June 01, 2004

Growing pains at National Public Radio.

In the current issue of American Journalism Review, Lori Robertson has a good article about the consequences of the emergence of NPR News as a major US news outlet, as opposed to merely being an alternative to the commerical networks.

Having recently received a US $200 million bequest from the late Joan Kroc, NPR has earmarked a big chunk of that money for continued expansion of its news operations. While a couple of dozen new journalists will give NPR capabilities for covering breaking stories that it has never had before, some observers inside and outside NPR worry that this growth could push the network toward becoming a carbon copy of its commerical competitors. Given that NPR is already being criticized for relying too heavily on the same range of news sources used by other mainstream media (men, republicans, members of the elite), the future direction of the largest public radio network in the US is not just an academic question.

While many media outlets have watched their audiences decline over the past decade--and radio has largely bowed out of the news game--NPR has grown tremendously. Listenership more than doubled between 1993 and 2003. Twenty-two million people tune in to NPR programming weekly, almost 19 million of them for its newsmagazines. Twelve years ago, the budget was $36 million; today, it's $106 million, $48 million of which is for news. In 1998, the news staff numbered about 250. It's grown by 50 people since, and Bruce Drake, vice president for news and information, envisions adding another 20 to 25 within the next 16 months. [...]

NPR seems to be heading in the opposite direction of most broadcasters these days. Either that or it's merely two decades behind. While staffers love more resources, more people, more bureaus, many worry that this evolution into the mainstream may go too far--they don't want to become the enemy. From top executives on down, NPRers talk about not wanting to be CNN. Not that there's anything wrong with a network that has correspondents in 27 foreign bureaus, but those who love NPR's depth, its lengthy, heavily reported features and its trademark sense-of-place sound fear that a move to be faster is a move to endless stand-ups on the courthouse steps. Breaking news could leave room for little else.

Diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster is happy with the combination of offbeat features and more hard news, and the competition among correspondents for airtime, he says, has made the network sharper. But, he says, "There is a worry among some that CNN for radio is some kind of worthy goal... I think it lowers the quality of journalism." The addition of programming and the need to update shows as new editions air across the country means correspondents are asked to file more often. The discrete shows give reporters time to "fashion something that's more clear and coherent and actually reported, therefore, in my view, more closer to the truth," Shuster says.

Constant standing-in-front-of-the-microphone news? "That's not the kind of journalism I want to do and that's not the kind of journalism that I want NPR to do," he says. "And there is pressure to do that sometimes."

Posted by Magpie at June 1, 2004 02:03 AM | Media | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |


'CNN for radio' is nowhere near the standard that most listeners would hold NPR to, my guess.

From the Robertson article: No matter the importance of breaking news, Kernis says the goal is to be right rather than first. "We don't want to be late; we don't want to be last," he says. "But there's so much rumor that gets on the air," and NPR doesn't want to broadcast speedy-but-wrong information.

One direction towards commercialism (underwriting) might have been blunted when Ms. Kroc agreeed to leave the 200 million dollars, allowing the serious consideration of long term goals without worry of the bill collector. Nevertheless, the money is not a panacea towards the creeping mediocrity known as big media.

Still the danger for NPR is that fiscal realities forces it to cede air-time to revenue raising program related activities. Despite all the hard feelings of commercial news sources towards NPR, it is a vital resource who is only selling a story, without the cars, foot powder, credit cards, and prescription drugs the big dogs rely on(although underwriting has undercut this traditional divide).

Anyway, NPR is a national treasure.

Posted by: forgetting at June 1, 2004 03:11 AM