Study finds most listeners don’t mind NPR’s embedded underwriting credits

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A committee of NPR’s board voted May 8 to maintain embedded underwriting at its current level on network programs, despite concerns among station executives that the practice could harm listeners’ perceptions.

Embedded underwriting credits appear within segments of NPR’s newsmagazines, rather than in the longer blocks of credits that punctuate the shows. The credits give sponsors dedicated placement alongside particular series and areas of coverage, such as business, health and technology.

NPR ramped up efforts to sell embedded underwriting starting in 2011, and station leaders and programmers responded with worries that the credits were disrupting the flow of programs and giving listeners the idea that sponsors are influencing content.

Late last year, NPR agreed to limit the number of adjacent spots to 11 per week and to study listeners’ reactions to the credits.

“There are two things we need to take care of: the clutter aspect and the audience’s perception of what we’re doing,” Tim Eby, g.m. of St. Louis Public Radio, told Current. “In the hearts and minds of folks at NPR, there’s a big firewall, but what does the audience think? That’s what we have to be very careful about.”

But the new study commissioned by NPR found that most listeners surveyed were unfazed by the credits. Lightspeed Research conducted the study with its own independent research panel and an NPR panel of core listeners. Researchers asked listeners to react to a credit airing alongside an NPR story about a subject in the sponsor’s line of business.

Thirty-two percent of core listeners in NPR’s panel reacted negatively, while 33 percent reacted positively and 35 percent were neutral. Among panelists who said they listen to NPR newsmagazines at least once per week, 13 percent responded negatively, 47 percent neutrally and 40 percent positively. Preliminary results of the study were presented to the Resource Development Committee of NPR’s board.

The committee also reviewed the internal process that NPR set up to manage the placements. Staffers from NPR’s development, editorial and sponsorship departments meet weekly to discuss adjacency opportunities, said Betsy Gardella, chair of the committee and president of New Hampshire Public Radio. The team maintains a “blacklist” of sponsors that should not be approached due to potential conflicts, she said.

“They want to make sure that perceptions of conflicts of interest are eliminated before anyone goes out to talk to potential sponsors,” Gardella said.

Editorial staffers have authority to drop any credits already sold if they have concerns about conflicts, Gardella said.

“We drop adjacencies all the time that feel awkward,” said Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior v.p. for news.

A slippery slope?

NPR hasn’t revealed how much revenue it earns from embedded underwriting. But $6 million in sponsorship sales recorded in September 2013 alone positioned the network to close the fiscal year with record-setting fundraising, according to a projection shared by Stephen Moss, NPR’s chief sales rep at National Public Media, during a board meeting last fall.

Those results prompted then-NPR C.E.O. Gary Knell to proclaim that NPR had embraced a “revenue culture,” recognizing the need to raise funds within editorial boundaries. But some station executives say the network’s underwriting practices have already gone too far.

“I think they’re playing loose and dangerous with this,” said Ellen Rocco, station manager at North Country Public Radio, in Canton, N.Y. “We’re having more and more of these special sponsorships, and over time the perception is these stories are being bought and sold by the underwriters.”

NPR is focusing too much on selling credits and not enough on what listeners might think, Rocco said. “It’s a real concern when we start getting soft about how we approach these things,” she said.

“They might not be going outside of the basic parameters, but in terms of how they’re doing things, it seems like a philosophical change in where NPR is going,” said Jeff Hansen, p.d. of Seattle’s KUOW. “It’s a slippery slope.”

Hansen also objected to the use of embedded credits in the A segments of newsmagazines and in back-to-back slots.

“The A segment is supposed to be sacrosanct,” Hansen said. “Imagine above the fold, on the front page of a major newspaper, you have an ad pegged to a story there. That’s what they’re doing.”

Embedded underwriting within A segments is “rare,” said Emma Carrasco, NPR’s chief marketing officer, through a spokesperson

Dan Skinner, g.m. of WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, and president of Public Radio in Mid America believes that NPR’s editorial firewall is strong, and he expressed confidence that its reporting is free of conflicts of interest. But, he said, NPR needs to be cognizant of the fact that the strongest editorial firewall is only as good as listeners perceive it to be.

“We know they try to provide a really strong firewall, but there is a concern about perception, and we just need to be careful about that,” he said.

During last week’s meeting at NPR headquarters, members of the board’s Resource Development Committee agreed that the issue should be studied and addressed periodically.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the research company that studied listener reactions to the credits and omitted details about the composition of the listener panels. In addition, the group of listeners previously described as irregular listeners of NPR do tune in on a consistent basis: they catch NPR’s newsmagazines at least once per week.

17 thoughts on “Study finds most listeners don’t mind NPR’s embedded underwriting credits

  1. Public Media should not have advertising and should not take it’s cues from commercial broadcast. Public media gets a tax exemption and part of that deal is to not be bombarded with ads or the influence that comes with it.
    The moniker National Petroleum Radio did not come into existence by happenstance.

