“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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13 thoughts on ““NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

  1. charles pierce

    Has Shafer ever actually done that? You call something “Kleenex” that isn’t, or you call something “styrofoam” that isn’t, and you get polite pissed-off letters from the company and, in the latter case, a little chunk of styrofoam so you won’t make the same mistake again.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @charles: Years ago I read a story in the Columbia Journalism Review that revealed the companies really don’t care that much about whether journalists misuse their trademarks. The reason they send pissed-off letters is that they need to establish a paper trail in case a competitor tries to claim they abandoned their trademark and the term has become generic.

  2. Steve Safran

    (Disclosure: I’ve done contract work for NPR.) I think it’s fine if people use “NPR” as a catchall in daily life. Heck, before I worked there I wasn’t entirely sure of the distinction. However, in a work of journalism that purports to expose the weakness at NPR by blaming a program distributed by Chicago Public Media the reporter is simply wrong.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Steve: Very interesting. I suspect the reason you think it’s fine if people use “NPR” generically is because NPR and the stations themselves have gone out of their way to blur the difference strictly for marketing purposes. Yet no one would say that CBS really ought to get rid of Diane Sawyer.

  3. Duke Briscoe

    The Globe’s boston.com web version has been corrected, although they do not have a note recording the correction.

  4. Steve Safran

    To echo what Duke said: If this were a “next day” correction in the paper, they would have noted it, along with what was wrong in the original. Transparency…

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Duke and @Steve: Not sure what you’re looking at. If you go to the editorial at BostonGlobe.com right now, you’ll see that the headline and text have been rewritten, and that a correction has been appended. Seems pretty transparent. Is there another version on Boston.com? I couldn’t find it.

  5. Laurence Glavin

    One thing that could cause the general public to confuse other networks with NPR: individals who appear on these networks turn right around and lend their talents to NPR-affiliated stations’ fund raisers. And these snippets are inserted into NPR programs like “All Things Considered”, “Morning Edition, and on NH Public radio two weeks ago, NPR’S “On the Media”.

  6. Aaron Read

    But wait, there’s more!

    NPR is blocked from owning any radio stations by its own charter. In order to change that charter would require a vote of approval of its governance, which is all member stations, who will NEVER give that vote.

    PRI, AFAIK, has no such restriction, but it doesn’t own any stations.

    APM, however, DOES own several stations. All of the stations of Minnesota Public Radio…a statewide network of over 30 transmitters, IIRC…plus a station in Florida and a major station in Los Angeles. This is a huge conflict of interest that I’ve always wondered why more member stations aren’t complaining about it.

    And then there’s PRX, which also doesn’t own any stations but does have the Public Radio ReMix feed that is designed to be run 24/7 on a broadcast outlet. Few stations have elected to use it, but that might change over time.

    Oh, and APM just announced (last week, I think) that they’re taking over, from PRI, distribution of the BBC World Service in America. That’s a major blow to PRI…the BBC was a major reason for a lot of stations to pay the PRI affiliation fee.

  7. Ron Newman

    Steve Safran: too early to say that, as it isn’t the “next day” yet. This editorial is in today’s print edition.

  8. Sharon Mahoney

    My pet peeve is folks who confuse nonprofit community radio stations with “public radio.” They are not the same.

  9. Aaron Read

    It’s a confusion that a lot of folks, including myself, exploit when convenient and decry when not. I often say that I worked as technical director for two different NPR shows in my career, but that’s not actually true. I worked for “Living on Earth”, which is a PRI show, and “The Infinite Mind”, which was self-distributed.

    ANYONE can easily distribute their show out to the bulk of “public radio” stations via the Public Radio Satellite Service’s “ContentDepot” satellite system. You just need to adhere to PRSS’s basic technical requirements, have libel insurance (you can buy it at very reasonable rates through PRSS), and your check must clear for the satellite time. That’s it. No connection to NPR, PRI, or APM (or anyone else) is needed.

    With PRX, you have an even cheaper clearinghouse for “public radio” programming, since it’s all web-based. Great for those “public radio” and “community radio” and even “college radio” stations that don’t have a (expensive) satellite receiver dish. And to get a bit more confusing, PRX actually “officially distributes” a handful of shows, like “American Routes”, “The Moth”, and “Snap Judgment” (I think) but the rest they just provide space in the system for.

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