National Public Radio (NPR) is an American noncommercial radio network that produces and distributes news and cultural programming through its member (affiliate) stations around the country. Its flagship newsmagazine programs All Things Considered and Morning Edition reach an estimated audience of 20 million listeners a week who are characterized as highly educated and socially conscious. With close to 40 news bureaus in the United States and overseas, NPR has an extensive news-gathering operation that provides in-depth news and analysis that have helped establish it as a dominant player in the field of journalism.
NPR originated out of a view of radio as having an educational and cultural purpose. Following the early 1967 recommendations of the Carnegie Commission, which was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) to examine the future of educational broadcasting, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in October 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The term public was coined by the Carnegie group and the new law to stress the role of public participation in the developing noncommercial broadcasting system. Over the next year or so, CPB would, in turn, create and oversee both NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Although the radio did not appear in the original Carnegie recommendations, the concerted efforts of advocates of noncommercial radio helped get radio included in the act.
NPR was formed in 1970 to improve the quality of public radio by improving programming and strengthening local public radio stations known as affiliates. A mission statement written by William Siemering, NPR's first head of programming operations, said that NPR would “serve the individual” and celebrate the varied nature of the human experience, thus offering an alternative to what was available on commercial radio.
The first NPR news program to air was All Things Considered (ATC), a 90-minute news magazine that was heard on over 80 member stations around the country at 5 p.m. (EST) May 3, 1971. This first broadcast included a lengthy report on the May Day protests against the ongoing Vietnam War by college students and veterans, a piece on a heroin-addicted nurse, and a story from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that combined antiwar poetry with songs and sounds of battle from World War I.
In its early days, ATC exhibited little structure and varied from day to day depending on what staff members offered to fill the time slot. When Jack Mitchell became the show's producer in 1972, he imposed a more conventional journalistic format on the program, placing a newscast at the top of each hour, with stories ordered based on their newsworthiness. He also added a co-host when he hired Susan Stamberg, who would become the voice of ATC for the next 15 years.
The 1970s were a period of dramatic growth and program development at NPR. The opening of a London bureau was a signal that the network was serious about covering international news. Because NPR had limited resources, the program emphasized analysis and interpretation over breaking news coverage. Jack Mitchell says, “the reports gave listeners background, viewpoints and perspectives” from a variety of sources—academics, journalists and the common man (Mitchell 2005, 72). Over the years this was to change as the network added more reporters like Robert Zelnick, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts, and Nina Totenberg to cover the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Supreme Court, beats that were essential to a mainstream news organization.
When Frank Mankiewicz took over as CEO in 1977 his goal was to make NPR better known to both listeners and policy makers. To this end he arranged for live coverage of debates over control of the Panama Canal in the U.S. Senate. The gavel-to-gavel coverage—over 37 days—raised the profile of NPR and became a precedent for future broadcast coverage of both Senate and House hearings. Mankiewicz also negotiated an increase in federal funding for public radio and put in place a satellite distribution system that improved the technical quality of its national programming, which made it possible for programs to be distributed from various places in the country, not just Washington, D.C.
NPR took another important step towards becoming a major player in radio with the launch of a matching morning news magazine, Morning Edition. The program made its debut at 5 a.m. on November 5, 1979, with Bob Edwards as its host and aimed at attracting listeners during morning “drive time” when radio audiences are at their peak. Although they had needed some convincing initially, within a week of the new program going on the air, half of NPR's 222 member stations decided to carry the program (or portions of it). Within a year, 90 percent of NPR stations were airing some or all of the program and finding that their audiences were growing as a result.
From the outset, funding was a challenge for the organization. Federal funds for public broadcasting were given to CPB, which allocated these between public television and NPR. In the early years NPR's share was between 17 and 20 percent of the CPB budget; under Mankiewicz this increased to 25 percent, which led to an increase in staff, more programming, and more affiliate stations.
In 1982 a 25 percent cut in the CPB's federal fund allocation by the Reagan administration combined with a series of business ventures that required cash investments but which did not quickly yield returns, led to a debt crisis at NPR that brought the network to the verge of bankruptcy. By mid-1983 the projected budget deficit was $9 million. NPR was saved by a series of loans from the CPB that were guaranteed by some affiliate stations—and Mankiewitz departed.