    • It’s not advertising, it’s underwriting acknowledgements.

      If there are no underwriting announcements, how do you propose public broadcasting be funded? Do you honestly think in this political climate something like the BBC’s license fee could be approved in this country? Maybe it’s time you started living in the real world instead of your ivory tower.

      • PBS is steadily creeping toward commercial TV and even content is being influenced.
        1-The “enhanced underwriting” – commercials at the beginning of shows instead of listing donors- should be abolished. No tag lines, no video imported from commercial advertising. They get a write off for the underwriting, anyhow.
        2- I would like to see a citizen check off for contributions to the CPB on tax forms and online filing similar to the elections fund. Taxpayers can vote to chip $10 or a hundred to the CPB for public media. Even a NeoCon should have no problem with that.

        • I’ve worked as a tax preparer for two years. The overwhelming majority of my clients do not want to have the $3 set aside to the Federal Election Campaign Fund, even after you explain to them that it won’t affect their refund in any way. If people don’t want $3 to be set aside for campaign funding, they won’t want $10 to go to public broadcasting. If you take away the underwriting announcements, you’ll get very little underwriting. It’s still only one-out-of-ten who give to public broadcasting after all these years. And any attempt at a license fee will be pilloried by the Republicans as “taxation for Communist propaganda and pornography.”

          Once again, please start living in the real world.

      • I think it’s annoying for some of us to hear public broadcasting promoting cars or financial services or whatever, after so many years of enjoying public broadcasting as “commercial free.” It was nice while it lasted. I need a mute button for my radio so I can avoid the ads as I do with the television.

        • I like NPR.
          It is very annoying per different segments to have non news minutes filled with commercials, promos etc.

  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] 40% of NPR Listeners Support Embedded Underwriting

  3. They may call it underwriting acknowledgements but that’s a convenient euphemism. They are advertisements and they are annoying. I would like to know what percentage of their funding comes from US, the public in Public Radio, and them, the advertisers. I turn NPR off more often these days. I’m back to reading the news again.

    • Overall support for public radio (from the stations from which NPR receives membership fees):

      Corporations (including underwriting)–17%.
      Individual contributors–34%.

      So there.

  4. Those numbers might be correct, however, it sure seems like the time allotted to corporate advertisements is far more than 17% of air time.

    • Why don’t you go listen to a commercial station and find out that the time devoted to UNDERWRITING ANNOUNCEMENTS is a drop in the bucket compared to the 20 minutes an hour on your typical commercial station? Or are you just a Communist who hates our free enterprise system?

      • I just commented because I wanted to be part of the discussion and I don’t think I’ve been unpleasant. You have. We’re both entitled to our opinions.

      • Id rather listen to the commercials. At least they tell me something I might find useful, and they are often entertaining. As for the underwriting announcers, it’s more than the vocal fry that gets on my nerves. It is the lilting, sing-song inflection used by Farhi and now Jessica Hansen. However, what galls me even more is the way that NPR sticks up for these losers, making all kinds of excuses and trying to diminish the legitimate complaints of many listeners. I am really surprised that NPR got rid of Farhi. I would have expected them to defend her to the death, as they undoubtedly will Hansen. Because of this arrogance I no longer listen to NPR. It has ceased to be relevant to my life.

        • One minute an hour of content is keeping you from listening to public radio? ONE MINUTE AN HOUR?

          And what makes you think you represent the majority of public radio listeners–because you don’t?

          Oh, BTW–how many other threads, some of them months old, are you going to copy-and-paste?

  5. Speaking as a former core listener, I feel that Jarl Mohn did listeners a huge disfavour in his push for (increased) advertising:

    I believe that the proportion of listeners that have found it objectionable is higher than was anticipated, and that studies conducted beforehand to gauge this were, somehow, compromised by wishful thinking.

    Any voice actor, no matter their skill, would have found themself in the ruinous position that Farhi indeed found herself in.
    Any seemingly benign stimuli, whether it be softly-spoken words or water droplets upon the forehead, can be maddening with enough repetition.

    Some people “respond positively” to ads, according to the mentioned studies. I would have thought it entirely moot.

    My recourse has been to specifically seek out radio shows online, i.e. ThisAmericanLife, etc.
    I’m not the only one, by far, surely.

    • I’m confused…you seem to be under the mistaken impression that This American Life, among other shows, has fewer ads/underwriting on their podcasts. That is demonstrably not the case; they have more ads. A lot more. And I mean ADS…not underwriting. Something I think is actually a large problem because it badly erodes the brand, but that’s another discussion.

  6. I turn on NPR just to listen to unusual pnews stories from around the world .
    But the political commentary are so
    Liberal bias BS they’re laughable. Hey i know how anout more reporting the communist patadise known as Venzuela ha ha ha.

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