t quite effective if only 1 person listens to it. NPR has begun to start considering the cost of increased bandwith and, though 1 listener wouldn’t directly effect their overhead, a bunch of little podcasts getting a single listener wouldn’t be cheap to produce. There are already communities for these kinds of things (, the public radio exchange). NPR acknowledges them. Nothing more is needed.

    As far as Jay Rosen and NewsAssignment are concerned, I think citizen journalism doesn’t have much of a place on NPR. From my experience there are thousands of college kids, recent graduates and, yes, even journalism students, itching to get whatever they produce on the air. There is already a wealth of talent. NPR and the affiliates just have to open up their doors a bit more. They’re already made great strides with the alt.npr series, providing the wonderfully talented Benjamin Walker (The Theory of Everything) a platform for distribution. And also, they’re starting to pick at other podcasting talent as it emerges from the mass of noise and confusion (see, which has a Sunday night spot, monthly on WBEZ)

    I think what I would most appreciate (and what On The Media does) would be if all NPR programs supplied transcripts… and beyond that, searchable feeds. So often I want to quote something in a blog entry or in a conversation and I can’t find the exact words so I tell it anecdotally, often screwing it up in the process.

    Anyway. I much appreciate your spending time with the folks at npr and helping to bring them into the 21st century (and hopefully beyond.) Good luck. You can reach me at the affixed email if you’re so inclined. And again, good luck.

  • Please suggest they replace “Prairie Home Companion” with Howard Stern. That would be fun.

  • One more thing: have them re-train their announcers to drop the annoying pseudo-intellctual tic they all have. They apparently train them to fumble for words in order to create the illusion of thoughfulness on the theory that “um, uh, ” sounds better than simply . Terry Gross is the worst offender.

  • Rob

    Anthony Hunt said:

    Public radio wouldn’t be what it is today without public funding.

    We complete agree on that, but not in a way that you would like.

    I quit listening to NPR (mostly in drive time) because it was all about politics. If you go to NPR right now and click on the Health and Science link, you get the following:

    * Stem-Cell Research: Hopes and Realities – about whether states will see a return on their investments in stem cell research, not the underlying science.

    * For Ethanol, the Future is Now – politics of ethanol adoption, no science.

    * Stem-Cell Research Funding in California – political story about California bond initiative.

    See? No actual science, just politics. Same if you click on “People and Places”, you get stories about the House Debate on Iraq and a review of a book about the “emotional lives of young women today” – no interesting people or places, just fluff.

    Podcasts have almost comletely replaced radio for me. I listen to podcasts about the field I work in (which would make most people’s ears bleed, you would never, never want to put that on the radio), podcasts about real, actual science and astronomy, podcasts about history and goofy podcasts about pop culture and music. I don’t see how NPR can compete with this. They may be able to expand their offerings and they could nurture some talent, but they can’t match the diveristy of the whole world.

    The ability to listen on my schedule to content I select just makes radio dead to me.

  • I second that emotion, Rob. Science Friday is the only thing I listen to on NPR, because it’s the only program they run that’s not (bleeding heart) politics.

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  • Hal Davis

    Richard Bennett Says:

    February 16th, 2007 at 4:17 pm
    … have them re-train their announcers to drop the annoying pseudo-intellctual tic they all have. They apparently train them to fumble for words in order to create the illusion of thoughfulness on the theory that “um, uh, ” sounds better than simply . Terry Gross is the worst offender.
    The complaint is well-placed. But it has always seemed Terry Gross’s personal annoying habit, not systemic.

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