Does NPR have a future?

Slate’s Leon Neyfakh is the latest media watcher to predict doom for public radio, specifically the organization formerly known as National Public Radio.

The competition in the media landscape is fierce, he writes — podcasts and other apps that appeal to a younger crowd can eclipse the antiquated business model of NPR.

Neyfakh cites a list of younger, hipper employees who bailed on the organization out of frustration that NPR wasn’t prepared to pivot to a younger, hipper audience.

The problem? NPR does news. The audience of tomorrow wants a different package of personality and entertainment too.

By their nature, the newsmagazines are “perishable,” meaning they are designed to be listened to when they are fresh. In sensibility, they have been impressively consistent for decades, and longtime listeners have come to count on them for succinct updates on important world events, measured analysis of major national stories, evocative slice-of-life reporting from around the country, as well as occasional offbeat pieces that are delivered by NPR correspondents with a reliably mature sense of playfulness.

The NPR News voice, though not monolithic, is unmistakably distinct from the diverse range of audio programming that has taken off in the recent podcast boom. Some of the shows that are part of that wave, such as Red Bull Studios’ Bodega Boys, BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and Slate’s own political and cultural talk shows, have found a market as “low-touch” productions, which require little in the way of reporting (by the hosts) or audio engineering (by producers) and rely mostly on the podcasters’ charisma, expertise, and chemistry.

Other successful podcasts, such as Reply All, Criminal, and You Must Remember This, have paved the way for something else entirely: meticulously crafted feature journalism that, in Alex Blumberg’s words, feels less like a collection of radio segments and more like “narrative-driven, textured, sound-rich documentaries.”

The conventional wisdom among podcasters like Blumberg is that, in 2016, listeners want audio programming that makes them feel as though they’re getting to know a person or a topic intimately, whether through the familiar banter of beloved panelists or through lovingly produced works of storytelling.

Whereas the parents of the elusive Lara turned to NPR because they wanted someone trustworthy to tell them the news, younger generations seem to find satisfaction in the velvety bedroom voice of 99% Invisible host Roman Mars as he murmurs about furniture and the self-consciousness of Serial’s Sarah Koenig, who makes the method of her reporting part of her story.

“There’s hardly any commentary, and very little exploratory or strange portraiture, documentary, or poetic stuff,” Jay Allison, one of public radio’s early risk-takers said.

“By abandoning that kind of sonic terrain of exploratory narrative, NPR has ceded that territory to the podcasters.”

Adam Davidson, a co-host of the Planet Money podcast, on the other hand, says he’s surprised he’s not getting more calls for jobs from NPR employees also ready to bail on the old media ways.

When and if that happens, NPR’s side of the talent equation suddenly becomes incredibly compelling: you can have good wages, a reliable union job, AND fast-moving creativity in a company that owns the future. NPR might even (I have thought) begin to give co-ownership to its show creators, so they might have a compelling financial inducement.

Frankly, when all that comes together I’d be tempted to quit Gimlet (just kidding, Alex Blumberg!) and come back to NPR.

My sense is that the opposite has happened. The message received by the no-promoting-podcasts-in-back-announces coverage is that the talent equation shifted dramatically in favor of the new startups.

I don’t think that was the goal of the announcement, but the simple fact that the announcement came without realizing its impact suggests that the discussion within NPR is very, very far from where I thought it was and should be.

To me, I find it hard to understand how there could even be a question of whether or not NPR should promote its own podcasts. Of friggin’ course it should. Like crazy! It’s life depends on it! Have you seen how the NY Times promotes Virtual Reality or the Upshot or the new Modern Love podcast. For that matter, have you heard how NPR promotes Morning Edition every chance it gets.

But Davidson acknowledges his latest podcast is struggling to find an audience.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, one of NPR’s foreign correspondents, countered that it’s a big pie.

Hi Adam. As you know I have enormous deep respect for you and what everyone ‘out there’ is doing. I wonder why it always seems to be a zero sum game with you guys (and you are mostly guys) : the new world of podcasting OR NPR failing and disappearing in the abyss?

