NPR is about to unveil a new podcast and with any luck, it will change the too-earnest, too-dispassionate culture of traditional public radio journalism.
The podcast, called Embedded, will take a story in the news and “dive deep,” it was announced today.
We’ve heard that sort of thing in journalism before, but it’s the way the story will be told that could — and should — signal a shift in the culture of storytelling on NPR and, hopefully, elsewhere.
First, what’s the current problem? Host Kelly McEvers reveals it — possibly without intending to — in an interview with Washingtonian.
“You don’t always hear NPR reporters talking about how they feel, just because we have to be a little more authoritative for our news show,” McEvers says. “You don’t hear us in the car muttering over, like, ‘OK trying to get embedded with biker gangs—not actually easy in Texas.’ The version of that story you’re going to hear on All Things Considered, you’re not going to hear any of the getting there, the making of. The podcast, you will.”
Why not? Because in some past journalistic life, someone decreed that in order to be “trusted” and “believable”, a good journalist doesn’t tell the story in the first person, ignoring the fact that it’s how the best stories are told.
NPR admits that one of the goals of the podcast is to make reporters more human.
“When I was in the Middle East I sort of broke the cardinal rule from the beginning that reporters aren’t supposed to be on tape,” she says. “That was sort of the old-school, unwritten rule of foreign reporters at NPR. You don’t say the word ‘I,’ you don’t put yourself on tape, and I just sort of did it anyway. Not because I think the story is about me, but because I always felt like I was being a stand-in for the listener.”
It’s a revelation years overdue and it will likely gravitate to the terrestrial radio side of NPR and seems, no doubt, a reflection of the influence of pioneers like Ira Glass and This American Life. It’s just that the style hasn’t migrated to the legacy programs that are the bedrock of NPR.
McEvers’ plan is the sort of assertion that has previously caused old-school radio journalists to clutch their beads while mainstream media increasingly became an archaic Victorian model of irrelevance.
But the coming revolution makes perfect sense. Times change. Storytelling changes. Language changes. And it doesn’t diminish the craft to let go of yesterday’s conventions.
It’ll take awhile for radio to catch up with the reality revealed by the podcast. But eventually, a new way of talking about and covering the news will accelerate an already impressive shift in the “NPR voice” as the “old guard” is replaced by fresher, younger journalists.
It’s about time.