By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Cutbacks come to NPR

Like a number of media observers, I’m bullish about National Public Radio because (a) its distribution model — reaching people who are stuck in their cars — still works and (b) its nonprofit funding system removes many of the pressures facing for-profit media corporations.

Note that these are organic advantages, having nothing to do with the excellence of its content. Although it’s pretty damn good.

But even non-profits need to make money. So it was inevitable that NPR would suffer cutbacks due to the economic downturn. According to Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, “Day to Day” has been axed, as has “News & Notes,” a program I’m not familiar with that was aimed at African-American audiences. A number of journalists have been laid off as well.

Much as I don’t like to see people lose their jobs, it strikes me that there may have been a little bit of mission creep — or mission bloat — going on here. By far the majority of NPR listeners tune in during drive time, which makes “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” among the most-listened-to radio programs in the country.

As long as those franchises are safe, I’m not too concerned.

Locally, it’s end-of-the-year fundraising time at WBUR (90.9 FM), as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Let’s hope enough money rolls in so that its own franchise shows, “On Point,” “Here and Now” and “Radio Boston,” are able to thrive.

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  1. Vox

    Hey Dan,I have to give a shout out to Terry Gross: she has the best interview show on radio, hands down. Also, “On Point” is valuable.

  2. The Ripley Porch

    Perhaps a word or suggestion here….but the majority of listeners would like a return to what was done in the 1970s and 1980s…alot less news and more jazz, opera, classical and folk music….with some books read over the air.Throughout the 1980s…there were simple-run programs which were mostly regional and folks tended to feel as part of the show. Today, we get umpteen hours of news….simply repeated stuff from ABC, Fox or CNN. Frankly…we’d like to see a return to the old days.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Ripley Porch: Do you have any evidence for your belief that a majority of listeners would like to return to the old days? Just one man’s opinion, but I say “no.”That said, I’m a regular WBUR listener, and I’m struck by the lack of a daily, low-cost, locally oriented talk show of the sort that public radio stations have in virtually every city.Given the horrendous state of talk radio in Boston, I’m sure such a show would do very well, and it wouldn’t soak up too much money.

  4. R. Scott Buchanan

    Who is this majority, and why don’t they know how to flip over to WGBH for their NPR jazz or classical needs? In my experience WBUR is extremely unusual in having almost no music programming.

  5. Peter Porcupine

    DK – READING ALOUD!!! I used to time my lunch breaks so I could sit in the car and listen!Of course you can buy audio books, but it doesn’t have the asides and pace of the hourly show.

  6. Aaron Read

    Ripley Porch, as GM of an NPR affiliate station, I have access to a raft of studies that demonstrate the exact opposite of what you're saying.Dan: the "daily, low-cost, locally oriented talk show" is a contradiction in terms. Cost is determined by quality, not by whether you're local or national. WBUR does not do things "low quality" so they would have to pay for another four or five (minimum) fulltime staff members to run a local talk show. And that presupposes they'd have a place to air it. It wouldn't take D2D's place…if big productions like D2D and N&N failed miserably during the noontime hours, why would WBUR risk spending ten times as much producing an in-house show only to air it during the same "dead times" for listenership?I imagine WBUR will just start airing both hours of Talk of the Nation again.FWIW, I always felt that N&N was not "aimed at black listeners" so much as it was "produced by black listeners for an NPR audience." That audience might be largely white, but I would posit that it just speaks to N&N's ability to bridge the racial divide.

  7. Tony

    But, at the same time, this may be more of an indication that NPR was just overstaffed not underfunded. I have seen what good, for-profit radio operations can do when they spend money on local talent but with a fraction of the staff of a non-profit state network. In fact, one year, the little AM news station I used to operate won as many broadcasting awards as the entire state public radio network – with about 20 fewer employees, six fewer in the news department alone. This one example showed me that you can get quality without quantity although, ideally, the little AM station was WAY understaffed. This crisis will allow the network and its affiliates to get serious about its programming. I mean, why would any NPR affiliate pay one red cent for the Diane Rehm show? It is purely awful. She is unlistenable. And yet, there is a begathon a few times a year by some affiliates to pay for the rights to air the show. Awful.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: You can do a perfectly good local talk show with a host and one producer. Two hours, one guest each hour. Somedays, one guest for two hours. Just because WBUR would choose not to that doesn’t mean it’s undoable.

  9. Tony

    Easily, a good local talk show can been done with a host and a producer with a good Rolodex and some drive [and possibly adding a board op if you really want to splurge]. This can totally be done. As well, if these two [or two and half] people have no other jobs – that is, this is their full-time job and they don’t have a part-time job on the side – all the better. Think about it – two people with 40 hour work weeks spending 10 on the air maybe another 10 prep time before and after. That gives them another 20 hours each to think about the show, tweak it, find better bumpers and more interesting guests, edit audio, etc. Most good radio people would give their right arm for an opportunity like this. Don’t cry about staffing – get out there and do it!

