Does public broadcasting talk too much?

Is public radio still too stuffy?

The NPR ombudsman calls out attention to a study commissioned for National Public Radio on ways to increase its audience.

aud1017hurdles.gif The bottom line? Don’t be so elitist. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

According to current.org, a newspaper for public broadcasting types….


Some objections to the traits of NPR News are sure to prompt pushback from listeners and producers who value complexity and ambiguity, and don’t mind lots of words. Wordiness is a problem for one white woman who spoke to researchers about NPR: “I think it can be clever and quirky, and smart and insightful. But I don’t choose to listen to it because it’s too much talking for me.”

Wait. It gets worse….


The tone and seriousness of public radio programming also presents challenges: 35 percent of those familiar with public radio (including 29 percent of the core) say NPR “needs more energy”; 30 percent describe it as “too monotone,” and 28 percent say it’s “boring.”

The people who did the study correctly point out the challenge: How to appeal to these people who want less talk and more energy without alienating the large number of listeners public broadcasting has now — the ones who put up the money to build the system in the first place?


For content accessibility, the summary proposes that NPR go for a more open, dynamic and conversational tone in news delivery. “There is an appetite for things that sound conversational, and for people sounding like real people,” Kaplan said. “It also has to do with understanding what people like to know about and what matters to them.”

It’s important to note — lest the comments section get filled with the “you’re too liberal” or “you’re too conservative” discussion — that the report is talking more about style than substance. Or at least, that’s what it appears to say to me. But, then again, I change my own oil

Your thoughts?

  • Aaron

    Interesting. Some of my friends don’t like talk radio, but then I turn on the current or even show them the diverse programs on the weekend. I think talk radio is synonymous with politics and thus alienates those who do not like the division in our political realm. I listen to MPR/NPR most of the day. I think it might neat to change up the program options during the week – something that is not just “news” maybe radio lab or this american life… moth? I don’t’ think it’s possible to please everyone.

  • vjacobsen

    I was listening to this morning’s show on tigers, and I couldn’t help but think how boring the program was. I generally think it’s a great idea to have longer discussions on different topics, but do we need as much during the day as is currently programmed? All those authors on? And does ATC really have to run on a loop? I can’t stand listening to the same stuff twice. Oh, and if I’m in the car past 10pm, the replay of CBC programs is pure torture. Same goes for the BBC broadcasts in the early morning.

    I think MPR would be much better if there was more of a balance between long discussions, pre-recorded pieces, and news covered live. And some traffic would be nice. Anything that changes the pace more often, surprises us as listeners, and is more in touch with what is ACTUALLY HAPPENING NOW, not what happened 9 hours ago. I would suggest looking to 2 things for inspiration: The very blog (because it’s a treasure trove of interesting stuff, not to mention Bob usually finds a story hours or days before other local media), and the now-dead In the Loop, which took current news and made it fun and let you see the other side.

  • John P

    Too much talk? What are the news stations suposed to do, run some music between news stories? Then we get into taste in music, and one man’s beautiful music is another man’s awful noise. Then are they still news stations?

    Maybe Cathy Wurzer could assemble a “Morning Zoo”. I think I remember that back in the ’80’s Tim Russell (Now of Prairie Home Companion fame) used to do a morning show with lots of funny voices on the old WCCO-FM, so maybe he could help.

    I kid, I kid!

    I thnk the plain fact is that many people’s tastes run toward what commercial radio does. There’s plenty of that all over the dial, public radio should stay away as far away from that as they now are.

  • bsimon

    Perhaps the question should be:

    Should NPR change to appeal to a different audience, or should NPR try to educate that audience about why NPR is the way it is?

    In my opinion, the interesting study would be of Current listeners. When the newsies show up on the music station, is that an unwelcome interruption, or is it piqueing interest in the sister channel?

  • JackU

    Oh come on…

    This: Wordiness is a problem for one white woman who spoke to researchers about NPR

    Followed by: But I don’t choose to listen to it because it’s too much talking for me.

    This is about NPR news programming, right? It’s radio for crying out loud, what does she want pictures? More music?

    It’s kind of like asking people who don’t like baseball, or maybe sports in general, what it would take to get them to watch more baseball games. Then you’re surprised when they respond, “If it moved faster and had more action then maybe I’d be interested. But usually it just puts me to sleep, so I don’t watch it.”

  • Abrahm

    Personally, those are the reasons I like listening to MPR/NPR. I like the ambiguity in many of the pieces. The in depth reporting on topics. There are presentation of headlines and then there are pieces where the news items are actually discussed, oftentimes for several minutes.