I also have to say that in many ways what the news shows provide is missing in your awesome podcasts…you know, that thing called news. Are you not interested in what is happening in China or Nairobi or …dare I say it, Brazil?

What podcast will provide reporting from the field in ways that are meaningful? What you wrote is a variation of so much of what ex-NPR staffers have written who have left to go into the private sector. But, ya know, NPR has a mission. And that mission is to inform.

It has the scale and the scope to do that. And yes, OH GOD YES, are there problems at NPR (like all media companies). But seriously NPR does matter unless you want to live in a world with ONLY 30 minutes of vocal fry on the value and meaning of Mold (which is GREAT) and not, also, let’s say… news of a terror attack in Belgium. I’m sorry if that seems quaint to you.

But as someone who has spent (most) of their entire career in terrible places telling stories that were important but came at great personal cost I find the arguments you make kinda silly. The ecosystem is evolving and growing. And that’s a great thing. Let’s not eat each other in the process. Love, Lulu

And that explains why the podcasters aren’t hearing from NPR workers. As near as I can tell, none of the people who left NPR for the upstarts have that much of an audience. So they’ve chosen creative expression over making an impact, reaching an audience and exerting some influence in the public arena.

Good for them. That’s their choice. But some journalists want more. For them, there’s NPR.

Related: Garrison Keillor’s impending departure has ‘Prairie Home’ affiliates concerned (Star Tribune)

  • I love ya, Bob. But I think it’s more nuanced than podcasts or NPR. And there’s two parts to this equation: the straight news coverage of an “All Things Considered” and the less news-ish programming that airs the rest of the time.

    I agree that hard news has its place and it’s glib to say that these critics don’t want that. But the piece makes the point that NPR resists making podcasts of its more perishable news product while resisting alternative programming that might draw an alternative audience to the mother ship. And let’s be honest. That’s also a problem locally with MPR. No one wants to walk away from the current audience – those people who pay the bills. But there are ways to expand the “sound” of NPR without being vacuous and lightweight. I would point to the show you’re doing right now on the Twins, which is lively yet thoughtful. I’m not even a Twins fan and it’s the type of programming I’d invest in if I had the opportunity.

    NPR has some institutional awkwardness that is going to be hard to fix. But it faces the same challenge as PBS. The audience is aging and the way the network is organized makes it difficult to experiment and win new converts. And rather than employees having the knee-jerk reaction of “you just don’t want to listen to news,” it might be helpful to consider it’s possible to change and evolve without losing your soul.

    • I think NPR is actually doing a pretty good job of changing the sound of public radio but perhaps it’s doing it so incrementally that it’s unnoticeable, which I guess is the way you’ve got to do it.

    • Rob

      I think PBS is in way more of a bind than NPR, if TPT is any indication. When they do their pledge drives, virtually all of the music features and the finance, health and wellness gurus they have on are clearly targeted at the 60-plus demographic. I’m a sustaining member of TPT, but I gotta say their fund drive programming stinks.
      I want to see Wolf Alice and Courtney Barnett, and catch excerpts of the international surfing championships, not be subjected to Peter Paul and Mary and Suzee Orman.

      • As a TPT sustainer, it drives me CRAZY that the organization doesn’t think enough of its great programming to not bury it when it comes time to ask for cash. TPT is soooo much better than commercial TV and I suppose it’s because it has a smaller, but much more intelligent audience that doesn’t pony up the money enough.

        This week we get a new Ken Burns doc, this one on Jackie Robinson. I don’t know how you don’t dust that off during pledge drive to say, “THIS is who we are,” rather than just tee up another Rascals concert.

  • Gary F

    Once the boomers go, is there a place for a number of old school journalism/media outlets? I watched the CBS Nightly News one night, and all the ads were for old people stuff. Kids ain’t watching that either. Dead tree newspapers, are dying, both because of their content and not many people under 30 buy a newspaper. Sunday morning news shows, kids ain’t watching them either. So the dying baby boom will take more than just NPR with it.

    • wjc

      I’m not a kid, and I’m not subscribing to “dead-tree” newspapers, watching TV news or listening to NPR/MPR. The traditional forms of journalism will need to adapt or they will fade away.

