The Sunday before the New Hampshire primary, an NPR assistant editor who books interviews turned on her computer to find an unexpected email from Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign.
"If HRC wanted to do Morning Edition tomorrow could we make that happen?" wrote a Clinton media scheduler at 10:49 a.m.
After repeatedly turning down NPR's invitations, Clinton suddenly wanted to be on NPR. Polls were predicting a Clinton loss in the Jan. 8 primary and Morning Edition reaches 63,600 listeners in New Hampshire- or six percent of the state's population.
NPR was just as eager to have Clinton. The senator hadn't spoken directly with any NPR news shows since last September when All Things Considered (ATC) interviewed her for seven minutes.
Morning Edition's staff sprang into action, trying to nail down the interview and at the same time, reach the other two leading Democratic candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). Each NPR news show generally books its own interviews. But to avoid multiple requests during an intense news cycle, such as an election, the network uses a coordinated booking system.
But actually making the Clinton interview happen wasn't easy. Her staff couldn't promise an NPR technician could ride aboard Clinton's campaign bus to record a high-audio version of the interview.
"Shall I count the emails it took on Sunday night to get this ready?" said Kitty Eisele, a supervising editor with Morning Edition, in an email to me. "Close to 45- and that was just on my watch. There was no negotiating on who would do the interview or on content." NPR does not allow interviewees to determine the host or the questions.
While the Clinton camp technically agreed Sunday night to receive a morning phone call from Concord, N.H., Morning Edition had a backup segment in case of a last-minute glitch. Four minutes before the scheduled 6:10 a.m. call, a campaign aide waved NPR audio engineer Marty Kurcias aboard the bus. He sat down with Clinton, checked her voice level, and handed her his cell phone for a live six-minute interview with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.
When the bus reached the next campaign stop, Kurcias hopped into a waiting car. He'd made a high-quality digital recording during the interview, which was downloaded to a laptop and sent via a wireless cell phone network to NPR headquarters in Washington, DC. Within 15 minutes, a superior audio version was ready for the second feed of Morning Edition at 8:10 a.m. "It was pretty Dick Tracy," said Kurcias, who has been with NPR for 30 years.
In the six-minute interview, Clinton took a few swipes at Obama. Before noon, angry emails arrived for Morning Edition and the Ombudsman accusing NPR of giving Clinton a disproportionate amount of free airtime to attack Obama. One suggested it was wrong to interview a single candidate the day before a primary.
"The interview provided me with no insight into the campaign other than hearing exactly where Sen. Clinton thinks she is better than Sen. Obama," wrote a listener from Bethesda, Md. "In fairness, shouldn't the other candidates (all of them) be provided the same opportunity?"
While it would be ideal to also have had Obama and Edwards on Morning Edition, the reality is that it's virtually impossible to get interviews with all three candidates on the same show on the same day.
NPR's booking unit has invitations out to all leading Republican and Democratic candidates. "We say we have a standing interview request," said booker Elizabeth Tannen, "but they are meaningless unless they are maintained on a rigorous basis and we do that. I call or email constantly. You have to keep nudging."
It is the media-savvy, frontrunner candidates who decide if and when they'll appear— not NPR.
"The candidates do it whenever they want to do it," said Susan Feeney, senior supervising editor for ATC. "You fight as hard as you can to get them on in a way that fits with your programming. They will do it when it works for them."
Edwards, who has been relatively easy to book on air, was on for five-minutes on ATC the night of Clinton's interview.
Obama was more difficult. Early the morning of the Clinton interview, Tannen called his staff asking to tape an interview before 6 p.m. for ATC. She even emailed a highlighted copy of the Clinton transcript as an inducement. While Tannen wasn't successful, the senator did appear on Morning Edition the Wednesday after the New Hampshire primary for eight minutes.
No candidate was asked for the day of the New Hampshire primary because NPR has a blanket policy against candidate interviews on Election Day.
Republican candidates have been more problematic. Among other tactics, audience data was sent to win over former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney before the Jan. 19 South Carolina Republican primary. It pointed out that NPR reaches 271,300 listeners in South Carolina. After trying for months, Thompson relented just before the South Carolina primary, talking with ATC in a five-minute piece. Up until last week, said Feeney, "they were asking us for even more data about who our listeners are."
That same night McCain talked to ATC for six minutes. The day before (Jan. 16) Romney was on ATC for five-and-a-half minutes .
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has not been that difficult to get, last appearing on ATC Jan. 20, to lament coming in second in South Carolina.
One tactic NPR bookers use is to let the opposing camp know about an upcoming rival interview. After a booker told Clinton's team that Obama got seven minutes last Thursday on ATC, Clinton agreed to call into ATC last Friday for eight minutes.
NPR's bookers woo candidate staff with demographics describing NPR's 26 million listeners — 71 percent of whom, as an example, voted in a local, state or federal election in the past year, according to 2007 Mediamark Research, one of the leading audience research firms.
Some Republican candidates, say bookers, shy away from NPR claiming it is too liberal. But independent audience research doesn't bear that out. Twenty nine percent of listeners classify themselves as "very or somewhat conservative"; 23 percent say they are middle of the road politically and 32 percent self-describe as "very or somewhat liberal," according to Mediamark.
"I'd wager that we've spent more time trying to entice Romney, McCain and Giuliani onto our air, than on the other candidates," said Chris Turpin, executive producer for ATC. "Convincing Republicans to come on NPR is tough."
After many months of turning down NPR, Giuliani ultimately had an eight-and-a-half minute interview air Tuesday with ATC. Arbitron figures indicate NPR has 1.5 million listeners in Florida, the state where Giuliani is putting the most effort now.
It might be easier to get second-tier candidates but as the primary season gets down to the crunch, the network focuses its stretched resources on candidates that appear to have a reasonable chance of winning.
There is another important factor in judging the fairness of NPR's presidential coverage. The network produces 50 hours of original news programming each week. Few can listen to it all. Although the principal goal is to place candidates' interviews in the early segments of the leading news magazines, in fact, a candidate may be on an NPR program when you are not listening.
"All we can do at NPR is continue to extend invitations and put the candidates on a variety of broadcasts," said Richard L. Harris, director of afternoon programming, "hoping that over the sweep of time, our listeners are exposed to many different voices that inform their decision about where they should cast their vote."
For more information on the candidates, check NPR's politics page.
Below are the number of minutes an NPR host spoke with frontrunner presidential candidates on any NPR-produced news shows* in the last six months**, according to NPR's broadcasting library.
Clinton 21 minutes, 35 seconds
Edwards*** 54 minutes, 11 seconds
Obama 34 minutes, 53 seconds
Richardson 3 minutes, 44 seconds
Giuliani 8 minutes, 37 seconds
Huckabee 27 minutes, 46 seconds
McCain 22 minutes, 21 seconds
Ron Paul 7 minutes
Romney 13 minutes, 30 seconds
Thompson 5 minutes
All Things Considered
Day to Day
News & Notes
Tell Me More
Talk of the Nation
** They do not include the December two-hour Iowa Democratic debate, which featured Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Joe Biden. Sen. Mike Gravel and Sen. Christopher Dodd.
***20 minutes on Talk of the Nation