Audibly absent from NPR: a program director

Originally published in Current, Jan. 25, 1999
Commentary by Tim Emmons

On Dec. 10, NPR was sending stations anchored coverage of the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment. The hearings wrapped up for the morning at about 12:45 Eastern time, and the NPR anchors followed with analysis. At 12:57, they gave their outcue and were gone.

Why did these anchors leave local stations with three excruciatingly long minutes to fill? Why didn't they continue their analysis for just another minute and a half, until 12:58:30, the standard end time for NPR programs?

Because no one told them to do it. NPR doesn't have a program director.

Across the country, p.d.'s at public radio stations are trying to make their stations sound better. They hire and coach the best talent they can afford. They think about and act on changes in hosting schedules and program lineups, trying to find the right mix of personalities and programs to serve their listeners best.

NPR, as the largest programming provider for most public radio stations, could take a page from the stations' book. NPR needs a program director.

I'm not sure what's the best way to integrate this position into the NPR reporting structure, but I believe it's essential for the network to give a single person the authority to do the things a program director does at a radio station--work across the organizational lines of programs and personalities to focus the program service. The result would be better service to listeners from both NPR and the stations.

At stations, a program director represents listeners. He or she pays attention to presentation and promotion, whether it pertains to news or music programs. A program director assures that everyone is headed in the same direction.

A p.d. designs a service that works for listeners on two levels, the macro level of programs that have affinity with one another, and the micro level of hosts who sound like they belong on the same station.

On the macro level, a program director would be charged with identifying and developing talent and programming and, most important, would be given the authority to kill programs that did not meet standards of quality and audience service. On the micro level a program director would pay attention to the little decisions that really matter to radio stations, such as making good use of that extra minute-and-a-half.

Here are some specific things a program director at NPR might do:

A program director might set a host-substitution policy that builds NPR brand loyalty. What happens at a major-market commercial radio station when the morning guy takes a day off? The second most popular personality, usually the afternoon host, takes over the mornings while the mid-day host goes to afternoons. The "sub" always goes to the least important time of day, usually middays.

If NPR had a program director, he or she might move Robert Siegel or Linda Wertheimer to Morning Edition when Bob Edwards was away. Since ATC has three rotating hosts, this would not pose a problem for that show. If there was a need, Ray Suarez could host ATC (or Morning Edition, for that matter), and a substitute could be found for Talk of the Nation, a program which has smaller carriage and is at a time of day which is, in radio terms, less important than morning or afternoon drive.

Another logical host move would be to have Scott Simon host Sunday as well as Saturday Weekend Edition. NPR has worked over the years to make the programs sound distinct from one another, but there is no audience-based reason to have two separate shows for Saturday and Sunday. A program director would make a quality judgment and put the best host on the air both days, and take the best regular segments of each show and repeat them both days. This would further reinforce the NPR brand, and would use talent resources in the most efficient way.

A program director would make tough decisions about who is the best host for each program and service. NPR is blessed with talented journalists and talented air personalities. These are not always the same people.

I am not suggesting that NPR should change its traditional emphasis on outstanding journalism. It doesn't have to--some of NPR's best journalists are also excellent air talents, but not all of them are. Someone needs to make the judgments that some very good reporters do not belong on the air as program hosts.

This practice should extend to all of NPR's on-air activities. Last fall's Pitchbreak Channel, for example, featured new hosts, replacing Alex Chadwick (Morning Edition) and Neal Conan (All Things Considered), who are two of NPR's most appealing air talents. Why were they replaced? A program director would make these kinds of hosting decisions based on who was the best possible person for the job, and would make it a priority to have the best people on the air at all times.

A program director would work with hosts to improve on-air performance. Every good program director does this with every air talent. With established, experienced talent it often takes place by simply discussing what the station--or in this case the NPR service--should sound like.

One good example of a program that needs this kind of help is NPR's Performance Today. The producers try to give the program a kind of "macro" consistency with NPR news programs by including short features, highly scripted introductions and other informational elements, but the sound of the program is still different from anything else on NPR.

Host coaching could improve this. Martin Goldsmith is an interesting, funny and compelling person. Unfortunately, little of his terrific personality comes across on the air. This seems to be because of an apparently deliberate (and historic--the program has been this way from the beginning) decisions to produce a Classical Music Program rather than a NPR program.

Performance Today also presents an overly broad musical playlist that seems to serve the music more than listeners. It's scripting and presentation style are often "clubby" and stuffy, with an insistence on using non-English pronunciations. This is at odds with proven programming practice, and even with the internal desire to bring understanding of the music to everyone, exemplified by the program's regular feature, "Coming to Terms." A program director could help with these issues that keep the program from connecting with listeners and fitting consistently with other NPR services.

A program director would be an advocate for stations and listeners with regard to programs acquired or marketed by NPR. This is a very broad and far-reaching responsibility, but it mirrors almost exactly what a program director does at a station. A program director decides what will and will not go on the air. He or she says "no" far more often than "yes," and uses resources as prudently as possible.

For example, a program director might have said "no" to the use of NPR resources for At the Opera. This program supposedly was built out of an expressed need--station programmers asked for help filling the half-hour before the start of the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcast and the time after the opera ends. But At the Opera will do nothing to extend or reinforce the NPR brand. The brand for opera is the Met. NPR has provided some customer service to a few stations, but at a cost that almost certainly exceeds any potential return.

Another case in point is NPR's Anthem. This weekend offering is still seeking its place as a NPR program. If NPR had a program director, the show might have gotten off to a better start and made better use of scarce resources. For example, how much better would Anthem be if NPR had forged a partnership between NPR News and Nick Spitzer, producer and host of American Routes? American Routes has a vision that comes across on the air. Anthem does not.

Whenever a new program director comes to a radio station, his or her biggest job is to overcome history, and at NPR that job would be monumental. Even at a drastically under-performing station, a new p.d. will hear the mantra, "but that's the way we've always done it." At NPR, the chorus likely would be deafening.

If NPR is to really help stations serve listeners better, however, it must look at the possibilities rather than point at its past awards. Looking forward does not in any way denigrate past performance. A program director accentuates the strengths of a service, eliminates or minimizes the weaknesses (no matter how institutionally entrenched they may be), and keeps things moving forward. The one thing a program director cannot tolerate is stagnation.

NPR needs a program director. A p.d. would help the audience grow by lending oversight and coordinating important presentation and promotion elements of the NPR program service. A p.d. would blend the needs of stations with the strengths of NPR to form a service that works for listeners throughout a broadcast day. A p.d. would work to reinforce the NPR brand to take full advantage of those strengths.

At stations and at NPR, programming is what we do. By hiring a program director, NPR would send a strong signal that it understands that maxim.

Tim Emmons spent more than 10 years of his radio career as a p.d. before crossing over to the dark side (station management). He currently manages WNIU and WNIJ in DeKalb, Ill.

Web page posted Sept. 19, 2008
Copyright 1999 by Current LLC

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