Jay Kernis’ 2006 advice to NPR: “I want the air to sing

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We were inspired to share this 2006 talk by Jay Kernis, a founding producer of Morning Edition and former senior v.p. of programming for NPR, after Adam Davidson referred to it in a comment on his debate with John Sutton about the future of public radio. “I do remember your big memo about voice and how essential that is for what we do,” Davidson told Kernis. “That memo holds, if anything, more for the current moment than it did back when you wrote it.”

“In my faulty memory, there were a lot of strings and threads that I thought needed pulling together involving journalism, programming, research and audience growth, and just defining the decade ahead,” Kernis told Current in an email. “So I wrote the memo, got advice from the Fabulous Furry Jacobs Brothers, from some people at NPR and at stations, and then presented the memo show-by-show, department by department around NPR.”

“The main effect I was hoping for was, while we were deep in discussions about the digital future, I would remind everyone that paying attention to the fundamentals of how we made public radio was still essential,” Kernis added. “I also wanted to create a safety net so more reporters and producers could be more creative and take more chances, in terms of presentation. I think the memo (and my performance of it) did both of those things.”

Kernis is now a producer for CBS Sunday Morning. — Mike Janssen


It’s an exciting time to be in public radio — as we all try to figure out how we will become public media.

For more than a year now, under the New Realities banner, the public radio community has been talking about everything from how to use new technology to share stories from the past and present, to creating a new business model to fund public radio, to articulating our mission in a media world that offers so many choices. A new world where the biggest challenge is just getting the attention of the audience.

Here’s one provocative statement from these discussions — a challenge — that really got me thinking:

“NPR has found its distinctive SOUND. It is now time for NPR to find its true voice” — an NPR reporter (February 2006)

To me, that reporter was saying: It is time for us to discover what we truly want to become.

Because if we fail to do so, audiences will go elsewhere. If we fail to do so, we will be prey to the others who will define us. The others who call us “liberal” or “effete” or “boring.”

The statement by the reporter differentiates between our sound and our voice. I’m going to talk about both for a few moments.

To help us find our true voice, I asked NPR News to make a few what I called “tweaks” — six of them, actually — most of them involving the issues we’ve been discussing for years. Decades, actually.

First, I told them that when people tune to an NPR program, I want the listeners to hear reports and interviews and essays that inform them, of course, and that ask them to question preconceived notions — but that’s not all.

I want the air to SING. I want programming that carries listeners to new places — intellectually and emotionally; programming that awakens you, that keeps you in your car to hear the ending, and that makes you want to tell a friend about what you heard. That makes you want to tune in again and again. Programming that soars — and sings.

But, the six areas I want us to pay a lot of attention to — right now — are:

  1. Story selection and focusing
  2. Nurturing reporters to be the best on-air storytellers
  3. Better writing that uses spoken language
  4. Diversity of sources
  5. The Reporter Question: When should a reporter ask questions within his or her stories?
  6. Joy

I’ll get specific in a few moments, but first, here’s some of my thinking that went into this — thinking that is based on what I’ve been hearing from the staff and from the public radio system.

Why do this now?

1. NPR has now begun an initiative we call The Newsroom of the Future — designed to help us create a single, converged, digital newsroom that can efficiently deliver content to many platforms.

2. As you are aware, researchers David Giovannoni and George Bailey wrote the multi-titled report “Audience 2010 — Reinvigorating Public Radio’s Public Service & Public Support: An Historic Loss of Momentum.” They said,

“Public radio is no longer increasing its reach into American society or claiming larger shares of radio listening. Its 30-year run of audience growth has stalled. . . . Either public radio’s programming is weakening or competitors’ programming is getting more appealing, or both.”

According to researcher Paul Jacobs, there may be many outside factors beyond programming that are responsible for the stagnation. But my job is to always focus on programming, and how to make it better — in growth or in decline.

Fact is, when we ask listeners what requires improvement, the answer is always this: Make sense of the news for us. Surprise us. You used to take more chances. Don’t be boring. Why don’t you hire Jon Stewart?

This is from core listeners who love us. We can get the same answer from colleagues.

I said to staff: Please don’t interpret this as a call to in any way dumb down what we’re doing. Not for a moment. What I want is that we become smarter about being on radio.

The sound of NPR

Just as the NPR logo stands for in-depth, independent journalism and cultural exploration, so does the sound of our programming. The sound stands for something. Our sound is as much an NPR signature as the Morning Edition theme music, a Paul Brown newscast, a report by Nina Totenberg, or the digitally-enhanced-yet-infectious laughter of Tom & Ray Magliozzi. Some factors are technical; others have to do with editorial standards and on-air performance:

  • It is a pure, clean sound, yet it has textures that engage the ear.
  • It has depth. It is multidimensional. It has presence.
  • It is intimate. The sound of the human voice can cut straight through to the heart. It is natural and authentic, urgent and soothing, and in vocal terms, conversational. We differ from all-news radio, which is filled with announcers.