      • Jeff

        What’s left for news sources then?

        • Tim

          The Internet. You know, that thing you’re using right now.

          All of these have online versions (which is where I get my news from, myself).

          • wjc

            MPR News, MinnPost, and Google News are the sites I look at daily. Podcasts including “FiveThirtyEight Elections.”

          • Jeff

            Oh ok, I thought @wjc meant they were excluding any hard news and relying on blogs and opinion. I read online too but usually longer pieces. I can’t live without my morning paper, but then I’m old. Reading online isn’t the same experience.

          • wjc

            I’m 60, and I’d rather read the news online, because I can click to supporting stories for more background on topics of interest, and I’d much rather ignore the online ads than the print ones.

            The StarTribune doesn’t have enough original content to justify a subscription, IMHO, and the New York Times is too expensive for the amount I use. At some point, the online news world will make the cost reasonable to get access to all major sites, similar to the Next Issue / Texture model for magazines. At that point paying for online access will be made more affordable.and will make sense for me.

          • Jeff

            I’m 60 too, in defense of the local newspaper I can name quite a few topics that makes the StarTribune worth it for me. Not that I couldn’t get it somewhere else, but it’s a lot of content organized for me to pick and choose every morning. Besides the national news, I read the opinions, local news, concert and restaurant reviews, cooking, Douglas for the weather, local sports, etc. It’s a lot easier to skim and pick out what I want than any means I’ve seen online. And I can use it to start the grill. I agree clicking on links to get more information is a good thing, but not quite the same for me.

          • wjc

            So you are not old. 🙂

          • Rob

            According to the actuarial tables: old, yes, but not ancient…

          • Tim

            I also prefer online because it is easier to read stories in a variety of publications from other cities or even other countries. I don’t want to be limited to just what’s available locally.

    • The “get it online for free” generation eventually is going to get what they pay for. The current business model is clearly broken in the media but that doesn’t change the fact that good solid journalism requires a hell of a lot of money.

      • Gary F

        Same generation that thinks everything can be free if they vote for Bernie.

        And they will scream when the finally realize what Obamacare is costing them.

        • Hi, Jack!

        • Rob

          Your material is way past its sell-by date.

      • jon

        How did we handle the “get it over the air for free” generation?

        If I recall correctly ad revenue was what drove the money, though it wasn’t as distributed of a system (fewer stations/channels/outlets to choose from)
        So we either end up with many outlets specializing (the direction we’ve been headed) or we end up with many outlets failing and consolidating back to a few outlets and ad revenue still reigns supreme.

  • PaulJ

    Broadcasts are more accessible than podcasts and story telling isn’t as talent focused as telling stories. But, if you do want a podcast; NPR should be strive to be BBC like.

  • Mike

    There’s good reporting on NPR, and I listen to it. But I have to qualify that by saying that on certain topics – U.S. foreign policy, most notably – they are just another voice of the establishment. The metanarrative promoted by most of the mass media (NPR included) is that everything our government does around the world is good, or at least justifiable. You’ll rarely hear viewpoints represented that are counter to that. And on terrorism issues, Dina Temple Raston mostly just parrots the government line, granting great deference to U.S. government representatives and other traditional authority figures. NPR, like most of the U.S. media, could really use some adversarial reporting towards the powerful.

    • Rob

      AMEN!!

  • Gary F
  • ChrisF

    I’m still getting used to NPR 1 but doesn’t that fill the gap on news v podcasting some? I still get the kind of news that is strictly news and it’s far reaching. But I also net the NPR politics podcast, our local MPR Policast as well as Planet Money and others (NPR 1 really kept insisting I like Planet Money, sort of like getting set-up on a blind date that you finally agree to just to get it off your back but it turns out not to be so bad).

  • kat

    This conversation frustrates me- no business ever stayed the same generation to generation. Everything in business and culture evolves. I blame baby boomers for a weird nostalgia for some ideal business model that never was- news was never perfect and NPR has never been perfect. The Panama papers are an excellent example of mixing traditional journalism with the modern. What a great future if journalists can continue collaborating like that. Big groups like the New York Times rejected working with the consortium, but even they will have to be more limber in the future.