  10. Aaron Read

    Dan, I challenge you to put up or shut up. 🙂 If you can find one producer and successfully produce 60 minutes of content on a live-to-tape podcast every weekday and you think it’s as good as WBUR’s talk shows, I’ll eat my hat. And WBUR would probably offer you a job. But you’ll also go stark raving mad from the workload.Tony: booking guests into the right studios can eat up 10 hours a week ALONE. Trust me on that one.I know a more than a few pubradio outlets that attempt to do what you describe, and I would argue the quality is most definitely not up to “WBUR Standard”. Hell, they don’t even meet the “Sominex Standard”…as in “radio that doesn’t put you to sleep”.BTW, I suspect that some will read this and think: but commercial radio does talk shows with just two guys like that. It’s apples and oranges. Totally different styles; a good commercial radio host can use their personality to fill a lot of time if the guest is weak. Pubradio just doesn’t work that way. Also, a commercial radio show may have only 25-35 minutes of actual “show” after you take out the commercials and the newscasts. NPR talk shows have a standard clock that never leaves less than 51 minutes for actual show. Big difference.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: Naturally, I’m thinking of hosts like Dan Rea and the late David Brudnoy, neither one of whom would have seemed out of place on public radio. But you’re right about the commercial interruptions and the dreaded “open lines” hours.So, OK, one and a half.

  12. Sean Roche

    Uh, Dan, isn't one of the major objectives of public radio to produce shows that won't necessarily be mainstream hits? The fact that you don't know about News & Notes and won't miss it is kinda besides the point, or more likely missing the point.

  13. the zak

    The On Point guy has little original thinking for his interviews. Working from guests’ press releases makes On Point broadcasts substandard compared to Lydon and Charlie Rose. A better call in show is needed.

  14. Aaron Read

    Uh, Dan, isn’t one of the major objectives of public radio to produce shows that won’t necessarily be mainstream hits? Sean – not really. There was a vague hippy idea to NPR in the 1970’s and early 80’s…but it faded fast. After Gulf War I in ’92, it was on life support, and the Joan Kroc $200+ million endowment put it in the grave. NPR is about providing an ALTERNATIVE to commercial radio in many ways, yes, but it strives to have massive listenership just like everyone else.Dan – I think we’re coming at this from two different angles. You’re arguing that it CAN be done…and you’re right. I’m arguing that it CAN’T be done on WBUR…and I’m right. WBUR would never take Brudnoy and let him sound just like he did on WBZ, because what would the point be? The point is that WBUR sounds like WBUR…and it’s a very distinctive sound. Paul LaCamera doesn’t want WBUR that sounds like WBZ; it’s like having a white Cadillac with a door salvaged from a gold one. Sure, it’s all still a Cadillac, and works just fine, but it looks like crap.BTW, Ellen Weiss did a nice interview on PBS’s NewsHour that explains more of the thinking that went into slashing N&N + D2D instead of across-the-board cuts. Here's a key point:JEFFREY BROWN: These programs, though, that you’re now forced to cut had received some attention — I mean, a lot of attention as attempts to diversify and grow the audience, particularly “News and Notes,” to reach an African-American audience. What happens to that effort now?ELLEN WEISS: Yes. Well, I should emphasize that, really, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation now if we weren’t facing an economic crisis.These are wonderful programs. The people who work on them are incredible. And we have much to learn from what they have taught us about introducing NPR and public radio to new audiences.But the fact is, that’s an effort that has to go on across everything that NPR does, not only that are we trying to reach new audiences with what we do on the radio, but of course we’re trying to reach new audiences on every platform, what we’re doing online, through podcasting, mobile.That’s not just something we do through one program or even two programs. That is an NPR mission. (emphasis added)Ms. Weiss is 100% correct. Now, I’m not sure NPR is really accomplishing that at a mission level. Honestly I’m not sure if they know how…and I’m not sure ANYONE knows how, it’s a tall order to appeal across multiple racial and gender divides without offending all of them, or just being boring. But she is correct that having five hours a week of “black” programming, amidst 163 other hours of “white” programming, is not going to attract or serve African-American listeners.

  15. Aaron Read

    Oh, one last thing: News & Notes and Day 2 Day are both “noon-time” shows, that feed out on the satellite at noon or 1pm.WBUR’s Here & Now also goes out live at noon. And PRI (H&N's nat'l distributor) is already making that fact known as much as they can.If anything, while this cut will cause a minor shakeup on WBUR's own schedule, it could VERY well result in a lot of stations picking up H&N to augment their schedules.

  16. Doug Shugarts

    Two quick comments –WBUR’s most recent fundraiser was a success, ending a day early and yielding over $80k more than the 2007 year-end fundraiser.Also, when I worked on WBUR’s talk program, “The Connection,” producers frequently spent a day or more preparing for one hour of programming (one show). Lots to do: track down and pre-interview guests, book remote studios, locate and edit tape, prep the host, etc. Talk radio sounds simple to the listener but demands a ton of work, particularly for a show that focuses on news.

