The day after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress on Sept. 19 to provide hundreds of billions to bail out Wall Street, it made sense for NPR to talk with one of the top members of Congress who will deal with the request.
An NPR booker arranged for Weekend Edition host Scott Simon do a phone interview with Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Four and a half minutes was allotted, including a host introduction.
Simon had 26 seconds of small talk and asked one question about what Paulson and Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke had told congressional leaders at an earlier meeting. And then Frank, never known for short answers, explained the long history leading up to the current financial crisis. He spoke non-stop for nearly four minutes until Weekend Edition Saturday ran out of time.
At one point you could hear an exasperated sigh from Simon, who had other questions prepared. Finally, Simon had to cut Frank off. "Mr. Frank, I'm afraid we've absolutely run out of time," he said.
Simon was frustrated that he couldn't ask more questions. "Rep Frank knew our time constraints," said Simon in an email. "I am disappointed that a public official consented to an interview, and used the occasion to launch into a monologue. The public's right to know depends on the ability of the press to ask, and in this case, we barely got to ask."
But some listeners were equally frustrated because they felt Simon was being rude.
"I was amazed by how frank and honest Barney Frank was in talking to Simon or whoever that Saturday morning host is," emailed Susan Hatch. "It stunned me to hear someone speak so straightforwardly to tell us what was afoot in the banking meeting, and to explain it in layman terms.
"It was an historic statement and vitally important for the record and for the public, to whom this bloody government supposedly belongs, along with the debts," she continued. "And your man Simon had the foolishness and gall to cut him off and interrupt him!"
It may appear Simon was being rude, but he wasn't.
This was a live interview, unlike the majority of pieces on NPR shows, which are pre-produced so they can fit into the strict time clock each show lives by. Here are examples of the Morning Edition and Weekend Edition Saturday clocks. At 18 minutes past the hour, the first segment on Weekend Edition Saturday, for example, is over whether or not someone has something more to say.
Live interviews often run into time problems. But in some cases a live interview is the only way to get timely comments from a news source on a breaking news story. Some live interviews are more successful than others, but at least they give listeners a chance to hear news and views in something approximating real time.
It is possible that Simon could have conducted the interview the previous day so it could have been edited to fit within a different program segment with more time available. But if that had happened, it would have been difficult to take account of late breaking news. (And the financial crisis has, indeed, been shifting almost hourly.) If something major happened overnight, Simon would have been forced to call Frank back and redo the interview.
All broadcast networks do live interviews, and all have time constraints. In the case of commercial networks, the constraints most often are the result of having to air commercials.
In NPR's case, the local stations impose the time constraints so they can come in with local news, traffic, weather, and give sponsor credits.
One listener criticized NPR's priorities in not giving more time to Frank. "Let me add," said Andy Radin in an email, "the interview with the two comedians, and then with Dolly Parton, while interesting and in some way meaningful, took up far more time than an interview with a congressman about pillaging, looting and raping of American taxpayers."
All NPR shows are tightly scripted and must adhere to a time clock with each hour divided into segments. (Morning Edition has five segments of varying lengths in an hour while Weekend Edition has three segments in an hour.) For Weekend Edition, Segment A is 11:29 minutes long. Segment C is 17:49 minutes. In the midst of the segments, newscasts, funding credits, promos and music are interspersed.
Because of this rigid structure, it's not as easy as shortening the comedians interview to add more time for Barney Frank. It's also important to note that NPR shows are popular because they are radio "magazines" that carry a mix of hard news and features. Also, in the opening segment of the Sept. 20 Weekend Edition show, nearly 12 minutes of the first hour was devoted to the financial crisis including two other stories. One by Scott Horsley and another interview with a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors.
What happened with the Frank interview is called hitting the time post. Simon had run out of time in that segment and even if he had continued to talk with Frank, listeners would not have heard it because the time is reserved for local stations. (If local stations don't cut in, listeners hear NPR-provided music.)
"Listeners have to realize that their local stations will come in at those time posts with local news, which is also important, whether we hit those time posts or not," said Simon in an email. "We just try to be professional enough as broadcasters to hit those time posts."
Sometimes live interviews can be fixed later. After a segment ends, a host might continue the interview off-air so it could be edited for later feeds to people living in time zones west of Washington, DC, where most NPR-produced shows originate.
In this case, as with hundreds of live interviews, an important interview went up against NPR's time clock, and the time clock — as always — won.
Update: The day after I posted this, NPR again interviewed Rep. Barney Frank and again, the host had to cut him off.
In the first feed, Morning Edition host Renee Montagne had to cut him off so the show could go to a John McChesney piece on retirees. In the second feed to western time zones, the show was able to continue the Frank interview and edit it so that the interruption was not heard.