The debt crisis resulted in a change in the financial structure of public radio. officials realized that federal funding would always be uncertain and that NPR needed to raise funds from other sources such as corporations, foundations, and directly from listeners. Under the new funding plan launched in 1985, the CPB would provide the funds earmarked for radio directly to local stations, which would in turn pay NPR for whatever of its programming that they aired. The stations wanted NPR to unbundle its programming so that they could select programs piecemeal. This last request was not part of the new NPR business plan but was eventually incorporated into its business model. The new business plan also included a Radio Program Fund that would provide seed money and expansion money to local stations to develop promising programs. The restructuring plan helped put NPR's financial house in order so that it was able to retire its debt in 1988.
In the post-debt crisis years, NPR moved away from the vision many had for it at its inception. Bill Siemering's vision for NPR, articulated in the mission statement he wrote, was of a service that would “enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge,” and in so doing make listeners “more responsive human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.” His hope was that NPR would serve audiences from varied backgrounds, religions, races, and with varying levels of education.
Instead, during the 1990s, NPR focused on growing its overall audience, as there was a recognition that it would have to focus its appeal if it was to develop a loyal following. NPR increasingly focused on news and began to take on mainstream commercial stations in terms of the news stories it covered, with an increasing emphasis on covering breaking news and analysis rather than relying on analysis as had been its hallmark. NPR programs also gradually changed their style of reporting. In its early years, news and feature stories on NPR had been distinctive in their use of natural sound as an integral part of the story and in the way sound and words combined to create vivid radio pictures. As NPR moved to become a major player in radio news, it moved toward a more hard news approach with sound as a supplement rather than central part of the story.
With stations now helping cover NPR's costs, there was a greater need to pay attention to what stations said their audiences wanted. Stations also began focusing on increasing contributions from nongovernment sources—from their listeners and from corporations which could not advertise but which could underwrite the costs of a program in return for a brief on-air mention. In the opinion of some NPR staffers, this meant providing radio programming that was bland and safe rather than innovative and cutting edge.
As the network moved toward financial stability two more programs were added—Weekend Edition Saturday (in 1985) hosted by Scott Simon and a year later Weekend Edition Sunday hosted by Susan Stamberg. In the realm of cultural programming, NPR created Performance Today to showcase classical music performances recorded by member stations combined with reviews, interviews, and features covering all of the arts. NPR also began to distribute programs produced by its affiliates. The most popular among these are Fresh Air, This American Life, and Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me.
During the Gulf War of 1990-91, NPR sent more reporters to cover it than any other radio news organization in the world. Some saw this as a mark of NPR's stature as a broadcaster. But there were those who felt that such expensive coverage was not in keeping with NPR's mission, and rather than competing with other news organizations, it should focus on fostering public debate and offering its listeners analysis and a context for understanding these and other news events. Talk of the Nation, a call-in program started during this period to offer such an opportunity for debate, eventually became another staple of NPR's programming.
Despite efforts to cut federal funding for public radio by some Republican lawmakers in the mid-1990s, NPR news programming continued to grow though half of its cultural programs were dropped in response to anticipated funding cuts. Increasingly, its news programming defined the network's identity with more news bureaus being opened at a time when commercial broadcasters were closing theirs. Audiences began to expect that NPR would be there to cover breaking news whether it was happening in China or the Middle East or New York City. When two terrorist-piloted passenger jets crashed into New York's Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, NPR expanded the hours of Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered to cover the crisis continuously for the next two and a half days.
The new century has brought further changes at NPR. Both of its long-running news programs have seen a change in hosts. In 2001 All Things Considered initiated a slate of three hosts— Melissa Block, Michelle Norris, and Robert Seigel—who would rotate studio assignments with more reports from different locations. Bob Edwards, host of Morning Edition for nearly 25 years, was replaced in 2004 by Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne in the hope that a two-host approach might allow for better coverage of breaking news. While Inskeep broadcasts from NPR's studio in the Washington, D.C., headquarters, Montagne is located at NPR's studios in Culver City, California, known as “NPR West.” Established in 2002, NPR West is the network's first major production center outside Washington and allows the network to cover more stories that originate west of the Mississippi and to add more diverse sources and perspectives in its reporting.
