National Public What?

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?

  • Mike G

    “What do you think the essence of NPR is?”

    I don’t know, but if I ran it, the way I’d find out is by minimally funding 50 new shows on the web, and seeing which rose from the pack to be the next This American Life. It’s absurd that podcasters with no money can invent a thousand new shows, and NPR very expensively and carefully gestates a whopping two.

  • Erin

    It’s not absurd – it’s what happens when you’re the big guy. You get set in your ways, and change is more difficult. The great thing about the web is that it has opened up possibilities for all the storytellers (podcasters, vloggers, whatever) with no money to tell the story better, and get an audience based on that skill. If they’re smart, NPR will find the best of these and bring them on board.

    In answer to the question: “What do you think the essence of NPR is?”

    The essence is thoughtful curiosity. What’s going on in the world? Will it take 5 minutes to explain it, or a four part series? OK, then. They take the time to tell stories. But what’s a story with no audience? NPR needs to learn how to throw off the limitations of radio – or they’re going to find out.

  • I think a great example of NPR’s digital future is All Songs Considered. I listen to their radio programming occasionally and try to remember to listen to This American Life’s podcast. But the All Songs Considered podcast is a highlight in my week. And as I understand it, its basically grown out of a streaming web cast that became a podcast, which has grown into an entire web presence (an additional live concert podcast, occasional video segments, and a growing blog). Only recently have I noticed that All Songs, which was originally a web exclusive, is starting to show up on affiliate stations.

    So I would agree with the above idea that they should start using the Web as a testing ground for new content. I would say at the heart of NPR is innovative storytelling so I would look to innovate in their strengths: news and music and grow in other areas. Instead of funding two large scale national projects, I would funnel some of that money down to local affiliates to try new things. I would encourage local affiliates to find storytelling topics in their area that could have national resonance. And I would encourage these projects to build communities around topics in the way All Songs has.

  • What makes NPR work, I think, is that it takes the time to tell the whole story. Whether it does so on This American Life, or All Things Considered, or Radio Lab, it gives a story enough room and enough time to be told completely.

    This should work brilliantly on the Web.

  • D.

    One thing that has made public radio great is that its reporting can be a mix of solid, succinct writing, and then – when necessary or helpful – provide real audio of the people, places and events being reported on.

    Now, it could in theory add just about anything else for the same purposes — but so can CNN, the New York Times, Fox News, etc. Public radio content producers are actually one of the few old media providers that I think can benefit from not straying too far from their core business model: providing intelligent audio-based news as well as arts and educational programming. Audio can be in the foreground, the background, the home, the car, the beach…the biggest impediment has been the inherent appointment consumption, which the internet has eliminated. Also, audio – unlike video, images and to a certain degree, even text – tends to be distributed in a very cross-platform and easily recognized format, the downloadable MP3 (though admittedly, podcast distribution could use some tweaking and sexing up.)

    The audio is the vital and, given the constantly in-action and on-the-go mentality that pervades our culture, the only necessary part of what NPR does, and they do it well. Certainly, the addition of cameras, to create a video version for plopping down and dedicating your visual attention to, if you so desire, can’t hurt. And the use of the web to provide text, when it is helpful, is nothing but a plus. But more than anybody else, corporations like NPR are sitting on a goldmine as far as the content of the future, they just need to effectively get it into more peoples’ consciousness. It is the Times who *has* to fight against a culture that reads less, and teach its reporters how talk into microphones.

