Help (still) wanted: a p.d. at NPR to look after its main audience

Published in Current, Feb. 2, 2009
Commentary by Tim Emmons

Ten years ago I wrote an article for Current titled “Audibly absent from NPR: a program director.” By chance it appeared at the beginning of Kevin Klose’s tenure as NPR president.

On Nov. 11 [2008] NPR announced that Vivian Schiller would be the network’s next president, and while there have been two good people in the top programming job in the past decade under Klose, we find ourselves in a familiar position. NPR needs a program director.

It’s especially important now, as NPR faces dramatic financial pressure and works to balance its presence on the air with that online. For example, in the current budget year NPR management made the decision not to fill the top radio programming job — while moving ahead to hire a senior v.p. for online services. And the recent staff cuts affected, according to NPR’s press release, only one online employee.

A quick look at the public service provided by broadcast public radio and online services is telling. CPB-supported stations, which include NPR member stations, serve nearly 29 million listeners per week, who use stations an average of 7.7 hours a week.

While there aren’t really metrics for apples-to-apples comparison, it’s useful to recognize that NPR’s online services would be described as “low cume, low AQH.” doesn’t rank among the most-visited online news sites and has few visitors who use the website even twice a month. There’s not much national depth there, or for any station-based site.

Especially in these financial times, it would be a huge mistake to forego any investment in radio programming — which is nearly certain to be the primary provider of public service for the next 10 to 15 years. And when one in seven NPR employees works in digital media, there is at least an opportunity cost that should be examined.

The dominance of radio as a public-service platform also indicates that NPR should not hire a director of content, overseeing both radio and the Web. This arrangement may work on the small scale of some public radio stations, but not the large network scale. NPR needs someone at the senior v.p. level with final say over programming matters—someone with extensive experience at a radio station, or perhaps a rare individual with Jay Kernis’ combination of talent, creativity and thoughtfulness.

Looking back on my Current article of 10 years ago, I see that I emphasized formatics and programming tactics, with a nod toward big-picture strategic thinking. NPR’s two programming chiefs, Bill Davis and Jay Kernis, and others at NPR have addressed many problems with important formatic elements, although there is still work to do. For example, a decade later, listeners still have not been given the big win of hearing Scott Simon on Weekend Edition both Saturday and Sunday, starting at 6 a.m. Eastern time.

The next program director will have to catch up on the big-picture thinking. While the details of creating great radio will always be the most important part of the p.d.’s job, advancing the broader strategic decisions will have greater impact, making our stations a meaningful part of listeners’ lives.

How could NPR’s next program director do that? Here are a few options for the to-do list:

Unify the sound of core NPR programming. Both previous programming heads reported difficulties breaking the “show barriers” within NPR. Morning Edition and ATC are very different shows and at times sound like they belong on different radio stations. Their program clocks are dramatically different, as are their pace and sometimes their content.

The fixes are in programming, not journalism. At stations, news directors and reporters handle the journalism, and p.d.’s work on the sound and formatics of programs. The new program director must be given the authority to break down the walls between the individual shows, and that can really happen only if the show producers report directly to that person. While NPR’s primary programs were created at different times, the producer-driven “silo mentality” must change.

Get rid of what isn’t working. When I brought this up 10 years ago I used NPR’s World of Opera and the now-defunct Anthem as examples. NPR has made some recent programming cuts that seem dramatic, but I believe it’s time to dig deeper—not only to balance the budget but also to maximize audience service.

A new p.d. should take a rigorous and critical look at every program—produced and acquired—that isn’t in the core morning and afternoon news service, which get most of the listening and whose missions and airtime require the most resources.

One place to start reconsidering would be Talk of the Nation. It was essential listening in the run-up to the election because the daily news diet fed it well, but recent listening history has been problematic.

This is a case where investment is needed. Some station programmers think that the placement of TOTN within NPR’s news department doesn’t work. TOTN listening on my station and on many others is declining, and we need a clear read on whether changing hosts or subject matter would help.

Every successful talk show in radio history (public and commercial) got that way because it had a compelling host. I happen to think Neal Conan is likeable and engaging, but
my opinion doesn’t really count. The show’s producers and those of us at stations are far too close to this important program. NPR should invest in significant, targeted research to see what listeners (and nonlisteners) think of TOTN — host, content, everything. Applying the findings fearlessly, while working on the format and stabilizing the production staffing, would make the show better.

Deciding whether to fix or drop programs will take careful thought and close oversight by someone who can look dispassionately at every show’s individual qualities and potential, how it fits into the overall NPR service and how it supports the brand. This examination might conclude that some shows can’t be made to work. In those cases, NPR should pull the plug.

In these financially tough times, programs with less carriage may simply have to go. NPR’s roster of shows has grown considerably over the past few years, and public radio will benefit if it can focus more resources on key programs rather than struggle to keep everything afloat.

Think ahead. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, Diane Rehm won’t be working forever. The Car Talk guys may eventually retire. A network with the power of NPR should have multiple options for the future.

Program directors at stations should always know what program they would add next if one of their current shows stopped production or stopped working. Likewise, NPR should be experimenting now with talent and shows that could move to full production.

Some of this experimentation could and should happen online. This is where could be most valuable and distinguished from every other website. On this low-risk platform, original programs that are inexpensive to produce and always changing and growing could grow into broadcast shows that would truly serve an audience.

A good program director knows you never practice in front of real listeners. But online audiences opt in, and NPR could get an idea of what new things might work without spending a lot of money or distracting listeners from the core service all of us depend on. The Bryant Park Project was a fine concept — it just cost too much to sustain. A different model restricting its spending might have brought significant programming elements, if not a fully formed program, to our stations. (For more thoughts on this, read John Sutton’s excellent comments on his blog,
Ten years is a long time. Since my first article about an NPR program director, public radio’s cume and AQH have grown about 8 percent. Since then, average time spent listening to public radio has declined a little bit.

The Internet wasn’t a significant provider of information and programming/entertainment a decade ago. Who had real broadband in 1998, or iPods, Blackberrys, satellite radio, HD Radio or Google News?

The future of public service media may be online. Maybe. But right now, and in my view for the next decade or more, radio will provide the overwhelming majority of service to the public and will be the only platform with a positive return on investment adequate to keep going.

NPR, as the leading provider of public radio programming, needs to assure that its radio programming has the absolute highest priority within the company, and that requires investment, even in financially challenging times.

The case is clear. Now more than ever, NPR needs a program director.

Tim Emmons is manager of WNIJ and WNIU in DeKalb, Ill., and is a partner in Strategic Programming Partners, a partnership of pubradio programming consultants who lead the Morning Edition Grad School seminars.

Web page posted Feb. 10, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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Emmons' earlier commentary: Audibly absent from NPR: a program director, 1999.

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