Friday, June 20, 2014


If you've ever heard someone say "I heard it on NPR" - there's a pretty good chance they're wrong. What NPR actually is, what it isn't, and how it all got so complicated. 


Chris Bannon, Sean Cole, Brooke Gladstone, Seth Lind and Eric Nuzum

Produced by:

Chris Neary

Comments [19]

Ken Murphy from Seacoast New Hampshire

I'll admit I’m mentally lazy sometimes when I bring up a story I heard on NHPR or MPBN (I live in NH right near the ME border) and just say I heard it on NPR. Truth is sometimes I just forget which show I heard it on, or even which of those two stations, so it’s just easier to say NPR in that case. I do pay attention to the end credits, like I know without looking that Fresh Air is from Philly, you’re from New York, and Here & Now is out of Boston, but even knowing what show it was on and remembering at that time where it’s from it is just easier to say NPR when talking to someone else then explain all that. If they ask me what show I do try to give them the right show, if I remember it, at the very least. Thank you this story it did help me understand better the inner workings of how the shows I listen to get to me.

Dec. 20 2015 06:35 PM

Speaking of "This . . . is NPR." NPR needs to replace the android who reads the sponsorships. Her voice is awful and she tries to sound serious but just sounds bland.

Jul. 17 2014 01:00 PM
Kimi from Hartford, CT

Our local affiliate is WNPR, so we can always correctly say, "I heard it on NPR." Still, we have way too many nitpickers who in the middle of an interesting conversation about interesting content will derail the conversation in order to quiz the speaker about who *really* produced the show that was just referenced. Sometimes it's just about control, I think.

Jun. 29 2014 04:32 PM
Adam Ragusea from Macon, Georgia

Jim, why do you think it's unconscionable? Sure a lot of people have problems with the fossil fuel industry, but a lot of people have problems with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Virtually no underwriter is uncontroversial, and virtually every underwriter is in a field that NPR covers.

Fact is, there's a total Chinese wall between the underwriting department and the journalists at every public media organization in the country. In 9 years in the biz, I have never once seen underwriters influence coverage. What I have seen, a few times, is the licensee influence coverage -- that is, the university or the government that owns the station. That, in my experience, is what you actually have to be worried about (though, it's still a very limited problem).

I'm amused by your implication that OTM is avoiding looking into your question because of political sensitivity. I've worked with OTM on stories in the past, they're not afraid of boo. If anything, they're the sort that loves to bite the hand that feeds. I suspect that they think twice about doing too much coverage of public media because they want to avoid navel-gazing, or treating public media as though it's more important than other media just because it's their wheelhouse.

To the substance of your question, I have no idea what NPR's criteria for underwriter suitability are, but my guess is they're mostly unwritten. I bet it's just a judgement call they make on a case by case basis, because I can't imagine doing it any other way. You don't want to pass judgment on which industries / rich people are "worthy" to give you money, but you also don't want to take money from somebody so toxic that it's gonna cost you money in the end as other supporters flee. I don't know how you codify that into anything other than the broadest guidelines. It's just gotta be a judgment call, don't you think?

Jun. 25 2014 04:56 PM
Jim Weiss from Marathon, NY

Since OTM is independent from NPR, why don't you have the courage to investigate the secret practices employed by NPR in selecting underwriters. While the "underwriting guidelines" are publicly available, NPR refuses to divulge the process by which NPR's "corporate development" department evaluates the suitability of a potential donor. Their acceptance of money from the fossil fuel industry is unconscionable.

Jun. 25 2014 03:11 PM
Adam Ragusea from Macon, Georgia

Some Guy from San Diego -- The phenomenon you are describing is called "bypass," and it has been the (or a) chief source of anxiety in the public radio system in the 9 years I've been in it.

There are lots and lots of smart people working to find a solution, but the solutions are proving illusive. The best idea we've come up with is, "Make the local content on your station so good that people will want to get the national content through you rather than going directly to the source." A few richly-funded stations have been able to pull that off (to an extent), but it's still a work in progress in spite of mounting data indicating that public radio listeners don't care about local news (regardless of what they might say).