  • dave the newsboy

    After several years of trying to deal with the NPR mindset – I’m not going to PRNDI this year.
    Why are you talking to local public radio news directors? – They don’t have a voice at NPR regarding how to fix a problem that the NPR executives don’t see.
    The message should be how to break away from radio in your own local newsroom. Get Brand X-local Public Radio to stop thinking about radio and make better use of the web.
    Yes – some stations are doing a better job of creating slide shows, flash movies and providing web extra content. But there is still a radio first feel to these items.
    What features of the web do they want to capture but they are missing? There’s the viral nature of it which helps in marketing and reaching people who don’t listen to NPR. That’s one area that I’m working on in my newsroom.
    But what about the open structure of the web? NPR is too top-down to ever embrace that. Is there room for user generated content in a local NPR newsroom?
    Could there be a youtube of radio? I don’t know.
    Most local NPR news directors are understaffed and over committed already.
    – but there is one great hook for getting them excited about the web – people can give money on the web. They can’t give money on the radio – we have to beg them to pick up the phone and give us a call to pledge their support.
    On the web giving money is a mouse click on a paypal icon away. Explain that this is something that will generate income for the station and you’ll get their attention.
    But the biggest problem with the web and local NPR stations is that many (maybe most) don’t control their own web sites!
    The stations are university licensed and the university provides the web support.
    That means there’s a huge buracracy controlling the web and their site is so ugly that its practically unusable.
    These stations have got to get controll of their web pages and hire a full time people to run the site. (sounds basic but its not happening now)
    Then they can do what the internet does well – building a community.
    You are right that NPR is not radio – it’s a community that people join. They want to be associated with its ideals and standards. That’s why they are willing to committ the irrational act of sending NPR money.
    The web is great at building communities – I call it the electronic club house.
    Use the station’s web site to reinforce the community asspect of the radio station. There should be an art blog and a classical music blog there produced by air talent.
    The problem is most local NPR stations distrust the web and that’s mainly NPR national’s fault.
    Just look at NPR.ORG – it’s a way for local listeners to sidestep their local NPR affiliate. NPR.ORG should have used the Associated Press model. If I want AP online I generally have to go threw an online newspaper to get it. The local NPR station should have been the local portal for NPR web content.
    This is a big problem for local stations and should be fixed.

  • About “that incredible This American Life/NPR News show explaining the credit crunch”: I agree — that was really incredible, and marvelous. But I don’t think you could have done it as well in another media form — that is, the audio form allowed the back-and-forth, the interplay between Adam Davidson and Ira Glass, with Glass playing a kind of meta interlocutor.

    Sometimes I see a journalistic video that makes me think, you know, NO ONE could have written that better; video was the best form for that story. Some stories are just going to be suited for telling via one form, rather than another. That also holds true for text — some stories need to be written.

    The truly amazing thing about that credit/mortgage story is, just about anyone would have told you that story needed to be text … with some infographics to help out.

    The fact that radio journalists such as Davidson and Glass could conceive of a format and write a script that would do what that one hour managed to do — explain the mortgage crisis with nothing but audio — shows us that innovation is possible in any media form (and I call audio a media form, whereas radio is a medium). Moreover, I think we need experienced, adept professionals such as Davidson and Glass to push the envelope.

    Jeff, you said: “So it was great radio but that was merely a choice of media. It wasn’t the essence of it.” I agree, “radio” was not the essence of it. The program format (one hour, no segments) was a choice bounded by radio constraints. But audio can be delivered on numerous devices, and broadcasting is no longer even relevant. I listened to the story just a week ago, streaming from the TAL Web site. Many people heard it on their MP3 players — a popular option for TAL fans. So where I disagree with you is that “radio” even figured into the equation, with the exception of the program format.

    There was no “radio” involved in that brilliant act of journalism — but two really expert radio journalists made it happen.

  • Russ Limbaugh is still “radio” and he is still pulling in the crowds, advertisers and dollars. The difference is he is “good” radio – that is radio that his listeners want to hear.

    The problem with NPR is that it has gotten timid due to the continual onslaught of the right which has worked to eliminate its funding and push it rightward for decades. Like every other government funded program over the past few decades it has been weakened and deflected from its mission by those whose idea of good government is no government (except, of course, for a strong military/police sector and the favorable tax breaks they lobby for).

    If you want to see better radio than find a way to decouple the funding from the politics. I know the BBC model of a dedicated tax would never fly in this country, but that seems to be the only successful model that has been developed elsewhere.

