A mandate for a balanced budget and a drive to reduce its production commitments spurred NPR to cancel Tell Me More, one of the few remaining broadcast shows outside of its newsmagazines that the network produces itself.
NPR will end the production as of Aug. 1 as part of a broader newsroom restructuring announced May 20. Twenty-eight jobs in its newsroom and library will be cut; eight of the positions are currently unfilled.
Tell Me More, a weekdaily program featuring host Michel Martin and focusing on news topics related to people of color, now airs on 136 stations. The show had struggled to add enough stations since its 2007 launch to break even, said NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson.
“That’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Wilson said of the show’s carriage. “But this has been one of the perennial problems in public radio.”
NPR spends $2.1 million annually to produce the show and earns only $600,000 in revenue from it. The production costs align with other daily shows of Tell Me More’s quality, Wilson said.
With the show ending, NPR will try to bring the editorial strengths of Martin and her staff to the larger audiences garnered by NPR’s newsmagazines. Martin will contribute to the newsmags and participate in events at member stations; Tell Me More Executive Producer Carline Watson will head up a new editorial team to work with Martin.
“As you imagine, I’m very disappointed with today’s news,” Martin said in a May 20 statement. “I hoped we could have found a way to save the show, but NPR news management has assured me that the mission that we’ve undertaken will continue in new ways and I’m sticking around be a part of making that happen.”
Lynette Clemetson, senior supervising editor of Morning Edition, will take on a new role as director of editorial initiatives, overseeing Martin’s transition to her new role as well as NPR’s Code Switch and Race Card Project.
“The media landscape is very different from when [Tell Me More] launched,” Wilson said. “The ability to reach a diverse audience is also different from seven years ago. But what we’re saying is, we’re not stepping away from our commitment to reach a diverse audience. We’ve got to come at it from a different angle.”
NPR has been downsizing staff and restructuring operations under a mandate from its board to hit a break-even budget by the end of fiscal year 2015, which begins Oct. 1. Management reported a $3.8 million surplus for the quarter ending March 30, $8 million above budget, in financial documents distributed to the board this month; but, even with the latest round of staff and production cuts, NPR is still projecting a $6 million deficit for the Sept. 30 end of fiscal 2014, according to Wilson.
Here for the ‘long haul’
NPR’s decision to cancel Tell Me More was saddening but not wholly unexpected, said Loretta Rucker, executive director of the African-American Public Radio Consortium. The group of 20 stations serving mainly black communities partnered with NPR to develop Tell Me More.
As Rucker pointed out, the network also canceled another AAPRC-backed show, News & Notes, in 2008.
AAPRC still sees demand for shows aimed at the audience Tell Me More reached, Rucker wrote. “We clearly are one of the last ones standing in this business of providing African-American and ethnically diverse content to public radio, even without major funding,” she wrote. “And we are here for the long haul.”
Some listeners took to Twitter to express their frustration with the show cancellation, including PBS NewsHour host Gwen Ifill, who tweeted, “We say we want different voices/views/spark on the air. And then @NPR cancels @TellMeMore w the great #MichelMartin. #Hugeloss.”
As NPR scales back the productions for which it has sole responsibility, it has increasingly sought partnerships to develop its new offerings. Last June, it canceled Talk of the Nation, a midday show produced within NPR for two decades, and replaced it with a revamped version of Here & Now. That program, which originated as a production of Boston’s WBUR-FM, now airs on more than 360 stations through a production partnership with NPR.
Meanwhile, TED Radio Hour, a weekly series also developed as a co-production, launched in April 2012 and now airs on more than 400 stations.
“By partnering with TED, we were able to get off to a fast start and not face the 10-year slog we faced with Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! to get to sustainability,” Wilson said. “I think partnership becomes important in this era.”
Given the success of those collaborations and a continued push to provide content on a range of platforms, NPR can no longer take sole responsibility for programs, Wilson said. “The idea that we can go it entirely alone is one from a different era,” he said.
The success of NPR’s recent collaborations and the accelerating drive to provide content on multiple platforms require that NPR develop new shows through partnerships. By spreading the financial risk, the network isn’t on the hook as new programs take years to achieve financial sustainability.
“I think that’s what we would look to do for new shows going forward,” Wilson said. “The idea that we can go it entirely alone is one from a different era.”
In other editorial changes, NPR’s Washington Desk will be reorganized as a multiplatform hub combining both digital and broadcast coverage. Ron Elving, who has headed the desk, will be reassigned as a senior editor and correspondent. Beth Donovan, now deputy Washington editor, steps up to run the desk’s coverage.
NPR will also combine its radio and digital coverage of arts into an Arts and Culture hub led by producer Ellen Silva.
NPR has adopted the hub structure for two additional content specialties, producing coverage of education, and global health and development.