    I also enjoy the tone. I don’t want bombastic over the top reporting or newscasters shouting. I like the measured, reasonable tones of NPR/MPR newspeople.

    I do agree with vjacobsen about the looping of All Things Considered. That’s a bit annoying.

  • Aaron

    I agree with Bsimon. I think NPR has it’s large audience because of what it does rather than just trying to reach everyone. Yes, it’s good to do a little self reflection, but people listen to talk radio because they like the insight. I think MPR does a good job by offering the current & classical stations for when listeners want a break from talk.

  • Joanna

    can’t be all things to all people, and if you try, you risk alientating the loyal, core (sustaining) audience. In The Loop WAS a great show and I never understood why it was cut. More shows like Radio Lab, but locally produced, would be appealing–use the inherent strengths of radio and give local talent a chance to flourish. Trying to appeal to the anti-elitist crowd is a lose/lose proposition.

  • brian

    The weekend programming was what got me listening, and then I slowly started listening to the news programming.

    Obviously totally changing to format would be counter productive, but I would like the idea of interweaving some “weekend-like” programming into the week.

  • Cara

    Wordiness is the exact reason I listen to NPR. I like hearing the whole news story, not just a 20 second blast, and a wide variety of them.

  • Chris

    I’m going to insert a tiny rant here.

    The only radio station I listen to is MPR news, because that’s what I’m interested in hearing in my car or in the mornings before work.

    I love most of the Saturday/Sunday programming, because even though it isn’t strictly _news_, it is still interesting and coherent talk radio.

    I can’t stand the Saturday evening programming, either now when it is American Roots or years ago when it was the Jazz Image (?). I’ve never understood why you choose to put music shows on the news station. I get irritated every Saturday as soon as PHC is over, because I know the good times are over.

    TLDR: I wish the Saturday pm music shows would be moved to one of the two music stations.

  • Heather

    I *like* it to be “elitist”!!! That’s why I listen! ; )

    I listen to news on the way to and from work, unless I am just done with news, in which case I turn to The Current. If my daughter is in the car with me, we go by whether she feels like listening to “The Music” or “The Talking”. She often chooses The Talking, and asks questions about what she hears. She’s four, so sometimes those questions are things like, “Is that a kid?” or “Why did he say, ‘thirteen people died?'” but I like giving her a chance to be engaged with the news without having to process photos or video of the events we’re hearing about.

  • Zebulun

    Just to reinforce the fact that you can’t please everyone, I lean to the opposite of this trend to appeal to a younger, hipper audience. I don’t care for Radio Lab or other programs that attempt to be “clever.” If the content is interesting or new, it doesn’t need sound effects.

    Perhaps the problem with the news programs like ATC is not an excess of words; perhaps it is an overuse of the same words or ideas that have become the conventional wisdom of American news outlets. How many times a day do we need to hear the prevailing opinion on political strategy?

    Frankly, I think the best programs on public radio are produced by PRI, some of which MPR neglects to broadcast. I often wonder if this is due to stubborn pride, competition, or something else entirely.

  • Heather

    Actually, Bob, maybe MPR could put you and Lucia on a couple of times a day to kick some of the stories around. Perfect example = the clip where you discussed they guys who stole a lot of nuts. Hilarious.

  • andy

    For those who think that MPR/NPR talk to much, I pose a question;

    It’s obviously a news and information station right? Would you like the content to be presented in song, like show-tunes? Maybe at night they could switch to hip-hop? I’m just throwing it out there. What I would give to hear Bob Collins free-style rapping the news of the day…..

    I actually don’t get to listen to MPR anymore since moving to Chicago. I always listen to Chicago’s public radio while driving but as soon as I’m in front of a computer I listen to the Current. I can listen to music while working but it’s hard to concentrate on work while listening to news.

  • Jim

    I think there’s some break between perception and reality going on here – maybe a lot of the people who avoid public radio because it’s “boring” haven’t really listened to hear that it’s actually quite lively, particularly in the drivetime shows. Sure, midday might drag a little if it’s airing an hour-long forum or something like that, but ATC, or ToTN, shows like that, they move along at a pretty good clip. Remember when someone was complaining recently that Marketplace is all flash and sizzle with no substance?

    The commenter that brought up In The Loop has a good point – also reminds me of the Bryant Park Project – shows that were doing livelier stuff, departing a bit from perceived public radio stuffiness, but couldn’t, I assume, sustain an audience.

    It would be interesting to see how some of the freewheeling energy of many public radio podcasts would carry on to the radio. Are the folks from The Current ever airing “Musicheads” on the radio itself? That’s a lot of fun to listen to. And NPR is doing a great job with Planet Money (which gets some ATC airplay, but a lot of those stories are drained of the playfulness of much of planet money), and closing in on zoo-crew levels of zaniness with the occasional group discussions on All Songs Considered and the newer Pop Culture Happy Hour. They’re way too freewheeling for the radio, but clearly there are people at NPR who know how to make some high energy programming.