    Follow the money (as usual).

  • Andy Freeman

    If you want NPR to be separate from politics, it can’t take govt money.

    Every time that someone suggests that NPR not be govt funded, the NPR advocates claim that the amount of govt funding is insignificant. If that’s actually true, it can be done without.

    Set NPR free. If it’s actually worth what it costs (and who among you will say otherwise), it will thrive.

  • Seems like NPR shows would be perfect on the new iPhone mobile Pandora app. You’d get exactly the shows you like the most, when you want them, where you want them. My car stereo recently broke, so on the drive the airport I was without any music.

    I turned on the iPhone’s Pandora and listened to it the entire drive. I really wanted to listen to NPR, but it wasn’t on there. Perhaps NPR is on the iPhone’s AOL Radio app. I haven’t checked yet.

    This whole personal mobile radio movement is going to completely change the nature of radio, in my opinion. And it will give XM a run for its money.

  • Rob

    I don’t see how NPR will ever be truly successful if it’s not in a competitive situation, somehow. Without competition and competitive forces, there’s just no way to create an atmosphere of innovation and urgency.

  • Just a quick note to point out that NPR has released an API. I guess that’s an effort to go with the tide.

  • Jorge

    Is This American Life can’t be public radio’s one trick pony can it? Let us not forget TAL has been around for over a decade.

    Its great quality, but it’s no longer new or really that innovative andy more, its a forumla that’s been very sucessfully crafted and shapped over the past 10 years.

    If TAL’s one hour weekly show is the *only* place to find innovative radio in the entire public radio network, please call an out of work newspaper journalist, because you’ll need directions to the unemployment office soon.

  • D.

    “Is This American Life can’t be public radio’s one trick pony can it? Let us not forget TAL has been around for over a decade.

    Its great quality, but it’s no longer new or really that innovative andy more,”

    This boggles my mind, if you’re getting at what I think you are. While there is plenty of room for new types of content in public radio, I think people give way too much credit to the things that helped This American Life stand out at first – the music, the meticulous production, the irony. But at its core, TAL is just an age-old storytelling/long-form interview show. What holds people is the talent of the contributors and producers. NPR and other providers need to focus on cultivating talent, and figuring out effective distribution models (word of mouth and best-selling books helped This American Life, but plenty of other great shows languish in obscurity.) When companies get too focused on contrived “innovation” to revive excitement in their brand, it inevitably leads to gimmicks, a la the Bryant Park Project.

  • R.

    D. said it well. What NPR must do to save itself is spend less money. Free itself from the implied obligations that come with the large funders whose corporate objectives rarely coincide with the audience’s interest. NPR was better when it didn’t try to be Big Radio but rather Different Radio. My local NPR FM, one of the founders, is now unlistenable due to “modern radio style” clutter. Thank grid most of the best NPR stations stream online.

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  • Joe from NPR

    Joe from NPR here. Bryant Park is certainly not the only experiment going on at NPR. Anyone looking for models for NPR’s future would do well, for example, to have a look at our Music site,

    To create the Music site, NPR more or less did exactly what some of you are recommending. We disbanded the group that used to create music programming for radio and reconstituted it as a group that is programming primarily for new media. As Steve, above, points out, the Music site has one of the most popular music podcasts running, All Songs Considered, which is a weekly music show designed from the get-go for a Web/podcast audience.

    NPR Music is also experimenting with finding new ways for NPR to collaborate with stations. Most notably, the site takes in a great deal of content from stations — concerts, interviews, articles — for which stations are paid on a revenue-sharing basis. And NPR Music is finding an audience that is considerably younger than the on-air audience — without any thought of compromising our core values of integrity and craft(introducing “uh’s” and “y’know’s,” as Jeff puts it).

    You can find this type of new thinking all over if you look. In our Politics coverage, in Books and throughout the site where, increasingly, radio and digital staff are getting together to plan and create stories, columns, blogs and other features that meet the different needs of our different audiences.

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