The reason you can't donate directly to NPR is that NPR (essentially) doesn't work for you. It works for the stations, which work for you. I'm over simplifying this relationship and certainly other people see it differently, but basically NPR is this entity that the stations collectively hire to produce content for them to air. Allowing NPR to fundraise from individuals directly would be like you allowing an employee at your factory to sell your widgets directly to the public while pocketing the proceeds.

Bear in mind, early in the days of, there were stations that were opposed to NPR having its own website at all. We've come a long way since then, adapting to the new realities. Some people have suggested allowing NPR to take donations directly at, and then distributing those proceeds to the stations, probably by reducing program subscription rates proportionally. That would solve the problem, but it would be dishonest, IMHO. People need to know exactly what they're paying for.

My opinion is that NPR is inextricably linked to the station system (by virtue of the stations having majority representation on NPRs board), and it will therefore rise and fall with the fortunes of stations.

What you're increasingly seeing is people making NPR-like content at non-public radio entities, to escape the problem entirely. See my piece in Current about Mike Pesca's new Slate podcast:

Some people think my view is fatalistic, and they may be right. Terrestrial public radio stations have all ready proven themselves more resilient than I'd expected, and don't believe that radio will go away for a long, long time. But it will gradually weaken, for all the reasons you describe.

Jun. 24 2014 06:23 PM
Ben R. from Portland, Ore.

I would say that here in Oregon, where Oregon Public Broadcasting (unlike many NPR affiliates, an independent non-University / non state run corporation) operates most of the statewide network, people tend to say "I heard it on OPB..." rather than 'NPR' but yes, essentially, in the USA, that has become the generic 'brand' for any public radio content similar to CBC in Canada.

Jun. 23 2014 03:26 PM
Ian from Vermont

I see this a lot when I edit Wikipedia. Often people, usually those new to Wikipedia, will come to Wikipedia's Help Desk (a page dedicated to answering questions about how to edit Wikipedia, e.g. correcting some article they found, etc) and they will call Wikipedia "wiki". But that isn't correct. Wikipedia is a wiki but there are hundreds (thousands, probably) of wikis. Wikipedia is built on software called MediaWiki which is one type of wiki software. Think of it like word processing software. There are many word processing software applications out there but not all of them are Microsoft Word.

Also, when WikiLeaks really hit the news, everyone thought that WikiLeaks was the same thing or same company as Wikipedia which simply isn't true. They are both wikis but are run by entirely separate sets of people.

So when people say "Oh, I read it on wiki", you can pedantically set them straight or just smile and nod.

Jun. 23 2014 02:47 PM
slodream101 from nj

I still don't understand

Jun. 23 2014 02:37 PM
Some Guy in San Diego from San Diego, CA

You missed out on an opportunity here to cover part of the dynamic landscape of media funding. I assume I'm not unique in this, but you decide. Here's a personal anecdote:

I haven't listened to my local public radio station for several years. I'm sure they do a fine job, but just as I use a DVR for my home television (I'm 30-something), I don't want to be subject to their program scheduling choices, and I don't commute at the same time every day. Fortunately I have this nifty device called a smartphone, with handy apps to keep a queue full of episodes ready to go.

Every day at 5pm, my phone automatically refreshes all of the feeds I've set up, so it grabs the day's Marketplace from APM and puts it at the top of the queue for my drive home. It also periodically picks up new episodes of my current set of shows: On The Media (& TLDR) from WNYC, This American Life from WBEZ, Radiolab from WYNC, Planet Money from NPR, and Marketplace Money from APM (I need to go remove that and look for Marketplace Weekend now).

Everything is available on my schedule, my audio fidelity is much better than FM broadcast, and all I'm missing is local news which I'm sure I could also get from my local station if I cared. Moreover, with that higher fidelity I can listen to everything at 1.8x speed (sorry, you folks all speak too slowly). Also, no pledge drives, probably because I can easily skip forward 10 or 30 seconds at a time so there's no point in making anymore than a short donation request at the beginning.