We shouldn’t mess with that description—it represents the power of the brand, and the expectations of millions of listeners. When I pour on the milk, the Rice Krispies had better go Snap, Crackle, Pop — or something’s wrong. Same for NPR — it has to sound like public radio every time. (And, as we branch out to new platforms, it will also have to read and look like public radio.)

  • It is a sound that says we are taking you places, into the heart of a story. You are brought to the backrooms, the farmhouse, the schoolyard, and your mind creates vivid pictures because you can hear details. You can hear what is happening in the foreground and the background.

When people speak, many times they are at the epicenter of the story: on location — they are not just disembodied voices.

  • It is a sound that indicates what this person has to say is important. We select guests and actualities that indicate an interviewee’s knowledge, passion, point of view, and resignation, fear or triumph. We choose sound that indicates whether or not someone is hesitant or forthcoming. We pay attention to the meaning behind a guest’s pitch, intonation and breathing. We know that after an important question, sometimes the pause and the “uhm” is as important as the answer that follows.
  • It is a sound that honors the PRPD Core Values: We reach a standard of excellence in our use of the radio medium. We pay attention to the details of craft: sound elements, language, pacing, and music. We pay attention to the way sound is recorded. NPR’s sound says: We care deeply about what we have made. It’s just for you.

Finding our voice

But having a sound is different than having a voice.

In the New Realities sessions, I heard programmers — especially from member stations — express this idea: that the public radio system must create the trusted space in American media, built on our reputation for balance, integrity, impartiality. Here is a place where the truth is told.

That we become the stewards of the trusted space in which people can also communicate with each other, respectfully and truthfully. Ultimately, our true voice is the voice of the American experience, one that says we are all in this democratic experiment together, and if it is to succeed, telling the truth is essential.

What has emerged from New Realities discussions with stations is a new mission statement, something like this: “Stations will engage with the influencers in their communities so those people can solve the major issues those communities confront. This is not a matter of advocacy, but of stations equipping people with information, of stations enabling the dialogue.”

It’s essential that we define what we will stand for in the new media landscape:

If I say to you, “Volvo,” and ask: What comes to mind? — there’s a good chance many of you will say, “Safety.” (Volvo has spent millions to plant that association in hour heads.)

If I say “NPR” or “public radio,” what are people likely to say? “News,” or “Classical music,” or “Garrison Keillor?” Public radio’s message and meaning is unclear and diffuse.

But during New Realities discussions, I heard stations further define our mission:

By reporting the news and allowing people to discuss and experience ideas, public radio will make the country a better place.

  • Stations are saying that such a mission moves us from being a commodity to truly becoming a service. From just delivering a product (news and classical music) to becoming a force in community-building — by fostering communication, by providing information, by getting people together in new ways.
  • It also means moving from an approach where we deliver the news from “on high” to one where we are more interactive with the audience, where we have conversations. This may not mean turning listeners into “citizen journalists.” Rather, by giving the audience a voice into programming and topic selection, opening up access to our hosts via blogs and other technology-based methods, we’ll further cement the relationship. And the closer our listeners feel they are to us, the higher likelihood to donate.

It’s a radical change for many of us in media: the difference between doing stuff to people versus creating a space in which people can do stuff — with us or each other. From megaphone to microphone.

Hugh MacLeod is a brand consultant, a copywriter and cartoonist. He has written a manifesto titled “Change This.” I think he secretly wrote it for us.

The market for something to believe in is infinite. We are here to find meaning. We are here to help other people do the same. Everything else is secondary.

We humans want to believe in our own species. And we want people, companies and products in our lives that make it easier to do so.

Product benefit doesn’t excite us. Belief in humanity and human potential excites us. Think less about what your product does, and think more about human potential. It’s not about merit. It’s about faith. Belief. Conviction. Courage. It’s no longer just enough for people to believe that your product does what it says on the label. They want to believe in you and what you do. And they’ll go elsewhere if they don’t.

MacLeod goes much further, but you get the idea. What we are doing is undergoing revolutionary change.

So here’s the big question:

Will that voice be our own? To make the voice our own, we must do a better job of setting our own agenda. We don’t want to follow the agenda of The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Economist.

And we must find the best way to tell stories that match our own agenda.

This is about getting from good to great. This is about making sure we know who we are.

