Editor's Weekly: Three Facts You Might Not Know About Public Radio

Jul 17, 2014

With changes underway in programming on St. Louis Public Radio and in NPR’s national news operation, you may be wondering who decides what and why. Even if you’re an NPR junkie, you may not know how it all works.

I certainly didn’t before making the transition from avid listener to St. Louis Public Radio staff member seven months ago. Here are three important organizational facts I’ve learned. They may seem arcane, but over time they shape the content you hear.

1. NPR is not a network – at least not in the way that commercial TV networks operate. Each local station decides what programs to air and when, choosing from an array of options and sources.  NPR itself produces the signature news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, plus their weekend versions and a few other shows. But Marketplace Morning Report, which airs during Morning Edition, is produced by American Public Media. This American Life will soon be produced independently, with Ira Glass making his own arrangements.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin
Credit Doby Photography / NPR

While local stations create their own distinctive lineups, others decide what national shows to produce. Some weeks ago, NPR announced it would cancel Tell Me More, Michel Martin’s take on the experience of African Americans in particular and diversity issues in general. Recently, St. Louis Public Radio announced that Q, an arts-focused show, will take over Tell Me More’s evening time slot. Not surprisingly, several listeners asked why we had decided to drop Tell Me More. But we didn’t decide; it will no longer be available.

2. NPR and member stations need each other, but operate independently. Look at the system from the bottom up, and you realize that each member station is an autonomous unit with needs and aspirations that vary by size and location. Some – in Minnesota, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, for example – produce nationally syndicated programs and have their own custom-designed websites. St. Louis Public Radio is smaller than these operations but bigger than most.

NPR’s national news programs need local stations to reach listeners. NPR also needs program fees paid by local stations to sustain its budget. Local stations need high quality content. But digital technology raises the prospect that listeners might someday connect directly to national news, bypassing local stations. That would undermine the current funding structure that keeps the national news operations alive.

How do NPR and member stations set strategy and resolve differences on this and other questions? Partly, that happens through NPR’s board, which includes representatives of member stations. Mostly, that happens through conferences, task forces and various other forms of collaboration. Frankly, it can be a messy process.

3. National NPR news content is the same everywhere, but the amount of local news coverage varies considerably. Changes are afoot at both levels. Nationally, NPR recently announced the departure of its senior vice president for news. That follows a series of staff cuts. Changes are in the works that could affect the mix of newscasts, longer segments and the placement of local work in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Locally, the size of public radio newsrooms varies considerably. With a staff of more than 30, St. Louis Public Radio’s newsroom is unusually deep and ambitious for a metro area our size. We hope more stations will be able to follow suit, providing news that matters on a regional level with the breadth and depth that people expect from NPR nationally.

To do so, local newsrooms must take full advantage of opportunities online as well as on air. Online, we can present information and tell stories in ways that go beyond what we can provide on air. Also, we can find new ways to reach out to people and serve their diverse interests, needs and habits. In the digital age, people increasingly expect that news will find them; they don’t necessarily make a daily habit of finding us or any other news organization.

You need not understand the organizational intricacies of public radio to appreciate our work. Yet organizational structure shapes our work in this time of journalistic transformation.