But here's the rub: How am I supposed to help pay for all this? Last December, I tried to sort out what organizations produce the shows I consume and throw some money their way. As I recall, only APM's website worked well enough to take my money. I remember having technical problems with at least two different websites, plus not understanding how to donate to Planet Money since NPR just directs you to a local station even though I use their bandwidth directly to download the podcast.

I'm pretty sure this represents a growing problem for all public media producers. My attention span is short, so if there's a temporary problem with your website accepting money I probably won't come back to check again later. Since I don't use a single aggregator to collect the content for me, I don't have one-stop shopping for my donations and I'm less likely to fund each individual show.

I suppose I could still just give money to my local station, but it wouldn't clear my conscience. Even when I previously listened directly to the radio, I was always bothered that my donations weren't coupled to a survey about what shows were important to me. I had no interest in supporting the TV station, etc., despite understanding the need for unrestricted money to allow development of new content. Now that I acquire the content directly, that dissonance is magnified.

I don't have any real answers, but I hope you all are already thinking about this problem. If not, it's time to start.

Jun. 23 2014 01:42 PM
Cris McConkey from Trumansburg, NY


What do the station representatives actually get to vote on at what I infer are annual meetings, how does one go about introducing a resolution to be voted on, what teeth doe such resolution have over governance of NPR, or are there areas where stations are not allowed jurisdiction, and finally, can anyone cite an instance where an NPR affiliated station took up an issue with NPR on the basis of community input?

Jun. 23 2014 10:54 AM
Janet Sullivan from New York

Local public radio stations sold out their commitment to classical music in this country which was one of it's most powerful contributions and even educational functions. And WNYC is the WORST. I love the station but they have pretended that their purchase of WQXR covers this functions but WQXR has always been classical music "lite" and continues to be so.

Where are the classical music eccentric hosts of the past- Robert J Lurtsima in Boston, the guy who was originally at WBAI (I've momentarily forgotten his name) in NY. Instead, they have been replaced by endlessly repeating geek talk shows. What happened? Music has been totally sold out except for John Schaefer, an admittedly tireless and original host.

Jun. 23 2014 07:33 AM
Adam Ragusea from Macon, Georgia

superf88 -- You're mistaken. NPR standards and marketing are totally irrelevant to a show like Studio 360, which is produced by WNYC and distributed by PRI. NPR can exert no control over the standards. Same goes for Marketplace, Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, The Takeaway, etc. There is another category of shows that are not produced by NPR but are "distributed" by NPR, including Diane Rehm, Fresh Air, Car Talk, and On the Media. These are shows that are produced by stations but NPR puts its brand on them and handles some of the marketing. In my experience having worked for years at WBUR in Boston where a lot of such shows are produced, they basically function editorially independent of NPR as well. All us public radio types try to follow NPR's lead in terms of standards and style, but there's no real mechanism for standards or style enforcement, other than NPR dropping the distributor relationship, which hasn't happened to OTM yet despite the show's unique approach.

Frank -- Most stations absolutely do try to obscure the seams between their various programming sources. I think this is in an effort to present a unified front to the public, both for political and marketing reasons. WBUR brands itself as "Boston's NPR News Station," even though half the programming they air has little to nothing to do with NPR. But NPR is a powerful brand, so they go with it. The alternative is to bombard the listener with an alphabet soup of brands. But internally, I can tell you from experience that the organizational distinctions between NPR, PRI, APM, and stations are really meaningful. All parties are constantly arguing about one thing or another, decision-making power is incredibly diffuse, and that really alters how the overall ship is steered. I think there's probably more variation in how local stations are programmed than you realize, at least in large markets. Little markets don't have the staff to do much other than air the canned programming. Sure, stations of all sizes air ATC and ME around the same times (because every effort to deviate from that formula has been a ratings disaster), but the tenor and tone of the local content that stations insert into those shows varies quite a lot.

Charles -- I think you're right in some ways, but I'm not sure what you want NPR to do about it. They only control the content they make. It's up to stations to maintain the net balance. I personally think most do it pretty well. I used to work in Boston and all the crap we got was from lefties, now I work in Georgia and most of the crap I get is from righties. I wish there was a really popular public radio show hosted by a smart unabashed conservative (think William F. Buckley), and I think station programmers would be open to one. Market vacuum, somebody should fill it.

