Yes, it's true: In one of the great under-told media success stories of the past decade, NPR has emerged not as the bespectacled schoolmarm of our imagination but as a massive news machine poised for what Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media, half-jokingly calls "world domination." NPR's listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly -- far more than USA Today's 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News' 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations -- "boots on the ground in every town" that no newspaper or TV network can claim. It has moved boldly into new media as well: 14 million monthly podcast downloads, 8 million Web visitors, NPR Mobile, an open platform, a social network, even crowdsourcing. And although the nonprofit has been hit by the downturn like everyone else, its multiple revenue streams look far healthier long term than the ad-driven model of commercial media. (In 2003, Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's founder Ray, gave a $200 million endowment to NPR, the largest gift ever to an American cultural institution. She must have gotten one hell of a tote bag.)It's the big question about journalism: if commercial journalism is withering on the vine, and quality reportage is an important public good, than why not treat it like a public good? The BBC is wildly successful as an international source of news, and so is state-funded Al Jazeera in Qatar. NPR would make sense as an American alternative, especially when the humble podcast is becoming more and more important as a source of news and opinion in our post-radio world.
In the past few months, a fresh crop of new executives and editors have arrived at NPR from the storm-tossed commercial media world. Meyer came from CBS; Kinsey Wilson landed from USA Today as general manager for digital media; and in January, Vivian Schiller joined from NYTimes.com as the new CEO. Their mission -- seizing even greater audience share -- is more aggressive than most for-profit operations' in this age of retrenchment. But with that ambition comes great responsibility. "Part of our desire to bring more NPR to more people is that, with the evisceration of commercial journalism, there's a dire need for it," Meyer says. "Major mainstream stories are increasingly going uncovered. And I think it might be the nonprofit journalism world that meets that huge market need, which is also a basic need of a democratic society and an information-based economy."
And some of the shows are must listen:
Combine the personal touch with the patience to do serious explanatory journalism, and you get one of NPR's major editorial triumphs of the past year: "The Giant Pool of Money," an hour-long episode of This American Life about the financial crisis first broadcast in May 2008. The show was the first-ever coproduction between NPR and TAL (Ira Glass & Co. are produced by WBEZ in Chicago and Public Radio International, an independent production company). NPR business reporter Adam Davidson and TAL producer Alex Blumberg coaxed global economists into breaking down terms such as derivatives, tranches, short selling, and credit swaps. They used vivid narrative and humor to bring these stultifying concepts to life. You hear from guys like Glen Pizzolorusso, who spent his days approving "liar loans" and his nights at Marquee with Christina Aguilera. Throughout, Blumberg and Davidson's frank dismay at the chicanery comes through.I'd highly recommend that show, by the way. This American Life's various pieces on the bubble and its sources aren't perfect—their economists spend a lot of their time trying to blame credit-card debt for the debacle of CDS/CDO trading—but by-and-large they're excellent. Certainly they're some of the most easily understood and most approachable examinations of the situation I've experienced.
To hear Davidson tell it, the economic crisis demands public-radio-style journalism. "I don't think this is a good story for newspapers, to be honest with you. Because it's an emotional story, it's a shocking story. We're used to all the people who formed the architecture of our economic infrastructure having the voice of God -- like Alan Greenspan. They're the experts and they understand the world and they're going to explain it. And business journalists had that tone too. We're now in a world where anybody who tells you they know exactly what's going on, you can just dismiss them as a liar."
To continue to get that kind of programming out to as many consumers as possible, everyone from Schiller on down sees technology as the key. "We have to skate where the puck is going," she says (in what may be the first use of a hockey metaphor by an NPR CEO). Certainly "The Giant Pool of Money" demonstrated how easily a strong NPR show can be repurposed as multiple digital streams. It has been downloaded as a podcast more than half a million times and spawned a thrice-weekly NPR podcast and blog, Planet Money, which are getting 1 million downloads and 400,000 page views a month, respectively. But NPR's digital efforts are much broader. It was the first mainstream-media organization to enter podcasting and often has several programs in the iTunes top 10. An open platform introduced last year allows listeners to mix their own podcasts and otherwise play around with NPR content -- one fan built an NPR iPhone app. And NPR is putting all of its editorial employees -- every editor, producer, and reporter -- through multimedia training, with support from the Knight Foundation. Traffic on NPR.org grew 78% from 2007 to 2008.
And as for the local scene:
[S]omeday soon we may be looking at a world where public radio emerges as the main local-news source in many communities coast to coast. In Minneapolis, where the Star-Tribune is in bankruptcy, for example, the population may be about to get a lot less of columnist Chip Scoggins on the Vikings and a lot more of Garrison Keillor musing about Powdermilk Biscuits. It's worth asking what might be lost in the transition. NPR's audience may be surprisingly balanced among liberals, conservatives, and moderates, but it's overwhelmingly college-educated and affluent. "I think people like to listen to us because at the end of the day it makes them feel a little smarter," says Weiss. So will NPR have to bone up on the wildcat offense, or will the rest of America learn to love WTO coverage from Singapore?This might be the most important role of NPR going forward. National news is in trouble; local news faces extinction. ANY source of local news is likely to become vital in short order, and if NPR can fill that (unprofitable) gap, then everybody's better off. Well, except maybe sportswriters.
It's a good piece; give it a read. And go catch Giant Pool of Money. It really was amazing.