Media & Society

Texas Barbecue And Radio Deja Vu All Over Again

In Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day," Punxsutawney Phil checks for his shadow every day on repeat. Some NPR listeners say they can relate.

In Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day," Punxsutawney Phil checks for his shadow every day on repeat. Some NPR listeners say they can relate. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the film "Groundhog Day," the days surrealistically repeat themselves for Bill Murray. Each day begins with the same greeting on the radio: "Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties, 'cause it's cooooold out there today."

A few NPR listeners can relate.

While hearing a story about Texas barbecue by young chefs at the Pecan Lodge in Dallas, a perplexed Nancy Jenkins from Camden, Maine, took to the website to write: "I am listening to this report on Maine Public Broadcasting right now, but why do I have the feeling that I heard the exact same story last week?"

"What's going on?" she asked. "Are you repeating yourselves?"

David Smith from Lawrence, Kan., heard the same report and was suddenly more certain of his own nagging doubts. "For some time now, I have had the feeling that certain stories are repeated, not just the same day, but over weeks or months," he wrote. "Today, my suspicions were confirmed with the rerun of the Pecan Lodge story from a few weeks ago."

Neither Jenkins nor Smith are hearing things nor living in the Twilight Zone. Quietly, without public announcement, NPR has begun over the last year to rerun some stories on its news programs. Prompted by the listener complaints, I asked Lauren Sin in the NPR library to research how many and she found that at least 26 stories have been repeated since the beginning of the year. All were features that are not heavily time specific. The barbecue story by Wade Goodwyn ran on Morning Edition in July and on All Things Considered in August.

At least one local station manager is complaining. Phil Wilke, media manager at Kansas Public Radio, wrote to us, "NPR has dozens and dozens and dozens of correspondents on staff, and you air re-runs? They have access to hundreds of local affiliates news departments, and they air re-runs?"

He added: "Frankly, NPR charges stations like mine an arm and a leg so that we can air their NEWS, not re-runs. Before coming to Kansas Public Radio, I spent 12 years putting out a daily newspaper. If I ran a story twice, I'd be looking for a new job the minute the publisher picked up the morning edition... and he'd be right to do so."

I asked Ellen McDonnell, the executive editor of news programming, to explain. She wrote:

Listening patterns have changed drastically over the years. Our audience is accessing content more often on more platforms but staying for shorter periods of time on broadcast. That means many people miss some of our best features. We believe it is a service to the audience to give them an additional opportunity to hear great stories. Our research shows that when you drill down to specific segments the audience crossover is quite small.

The audience experience is of most importance to us so we will continue to review whether this is a good idea.

I have no reason to doubt the research. I, too, have bemoaned how great radio stories pass so quickly into the ether. You can't stack them like old magazines, even though Web readers know that the stories are available online.

Few listeners, moreover, have complained about the encores. The Texas barbecue story may have been particularly remembered because it hit the culinary pride of other states. I for one was raised in Georgia but prefer both Texas barbecue (and Texas iced tea) because it is unsweetened, unlike most barbecue in the southeast and, possibly, elsewhere. But favored barbecue is a personal choice, just as the rerun practice is a management prerogative. Neither falls under my ombudsman purview, so I leave it to you to contribute to editor McDonnell's review of the audience experience.

What does more properly fall under my purview is whether NPR should announce that a story is a repeat. While almost all of this year's reruns appear to have been labeled as such on the Web — we found one that wasn't — only 18 of the 26 got on-air acknowledgement. Eight, including the barbecue story, did not.

As Ken Lass of Nashville, Tenn., wrote, "I don't mind rehearing such interesting stories, especially about Texas bbq, speaking as a native Texan. I simply request that if you do repeat stories that you announce it as a reprise, 2nd look (listen?), what have you."

I agree, for reasons of both transparency and protecting our sanity in a world of strange occurrences.

Editorial Researcher Lori Grisham contributed to this post.

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