In 2002 a bequest of over $225 million by Joan Kroc, heiress to the McDonald's fast-food fortune, gave NPR a huge boost in revenues. While $190 million was to be placed in its endowment fund, part of the remaining money was used to expand news operations, including opening new bureaus and training investigative journalists. This financial security has also made it possible for NPR to embrace the potential of digital media, making it the biggest organization in the audio download business. It has also established a presence on satellite radio with two satellite channels, NPR Now and NPR Talk.
One of the challenges facing NPR is attracting younger audiences as most of its programs skew toward older listeners. The median age for All Things Considered and for Morning Edition is 49. In recent years, NPR has undertaken a number of initiatives to draw in both younger and more diverse audiences. The Tavis Smiley Radio Show first aired in 2002 as a collaboration between NPR and a consortium of African American public radio stations. With an audience including nearly 30 percent African American listeners, it had a more diverse audience than other NPR programs. Despite this, in 2004 host Tavis Smiley decided to end his program claiming that the organization was “not aggressive enough in courting minority listeners.” NPR has continued to try and reach out to blacks, Hispanics, and others who have been underrepre-sented in its audience. In April 2007 it launched an hour-long show, Tell Me More, that focuses primarily on issues facing African Americans and other minorities and on international stories.
Another initiative, The Bryant Park Project, launched in October 2007, is a new two-hour morning news program targeted to people in their 20s and 30s. It takes a more conversational approach to news and continues through the day on the website, on podcasts, and on blogs. By making listener commentary a crucial part of the program and creating a less studied and more informal sound, the network hopes to appeal to a post-boomer audience. The All Songs Considered online multimedia program, as well as the song-of-the-day and live concert downloads on the website, are also indicative of a concerted effort on the part of NPR to draw in younger listeners, especially since the bands covered are generally college radio favorites.
NPR's audience profile is the envy of many commercial broadcasters. An audience study concluded in 2003 that a college education is the best predictor of whether someone will listen to public radio. Fully 60 percent of the public radio audience holds a college degree, and listeners are four times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American. Some 27 percent hold professional jobs (compared to 10 percent in the general population). As to income, 17 percent have a household income between $75,000 and $100,000 per year, 13 percent above $150,000 and they are more likely to read prestige magazines like The New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. The typical audience member for NPR programming is described in an NPR audience study, Profile 2004, as someone with an active lifestyle and a take-charge attitude who is receptive to new ideas and technologies and is involved in civic and political life.
Almost from its inception, NPR has faced criticism from both the political right and left. Conservatives who believe in the free market are philosophically opposed to federal funding for a public radio network, arguing that if there is an audience for its offerings, then NPR should be able to find funding from private sources and its listeners. Such criticism (and the repeated threat of ending federal funding) has, in fact, pushed the network to develop alternate funding sources. Critics on the right also object to NPR's seeming liberal bias as evidenced by the opinions expressed and the people invited on the air to express those opinions.
Critics on the left believe that NPR has not lived up to its promise and has failed to program for a diverse audience because it serves only a narrow slice of the population and does not reach out to the disadvantaged. For many on the left, the pressure from market forces, as NPR increasingly relies on corporate funding, means that the network is not very different from its commercial counterparts.
While there is some validity to this criticism, the fact remains that NPR has served as a sane and increasingly valued voice in radio. Its programs cover a broader range of topics than commercial radio and better reflect the complexity of contemporary life. From its beginnings as an alternative to commercial radio, National Public Radio had moved into the mainstream. Indeed, many argue that NPR has become the dominant presence in radio news. Its newsmagazine programs are among the top three most listened to radio programs in the country and it draws the largest audience of any program in morning “drive time.” NPR is a reliable source of news that provides nuanced and unexplored perspectives as well as depth and context in its coverage of events.
Podcasting, Public Broadcasting Service, Public Radio Journalism, Reporters, Radio
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