So there are six areas I want us to concentrate on right now. Once again, I am asking you to raise the bar. The six priorities are interrelated, and they are all part of the same idea: finding the best voice. But I’ve broken them down this way:

A. Story selection and focusing

1. Being a primary source of news for millions of listeners doesn’t mean that we cover everything that a newspaper or cable network does. Our stories must grow from our curiosities, our investigations, and our conversations. Too many times, we are presenting the incremental news story, rather than the more important contextual one. Being a primary source of news means we are speaking with millions of people out there on air and online — not just to the experts, other journalists.

2. Pay more attention to how listeners use programs and newscasts. Listeners want to know the most important and interesting things that have happened. That means newscasts can’t be driven by available news spots. That means shows and desks must pay more attention to the rhythms of the day, to what is going on in listeners’ lives as they have the radio on. Even though we have the smartest audience in national media, we can never assume knowledge or interest.

I still hear stories that make little sense on the shows in which they appear — stories that belong other places. I hear stories that assume too much prior knowledge, or assume that listeners care about this stuff.

The shows have all worked to become more listener-directed, to pay attention to when and how listeners use the programs, to keep listening habits in mind. (Most people are cooking, eating, showering, driving or working while the radio is on.)

For example, here is Morning Edition’s guiding principle:

Every program element needs to be put through the lens: “Is this a story, interview, essay or commentary that I need to hear to make me a better-informed, more interesting and more curious person today?”

And here is Day to Day’s: “D2D is the place to learn about the people who make news and those who are affected by the news. The program helps me to understand why they did what they did, and what it might mean.”

Although the guiding principle for ATC is still a work-in-progress, here is ATC’s: “ATC at its best is smart, forward-looking context and analysis of the news, allied with moments of joy, curiosity, surprise and emotional discovery.”

If listeners are to pay attention, they must understand why a story is important — and why we care about it.

3. Pay more attention to how stories are focused. How much of the story are we telling and why? What makes sense, given the flow of news, for me to hear this morning or this afternoon?

4. Being human: We need to research as journalists and deliver as people.

5. Doing more “truth-squadding.” The “he said/she said” approach may offer balance, but not the real story. Yes, Don Gonyea reported what George Bush said in his State of the Union speech Jan. 31 in one Morning Edition A segment. But in another hour’s A, John Ydstie examined some of the assertions the President put forth in the speech.

6. We can set our own agenda:

  • By changing what happens at editorial meetings throughout the building. From list-reading and coordinating to asking: What’s important and interesting — why should we care about this story? What stories are we going to own? What special “NPR difference” will we bring to those stories?
  • By asking and then answering more basic questions: Why did that happen? Who is that person saying those things? What was that person thinking? What led to those people (organization, agency, church, etc.) reaching that conclusion? Is this the only time something is happening, or did it occur other places, too?
  • By paying more attention to what our best member station news departments are reporting.

B. The way we tell stories

1. Our core business is being on the radio. Let’s pay more attention to how reporters are speaking, conversing, questioning, and reading. Let’s pay more attention to intonation, to pacing, and to vocal personality. To voices that are conversational, but at the same time, indicate that the story is important. Reporters and hosts should sound as if being on the air is the most important thing they can be doing at that moment.

Let’s be sure that people on the air — especially those who have come from other media — understand what it is to be authentic, even as we acknowledge that what they are doing is performance.

Do they sound real? Or do they sound like a caricature of a host, reporter or newscaster? Do they sound as if they are playing a host or reporter, or can they convince me that they are really asking questions on my behalf? That they are really curious? That they burn to get to the truth?

2. Being human: There’s a reason people respond to our best hosts and our best reporters.

      • They take complicated information and make it understandable.
      • They tell their stories so compellingly — they can perform themselves so well — that we are convinced they are speaking to us and not reading.
      • They understand the boundaries of their own talents.
      • They know how to appropriately use emotion and humor.
      • They are troupers. They know that they will give the best performance each day, in spited of the stress and pressure of the job.
      • Yes, it is essential that reporters get the story right. It is equally important that reporters are also interesting. We take ourselves very seriously on the air. People respond to NPR because our best reporters make the case — every time they’re on — that they have learned something. That they are passionate about telling it to you. That they want it to stick in your head so you keep thinking about it — so that you remember it, and even talk about it later.

Here’s a wonderful quote: “Touch their hearts. Then what you say will be imprinted in their brains.” — Voltaire

NPR reporter Robert Smith told me, “I begin by thinking that I want to be the best piece in every show that I’m in.”

This next point came out very strongly in our recent conversations with listeners. While the straightforward approach to news is the acceptable standard, there are different standards for talk programs. By making these programs more of a discussion rather than a dissertation, public radio can make its talk programs more engaging and popular.

C. Writing

1. We have worked for decades on this, and more work is needed. There is still to much “print” writing on the air. There are long sentences, instances of jargon and sentence constructions that would never appear in everyday speech, that would never occur in a normal conversation. There is still too much “news-speak” and not enough thoughtful expression: saying what we mean, with clarity and with spontaneity. We are talking about show billboards, leads, forward promotions — anywhere there is copy.

