NPR is proposing to cut a newscast from Morning Edition and lengthen segments following the newscasts, a change that it says would improve the experience for listeners.
An hour of Morning Edition now includes three newscasts. The proposed clock would have newscasts only at the top and bottom of each hour, though the total minutes per hour devoted to newscasts would not change. The segment after the first newscast would be a minute longer; the segment after the second newscast would gain 30 seconds. The proposed clock would also cut 1 minute and 29 seconds of music beds from the current clock.
The network is considering the change because the listening experience for Morning Edition “can feel a little cluttered,” said Sarah Gilbert, acting VP for news programming and former Morning Edition EP. With the current 10-minute, 29-second segment opening the show, Morning Edition has to “stop, change direction, and go to something else, which can feel as if we’re interrupting the momentum or the narrative arc of the story of the day in a way which can feel sometimes unsatisfying,” she said.
With longer segments, the show can “deal with this persistent feedback that we’ve been getting that the momentum of our storytelling is interrupted because we have to change direction too soon,” Gilbert said.
The proposal comes four years after NPR added a third newscast to Morning Edition and made other changes to its clock and All Things Considered. At the time, some station programmers pushed back on some of the updates, including the move of Morning Edition’s bottom-of-the-hour newscast.
Concerns about an overstuffed clock have been a “persistent theme” in recent conversations with station leaders, according to Gemma Hooley, VP for member partnership. NPR began discussing possible changes to Morning Edition’s clock last summer at fly-ins with station leaders at NPR headquarters. It briefed stations on the proposed clock changes in a webinar Monday.
The sound of Morning Edition has been evolving in other ways as well. Through audience research, the network has learned that listeners are increasingly getting a first “skim impression” of the day’s top stories from smartphones and social media rather than their radios, Gilbert said.
So Morning Edition has shifted to a greater focus on live interviews and providing more context about the day’s major stories. Previously, its higher proportion of reported features meant “we were telling the story of what had happened the day before,” Gilbert said.
NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen said in a column Friday that some listeners have criticized the shift to more live interviews. They “rarely provide a wide range of views … in the way a reported piece can,” Jensen wrote. The shorter segments on the newsmagazines, particularly Morning Edition, don’t allow “for sufficient context and background, let alone a satisfying conversation about a complex subject,” she wrote.
Shorter segments can force hosts to cut newsmakers short, Michael Krall, program director at WBHM-FM in Birmingham, Ala., told Current. “Phrases such as ‘We only have 20 seconds remaining’ or having to cut off a guest due to time constraints can be disruptive,” Krall said. “… Interviews and stories have gotten shorter over the years, yet it can take much longer to unpack complex and complicated issues.”
Lynne Clendenin, VP of programming at Oregon Public Broadcasting, said she’d like to see NPR restore the bottom-of-the-hour newscast it removed in 2014. OPB retained a local newscast in that spot when NPR made the change. “[It’s] far stronger to have the two paired at the bottom of the hour — easier for the listener than the current clock,” she said.
Not all programmers think the clock is cluttered. Jackie Sauter, director of broadcast and digital content at North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y., said she doesn’t agree with the assessment. “But I want to hear the concerns of others and will participate in the webinars with an open mind,” she said.
NPR will hold more webinars with stations throughout April. If stations are receptive, the network and stations would prepare for the changes from May to July. The network would aim to introduce the change in early August, giving listeners an opportunity to adjust to the new schedule a month before Nielsen’s fall rating period begins.
“This is not anything that is already baked,” Hooley said. “We are in the middle of a rolling process.”