A committee of NPR’s board voted May 8 to maintain embedded underwriting at its current level on network programs, despite concerns among station executives that the practice could harm listeners’ perceptions.
Embedded underwriting credits appear within segments of NPR’s newsmagazines, rather than in the longer blocks of credits that punctuate the shows. The credits give sponsors dedicated placement alongside particular series and areas of coverage, such as business, health and technology.
NPR ramped up efforts to sell embedded underwriting starting in 2011, and station leaders and programmers responded with worries that the credits were disrupting the flow of programs and giving listeners the idea that sponsors are influencing content.
Late last year, NPR agreed to limit the number of adjacent spots to 11 per week and to study listeners’ reactions to the credits.
“There are two things we need to take care of: the clutter aspect and the audience’s perception of what we’re doing,” Tim Eby, g.m. of St. Louis Public Radio, told Current. “In the hearts and minds of folks at NPR, there’s a big firewall, but what does the audience think? That’s what we have to be very careful about.”
But the new study commissioned by NPR found that most listeners surveyed were unfazed by the credits. Lightspeed Research conducted the study with its own independent research panel and an NPR panel of core listeners. Researchers asked listeners to react to a credit airing alongside an NPR story about a subject in the sponsor’s line of business.
Thirty-two percent of core listeners in NPR's panel reacted negatively, while 33 percent reacted positively and 35 percent were neutral. Among panelists who said they listen to NPR newsmagazines at least once per week, 13 percent responded negatively, 47 percent neutrally and 40 percent positively. Preliminary results of the study were presented to the Resource Development Committee of NPR’s board.
The committee also reviewed the internal process that NPR set up to manage the placements. Staffers from NPR’s development, editorial and sponsorship departments meet weekly to discuss adjacency opportunities, said Betsy Gardella, chair of the committee and president of New Hampshire Public Radio. The team maintains a “blacklist” of sponsors that should not be approached due to potential conflicts, she said.
“They want to make sure that perceptions of conflicts of interest are eliminated before anyone goes out to talk to potential sponsors,” Gardella said.
Editorial staffers have authority to drop any credits already sold if they have concerns about conflicts, Gardella said.
“We drop adjacencies all the time that feel awkward,” said Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior v.p. for news.
A slippery slope?
NPR hasn’t revealed how much revenue it earns from embedded underwriting. But $6 million in sponsorship sales recorded in September 2013 alone positioned the network to close the fiscal year with record-setting fundraising, according to a projection shared by Stephen Moss, NPR’s chief sales rep at National Public Media, during a board meeting last fall.
Those results prompted then-NPR C.E.O. Gary Knell to proclaim that NPR had embraced a “revenue culture,” recognizing the need to raise funds within editorial boundaries. But some station executives say the network’s underwriting practices have already gone too far.
“I think they’re playing loose and dangerous with this,” said Ellen Rocco, station manager at North Country Public Radio, in Canton, N.Y. “We’re having more and more of these special sponsorships, and over time the perception is these stories are being bought and sold by the underwriters.”
NPR is focusing too much on selling credits and not enough on what listeners might think, Rocco said. “It’s a real concern when we start getting soft about how we approach these things,” she said.
“They might not be going outside of the basic parameters, but in terms of how they’re doing things, it seems like a philosophical change in where NPR is going,” said Jeff Hansen, p.d. of Seattle’s KUOW. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Hansen also objected to the use of embedded credits in the A segments of newsmagazines and in back-to-back slots.
“The A segment is supposed to be sacrosanct,” Hansen said. “Imagine above the fold, on the front page of a major newspaper, you have an ad pegged to a story there. That’s what they’re doing.”
Embedded underwriting within A segments is “rare,” said Emma Carrasco, NPR’s chief marketing officer, through a spokesperson
Dan Skinner, g.m. of WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, and president of Public Radio in Mid America believes that NPR’s editorial firewall is strong, and he expressed confidence that its reporting is free of conflicts of interest. But, he said, NPR needs to be cognizant of the fact that the strongest editorial firewall is only as good as listeners perceive it to be.
“We know they try to provide a really strong firewall, but there is a concern about perception, and we just need to be careful about that,” he said.
During last week’s meeting at NPR headquarters, members of the board’s Resource Development Committee agreed that the issue should be studied and addressed periodically.