  17. Tony

    Adam wrote: Tony: booking guests into the right studios can eat up 10 hours a week ALONE. Trust me on that one.As you know Adam, I've been involved in radio off and on now for more than 15 years, almost exclusively doing news and talk. For more than two years at my last job, I hosted, prepped, and booked a daily one hour A&E show in a city with limited A&E guests. For the first year, I did the show while being a news anchor and reporter, news director, and program director. In fact, I would host the arts show and then do two hours of on-air news anchoring on top of all those other responsibilities.The second year, I handled the show while being the station manager, sales manager, program director, and chipping in just about everywhere else. I know first hand how labor intensive putting on a quality talk show is. So trust me when I say that a good, daily two hour show in New England can be done with two full-time people. It can. I know.

  18. Aaron Read

    My name is Aaron, Tony.Maybe you’re wearing too many hats to notice the details? 😉

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron and Tony: I want to make it clear that when I mentioned a low-cost, local talk show for WBUR, I was only thinking in terms of a hypothetical in case ‘BUR finds itself in financial trouble, which it isn’t right now.So yes, given ‘BUR’s present production standards, there’s no reason for the station to do any low-budget programming. I’m only saying that it could, and that it would be a perfectly find show with the right host and the right producer.Aaron, I’ll even throw in an intern!On the other hand, I do wish ‘BUR would do a daily local talk show, low-cost or not.

  20. Aaron Read

    On the other hand, I do wish ‘BUR would do a daily local talk show, low-cost or not.Eh, okay. I can get behind that.Indulge my curiosity, though: is this more nostalgia for the days of The Connection with Chris Lydon before they went national? Or just because you think a station like WBUR needs to do more "local" radio?I ask because the former just isn't cost-effective (I think Doug can back me up here) and the latter is supposed to be addressed by "Radio Boston" (and, to a lesser degree, Here & Now…which is a national show with a pretty Boston-centric focus).

  21. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: A desire for local content is nostalgia? I don’t think so.I think you’ve boxed yourself into a bit of a corner here. On the one hand, you say that a station like WBUR isn’t going to do a low-cost show because that doesn’t fit its image. On the other, you say that a local show wouldn’t be cost-efficient.Hence my suggestion for a low-cost local talk show.With the exception of Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ, Boston no longer has a serious local talk show that regularly features guests. And Rea is frequently pre-empted by the Bruins.It’s not nostalgia to point out that Chris Lydon’s pre-national “Connection” served a real need. “Radio Boston” is a good program, but we don’t need something that heavily produced. What we do need is greater frequency.

  22. Aaron Read

    Sorry, that wasn’t the message I meant to convey. I meant it more in the sense that The Connection in its pre-national days was oft-cited as an avatar of local call-in radio.Doesn’t WEEI have call-in shows with guests? I mean, yeah it’s a sports station, but they don’t shy away from taking on politics and other related news. And what about WRKO and WTKK? I mean, they don’t have to be GOOD shows, but they do have some, don’t they?This is where my not living in Boston anymore is starting to catch up with me; I don’t know the scene as well as I used to a year ago.

  23. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: No, you don’t. As I said, we’re pretty much down to Dan Rea.On ‘RKO, Finneran and even Howie will occasionally have a guest. On ‘TKK, Eagan and Braude will occasionally have one, too, and their is the only local show that isn’t simply an offensive joke.But no one is talking about local issues in any sort of serious way on a daily basis.

  24. Sean Roche

    I don’t listen to ‘EEI any more. I came late to the NPR party, but I’m staying.But, to say that Eagan and Braude are the only local show that isn’t a joke is to seriously underestimate and fail to appreciate what Glenn Ordway does every afternoon. Granted it’s a show with a very narrow scope targeted at the most adolescent of the adult population, but as entertainment and as a show that covers its intended turf, there is no peer. And, despite the huge numbers of regularly revolving co-hosts, it’s Ordway’s show. Big drop-off in quality when he’s missing, no matter which set of co-hosts is there.If I wanted to break into radio, I’d spend a lot of hours trying to understand Ordway’s magic.

  25. Sean Roche

    Oh, and the most important point: Ordway’s show, like all of ‘EEI’s own content, except the godawful Dennis and Callahan, is intensely local.

  26. Dan Kennedy

    Sean: There are some very good food and personal-finance shows on local radio every weekend.

  27. Aaron Read

    Dan, we may have been prescient: apparently WBZ is slashing all of its local overnight content, axing Steve Leveille, Lovell Dyett, Tom Cuddy and (allegedly) Pat Desmarais as well.Ouch!Steve used to do overnight fill-in at WBUR, too. I wonder if WBUR might try to bring him in to do exactly what you want and put it where the soon-to-be-deparated Day2Day is. Call Paul LaCamera today to suggest it! 🙂

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