Morning minus Bob:
What the program needs
Now that Morning Edition has your attention
NPR has a great opportunity
to raise the sails on its flagship
The extraordinary confluence of two seemingly unrelated developments may provide the next significant boost to the public radio audience.
The first was Joan Kroc’s remarkable gift of $200 million to National Public Radio. The second is the new impetus to improve Morning Edition as Bob Edwards leaves the show. NPR management wanted to upgrade the show before the flap over his reassignment. Now they have to make a major effort.
The relationship between the two developments is that together they create an opportunity for NPR to improve and energize its most important program.
While most of the Kroc gift will rightly go to the NPR endowment, this invested capital will generate approximately $10 million per year in interest — new operating money for the network.
If NPR wishes to make a significant impact with the new revenue, it should consider putting more resources — perhaps most of the gain — into Morning Edition.
Radio listening is driven by morning drive time. For commercial stations, there’s no question about that: Much of their revenue is earned during morning drive, and that’s where they spend their money. The morning talent receives the highest pay for delivering the biggest audience.
The a.m. is equally important to public radio. If the Morning Edition cume grows 10 percent, the public radio audience will grow by at least 1.3 million listeners — probably more. There is nothing else NPR could do that would expand public radio listening as dramatically.
NPR’s managers must realize that All Things Considered is no longer their flagship program — not because ATC has declined in value, but because listeners choose their core radio station primarily by their morning listening.
The new income from the Kroc gift represents an opportunity to strengthen
NPR’s morning drive time programming while giving a boost to the rest
of public radio’s day. And since it’s new money, NPR can do it
without robbing the other shows.
Simply throwing money at Morning Edition won’t take full advantage of the opportunity. Here are a few specific things NPR could do to enhance its public service in the morning and deliver more listeners to stations:
Make the show sound great. Bob Edwards
is a reliable
personality, has a great voice and has such a long and celebrated history with Morning Edition that many people feel he and the show are synonymous. Still, some broadcasters and listeners have thought Morning Edition has needed a second host for some time, and Bob’s low-key nature has caused a number of people to wish the show had a higher energy level.
NPR is first and foremost a news organization and has often hired journalists from the print world. That won’t work for this hire. While journalistic credentials are essential, they are not sufficient. Everyone in the pool of finalists should have proven journalistic ability. Then NPR should choose hosts based on chemistry and their ability to create compelling radio.
In the meantime, NPR’s managers should look for other opportunities to give new energy to Morning Edition. Perhaps new music is needed. The World makes terrific use of regular, highly produced segments such as Geo Quiz, and that kind of thing might work well. Producers should consider hiring new commentators who can, among other things, work as well with the hosts as Red Barber did with Bob. Perhaps Bob should continue to be a regular element of the show. The brief human interest stories at the bottom of the hour — what the staff calls their “returns” — are written by Bob and are among the show’s signatures.
Everything should be on the table to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
Start thinking like a radio station. A couple of months ago, NPR partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a new survey about sex education. Listeners first heard the poll discussed during Talk of the Nation Jan. 29 and then in an All Things Considered feature that evening. The topic returned in a story on Morning Edition the next day.
Frankly, that should never happen. An enterprise story should always appear first on Morning Edition, preferably with promotion ahead of time. Exclusive, branded stories have more impact when they are talked about all day long on a radio station, beginning in the morning.
I applaud NPR for the ongoing partnership with Kaiser/Kennedy. The news division should use some of the Kroc money to do more exclusive or partnered polling and analysis. But when they do it, they should take full advantage of the resulting programming by launching it on Morning Edition and promoting it before it airs.
Create an investigative news unit. In public radio, we make much of the fact that we are noncommercial and not beholden to advertisers or other funding sources. So, what are we doing to take advantage of independence? Enterprise reporting is expensive and takes time. The Kroc money could allow NPR to develop an investigative news unit that would bring stories to the American public that it has never heard before, on ideas and issues it may not have considered. When this is done, NPR should commit to airing those investigative reports first on Morning Edition. This would help Morning Edition become a must-listen show for more people — something NPR needs.
Hire more star reporting talent for Morning Edition. A few weeks ago Walter Cronkite did a piece on the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s exposure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy on the CBS program See It Now. It was compelling radio, done by one of the true stars of news reporting.
Imagine how Morning Edition could benefit from occasional, promotable reports done by Bernard Shaw, who retired a while back from CNN. Mr. Shaw is a fine journalist, and his name value would bring positive recognition for NPR news. There are also plenty of non-retirees who could do great work for NPR. Using journalists of this caliber to augment the terrific daily journalism produced by NPR’s own reporters would offer exceptional journalistic and promotional opportunities.
Nothing is wrong with the quality of NPR’s reporters. But, with a few exceptions, they lack star power. Joining star power with the journalistic excellence of NPR’s reporting staff could be the “killer app” that brings more attention to NPR and more listeners to stations.
By the way, the Cronkite report appeared on All Things Considered. Why not Morning Edition?
Even though Bob Edwards is leaving the show, further change is likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Making change at Morning Edition, with its well-established structure and culture, will require determination and diligence.
I trust Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming. If management tells Jay, “Go make Morning Edition better — and here are the resources to do it,” I believe the results will be remarkable. Most important, those results will fulfill Mrs. Kroc’s vision for her gift to NPR — bringing more listeners to its compelling programming that truly serves the public interest.
The place to start is the first thing in the morning.
Tim Emmons is g.m. of Northern Illinois University’s
WNIU/WNIJ in Rockford and DeKalb, Ill., and a consultant with Strategic Programming
Partners. E-mail: temmonsniu.edu.
Web page corrected April 13, 2004
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