Saree -- To be clear, only shows either produced by NPR or distributed by NPR say "this is NPR." You'll never hear Marketplace say that.

Jun. 22 2014 09:28 PM
Douglas from El Paso

Free-Speech Radio and Pacifica are also public radio networks but weren't mentioned.

Jun. 21 2014 01:19 PM

(On that note, NPR runs marketing and sets the tone. If WNYC's programming was not in line w NPR's standards you would be notified.

Rush Limbaugh might be amused at the thought of being broadcast to NPR listeners -- but that ain't happenin').

Jun. 21 2014 11:28 AM

If this isn't NPR -- it sure is a classic NPR story!

Jun. 21 2014 11:21 AM
Saree from Memphis

I have to admit that I am one of those people who when talking to someone about what I heard on WKNO usually says, "I just heard it on NPR." I do so because most people don't know the local station but they do know NPR. But I will also say that part of the confusion is when one hears the end of any show, they hear, "This is NPR". That's where the confusion comes from.

Jun. 21 2014 08:28 AM
Frank McManus from Harrisburg PA

I guess the distinctions made in this story between NPR, local stations, PRI, and so on make sense, but it's hard not to think they are in reality usually little more than legal fictions. If local stations are really as independent as is claimed here, why do they all sound virtually identical? If you drive through a new town at 8 AM and don't want to listen to The Morning Crew or the bible thumpers, what other options are available? Basically, it's just Morning Edition being broadcast on the local public radio station. Why only that show? Why not John Hockenberry's attempt to create a competitor? (Someone must be broadcasting it, but I've never heard it in real life.) The conservative commenter who mentioned Amy Goodman reminds me that I've NEVER heard Democracy Now on a public radio station that's in NPR's sheepfold. Why not? (For the record, if I were to complain about bias at NPR, I would be complaining that NPR's too conservative, which in my opinion is demonstrably true. But it pains me to say that, because I know the official part line is that complaints from both sides of the political divide are taken to be an indication that NPR must be doing something right.)

My sense that these distinctions between NPR and all the other folks involved in public radio are not real is strengthened by the way the major programs on NPR present themselves, namely as a seamless blend between local content and NPR content. It's as if NPR and local stations simply don't want listeners to think of them as separate.

I just realized I've written this whole comment without it coming to mind that On the Media is (supposedly) not an NPR program.

Oh, well. You tried, guys, you really tried.

Jun. 21 2014 02:42 AM

Okay. This all makes sense. I could have written this. Brooke or Bob or any one of a thousand people could have written this.

And I don't mind a bit that you've done this story. It's a good story to do, and you've done it well.

Now, here's the thing. "NPR" gets to tell a story that it doesn't get much public funding, and that its programming (whittled down to Morning Edition, All Things Considered and not much else) is somehow quantitatively fair and balanced.

Which is misleading in practice. I am exceedingly careful about criticizing "public radio" when that is called for. Any typical public radio station in any typical big American city is now much the same. There's Morning Edition from 5 am until about 9 am. Then perhaps a locally-hosted interview show (routinely a vaguely left-leaning public figure in town; somebody who'd fit in among the local university faculty, where the station has broadcast facilities). Then a "viewpoint" show like The Takeaway, followed by another one like Tell Me More, followed by one of the viewiest of "viewpoint shows "Fresh Air" with pledge drive princess Terry Gross, followed by Here and Now, then All Things Considered. And then perhaps some more night time "viewpoint" shows, which on Fridays might well include On the Media. Oh, and nighttimes with the BBC.

So long, classical music and jazz.

Its all talk all the time. "Viewpiont" talk for much of the time.

NPR gets to duck out on quantifying the leftiness of public radio, by not having to account for Terry Gross, Bob Garfield, Amy Goodman, Ira Glass, etc., etc.

Can anyone identify for me the conservative corollary to Terry Gross on public radio? The conservative counterparts to Bob and Brooke? Is there a conservative Ira Glass? They aren't "NPR." But they are public radio.

Let me know, Bob and Brooke, if you'd like to revisit this one:

Jun. 20 2014 10:41 PM

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