  • Cara

    I download Planet Money, Science Friday, RadioLab, This American Life etc on my Ipod for long car trips to Lake Superior when I know I’m going to be in and out of radio range.

  • davidz

    The presence of the CBC & the BBC in the late night is one of the reasons I really like MPR. Getting a non-American perspective on the news is a nice change — I just wish the top of the hour newscast during the BBC overnight wasn’t the NPR one (it used to be the BBC’s, but that changed several months ago).

    My complaint about talk show is not that there are too many of them, but that we have too many hours repeated over the course of a weekend. I really don’t want to hear WWDTM, On Being, Marketplace Money, APHC, and This American Life twice.

    There are a lot of good shows out there. Find room for a few more of them to add variety, rather then duplicating so much.

    But the MPR news & information station should be providing just that: news and information.

  • vjacobsen

    Oh, yes, the evening music stuff HAS to go! I loooooove the new Pop Culture Happy Hour. I like Planet Money a lot too, though I have a hard time getting into Radio Lab for some odd reason.

    I’m not saying it;s a matter of “elitist” or not, but some things just seem like they get flogged to death, and 3 or 4 hours of programming that covers one topic for an hour each is just too much sometimes! Some days it’s wonderfully informative (like yesterday having someone CALL IN and say she had been doing some of the iffy foreclosure paperwork). Some days, well, it does come off as elitist and quite boring. My point is that these formats in the morning, bookended by repeats of ATC feels a bit tedious some days. Now, ToTN is fantastic and has pacing that I find appealing.

  • Adam

    Idiocracy.

  • Curt C.

    I think many of the respondents to that survey don’t know the difference betwixt “elitist” and “informed”.

  • cpap

    I couldn’t agree more with Chris’ 3:51PM post.

    I love CBC’s As It Happens (on the occasions I’m up that late).

    I really dislike “horse race” politics, which seems to be the topic on MPR/NPR much too often. The Political Junkie is exhibit A, it gives me an excuse to listen to The Common Man.

    Down by 3 going into the bottom of the ninth … not good!

  • Ken Paulman

    To borrow from Jon Stewart… doesn’t “elite” mean “good”?

  • Arlan

    I listen to be informed. I chuckle at the thought someone my think me elite! However, I do know what the candidates for governor actually think (not just the rant from their silly TV ads). I listen because of the words.

    The only show that is monotonous because of words is ‘This American Life’ in which every presenter tries to out monotone the other + it would be more aptly name “These Strange American Lives” because they seem to report on anomalies. I usually turn the channel now when it comes on.

    If someone wants something else – there are plenty of poor radio options for them to choose from. Please don’t dumb-down our information station.

  • Al

    I like wordiness at times. At other times it’s just to much. But I think it depends on my day, what’s on my mind, and how much time I have. It’s like being married. Some days when I get home I could listen to my wife talk for 20 minutes about her day and enjoy it. Others, I really just want to get dinner made now. Give me the 2 minute version or save the 20 minute version until the kids go to bed. She has the advantage of being able to see me and figure out which day it is. Of course now that I think about it, public radio has podcasts and webstreams.

    BTW, I have pretty much the same reaction to written stories and blog posts. I look forward to the day when I have time to read 8 paragraphs and a dozen comments, but for now I have supper to make, kids to get to bed, dishes to do…

  • Ellie

    I just don’t have the time to sit through long radio interviews. When they get transcribed and I can read them it goes so much faster — I can skip all the repetitive bits, station identification, ads (yes,there are ads), announcements, conversations wandering off into dead end areas, hosts interrupting just when the guest was saying something interesting, etc. Then the programs can be interesting, however I find I’m still better off finding out who the guest is who’s being interviewed and just look them up on the web or read whatever book they might have written.

    Although the national (NPR) hosts of the interview shows are able to steer the conversation into interesting areas, it seems the hosts on the local station do too much interrupting. The conversation never actually gets anywhere. After a point, I just get frustrated. There isn’t enough content to keep me there — it’s just random words filling the air space. For me, the wordiness of MPR isn’t the problem, it’s that the words often don’t say much. I’d like more intellectual stimulation, not less.

  • Dwight Bobson

    Except for the overuse of the word “iconic” I like NPR just the way it is. I want length of why and I want full explanations of alternative opinions because if I wanted short and pithy there is a glut of commercial outlets that will provide all of the short the attention-deficit listeners can handle.