2. Descriptive language. Create mental pictures. What does that person look like? What is going on outside of the room that may be important to the story?

When Susan Stamberg visited sitar legend Ravi Shankar at his foundation headquarters in New Delhi, she described the auditorium, the recording studio and the walls filled with glossy photos of Shankar’s celebrity friends. In each picture, she explained, the diminutive, 5-foot-three musicians smiles broadly. To accurately describe Shankar, it was essential to document the smile.

3. One more thing: Hosts get to tell the news in their leads. That’s the job of a host. Do not hold it back, causing them to say vague or unimportant things. Here’s why, and it’s very simple, and I think it’s very true, based on my own non-scientific studies: It is my belief that there are so many things vying for people’s time and attention, they are making a decision with each host lead. If it sounds interesting and important, they keep the radio on. If not, time to take the shower or get the kids dressed.

        • This means you should write your lead first.
        • This means that if you give the host five sentences, your story begins at sentence six; your first sentence should flow naturally from the host’s last sentence. It is very rare that your story should start again from point one.
        • Doing this will make you very popular.

D. Diversity

1. Many people on the air seem to come from the same backgrounds and have had the same experiences. We are not considering enough diverse points of view in our research, reporting and presentation. And just to say it out loud: The air is still too white.

2. The true voice of NPR is a reflection of all Americans: who we are, how we live, what we stand for. Not just the voices of some Americans, but as many as we can serve up on-air and online. It means NPR has to broaden its reach into more communities — Afro-American, Latino, Asian. It also means reaching into every age group, especially younger listeners.

3. This means committing thoroughly to diversity principles and activities, from talent spotting, to hiring, to staff development, to broader story selection.  From who sits at the editorial tables to what gets on the air.

E. The reporter question

1. Somewhere along the way, it became an unwritten policy and approach that reporters should rarely be heard asking questions within their own pieces. I don’t want us to swing in the other direction and go overboard and have every report contain unnecessary questions. But I do want to hear reporters ask the most important and interesting question or questions. We are as much about the questions we ask as the stories we select and the people who ask them. I do want to hear more reporters asking fair and tougher and interesting questions.

2. For the following reasons:

  • CURIOSITY. One of the attributes that distinguishes our reporting from that of other broadcasters is our own sense of curiosity.
  • DISTINCTIVE REPORTING. Let’s face it, a number of news stories sound the same on different media because people involved in news events often give the same answers to many reporters. And there are lots of stories that rely on news conference sound. The NPR reporter question makes our stories different and better.
  • NPR WAS ACTUALLY THERE. When a story is entirely trax/acts and no or little sound, listeners might get the impression that the reporter is simply narrating and packaging, rather than reporting — which means asking questions on behalf of the audience. Including the question indicates that NPR was on the scene — reporting the news for you.
  • A RELENTLESS SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH: Our job as journalists is to ask the tough questions. We’ve been criticized — and we criticize ourselves — for being too polite. The audience should hear us asking tough and fair questions.

F. JOY

1. Robert Krulwich has said it many times: What is lacking too many times in present-day NPR reporting and interviewing and reading is the joy involved in uncovering and presenting the story. Any listener should be able to detect our drive and enthusiasm and creativity.

A reporter is on a stage. He or she must get the attention of the audience; convince them that what they are saying is real and true and fair; tell a compelling story that has identifiable characters, dramatic action and comes to a point. Above all, we need to communicate our passion — passion that the audience appreciates and even remembers the story.

I am in no way saying that every reporter should sound like Robert Krulwich. I am saying that it is essential that our reporters find their own voice and makes the most of it.

2. Great tape — we need to feature people who are enthusiastic, heartfelt, passionate about their ideas or participation in a news story.

3. In addition to on-air performance, joy can also be expressed through our natural curiosity, originality, distinctive reporting and being there to tell the untold stories that others ignore — and taking pleasure in this. In telling some more stories that focus on solutions, on victories and accomplishments, large and small. Maybe listeners need a more balanced diet from us. It is also news when people find solutions, when good things happen. Especially for the talk programs and midday programs, this is a key element.

So those are six things I asked the News staff to work on immediately:

      • Story selection and focusing
      • How we tell stories
      • Writing
      • Diversity
      • The Reporter Question
      • Joy

WHAT’S AHEAD

This presentation has already led to spirited discussion around NPR. My hope is that it also leads to further evaluation, defining and setting higher standards, mentoring where needed — and greater satisfaction.

Stations and listeners have said it over and over: Take more risks. I want us to take the courageous step of being ourselves.