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Why NPR Changed How It Talks About Podcasts

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Tensions between the needs of terrestrial radio, the foundational base of NPR, and digital distribution, its future in some form or other, may not always be apparent to most NPR listeners and readers. But they are never far from the surface these days in the public radio system and do occasionally rise to public notice — such as in the disconnect that some listeners now feel when they hear archived newscasts in the personalized mobile app NPR One that start with the word "Live," though they clearly aren't.

Thursday, a spirited conversation broke out on Twitter and multiple closed Facebook groups as public radio insiders and others who closely follow the digital evolution of journalism debated an internal NPR memo that was posted online. In it, Christopher Turpin, NPR's vice president of news programming and operations, laid out how news employees should refer on air, in NPR's newsmagazines, to NPR One, as well as podcasts, which are widely seen as a key element of the future of public radio listening.

Turpin told me he meant for the memo, which was posted by NPR's standards editor Mark Memmott here, to be "practical guidance for people on deadline." But it provoked dire prognostications such as this tweet from Adam Ragusea, host of a podcast that follows the business of public broadcasting, that hyperbolically asserted: "It's a logical and, I'd argue, appropriate policy. But it also serves as an emblem of why NPR is doomed long term."

Strong words, and his weren't the only ones. With apologies to those who will find the following way too "inside baseball," here's what I believe the policy is about — and not.

Turpin's guidance to staff mostly concerned what are known as "back announces," the brief recaps at the end of segments that tell listeners who and what they just heard. (An example cited by Turpin in his memo: "That's Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and our blogger on the same subject, and Bob Mondello, NPR's film critic. Thanks so much.")

Turpin told staff that the back announces must not include any "call to action," meaning, "We won't tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them. No mentions of npr.org, iTunes, Stitcher, NPR One, etc." His example of a "bad" back announce (as opposed to the "good" example cited above): "OK, everyone. You can download Alt.Latino from iTunes and, of course, via the NPR One app."

Additionally, Turpin said that the language hosts use to refer to podcast content, whether NPR podcasts or those produced by others, must be "informational, not promotional." He wrote: "We will mention the name of the podcast but not in a way that explicitly endorses it. References should not specifically promote the content of the podcast (e.g., "This week, the Politics Podcast team digs into delegate math.") If you feel a podcast title needs explaining (e.g., Hidden Brain), some additional language can be added (e.g., "That's Shankar Vedantam, he hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It's called, Hidden Brain"). Just to repeat: Be creative in how you back announce podcasts, but please avoid outright promotion."

Turpin added a final point, the one that seemed most discouraging to critics: "No NPR One — For now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air."

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Foundation's Nieman Journalism Lab, wrote yesterday that, with this policy, "The public radio giant is letting its present impose a strategy tax on its future."

He summed up his criticism thus: "NPR can't promote NPR One — the lauded, loved app that is basically the future of NPR — to what is literally the group of people that would be most interested in it, NPR radio listeners. NPR is investing substantially in developing podcasts — but it isn't allowed to tell radio listeners where to find them or how they can listen to them."

As Benton and others interpreted it, the policy reflects the desire of member public radio stations, which control NPR's board of directors, to protect their connection to local listeners through radio listening by downplaying ways to bypass that channel of listening: i.e., through the app, or digital podcasts.

That tension is real. Just look at the reaction on Twitter every time in recent weeks that NPR staff tweeted a suggestion to listen to an NPR election special via live streaming at elections.npr.org. A flurry of tweets from member stations followed, suggesting listeners tune in to their local stations, or local station live streams. Some of those listeners who chose the NPR live stream instead were irked by having to hear several minutes of music every time the hosts cut away for local station time.

Money, of course, in the form of member pledges and donations, is ultimately at the heart of the issue about where to listen. It is not possible to pledge directly to NPR, just to local stations, which remit a portion of those pledges to NPR in the form of dues that pay for NPR programs. (Got that?) It is possible, however, for listeners to directly support some podcasts, including some distributed by NPR.

But Turpin told me last night that critics were misunderstanding. The guidance he put out, he said, was "not some grand pronouncement of NPR's overarching policy," but instead, "reaffirms the same principles that we apply to everything." When NPR interviews a book author or musician, the back announce does not include a call to action that tells listeners they can buy the book for a certain price at a local bookstore or Amazon, or download the track at iTunes. The additional guidance not to use promotional language, he said, "is in line with what we do. We are not promotional; we are informational. That's our role as journalists."

He added, "This is about making sure we align what we say about podcasts in the same way we treat other forms of artistic expression." Promotion, he said, "is a function of marketing and advertising. That's different from the editorial spaces on our programs."

And, he added, a couple of times, "there's no fatwa about podcasts appearing on our air," and NPR reporters and hosts can say material is from a podcast. "Everyone understands podcasts are a huge part of the future," Turpin said. "They've brought a wonderful vitality to audio and audio journalism. NPR itself is deeply vested and invested in them." (The new podcast Embedded, for one, hosted by All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers, launches at the end of the month.)

As for NPR One, he said a bit cryptically, "Stay tuned, big things are in the works in the next few months." But he reiterated: "Promotion is separate from our journalism and should be separate."

To me that is an interesting distinction: Is NPR One a product to be promoted or an extension of NPR's journalism? I have advocated before that NPR's on-air hosts should more often push listeners to NPR.org content, for additional perspectives on a story, say. NPR hosts do sometimes do that, telling listeners they can find the full transcripts of lengthy interviews online. (Some station executives react negatively to that, as well, but pretending NPR's on-air and online content are not part of a whole does not seem logical to me.) NPR One, which has a small amount of exclusive content currently and recently hired an executive to focus on integrating more local station content into the app's feed, can also be seen as an extension of NPR's journalism, so it seems shortsighted not to mention it occasionally — within the appropriate journalistic context — on NPR air. My hope is that Turpin's guidance will evolve as NPR One evolves. (I'll have more on NPR One in an upcoming column.)

But from a purely journalistic point of view, I'm with Turpin on the podcast back announces. NPR's newsmagazines are editorial spaces. I wrote last year about what had been standard NPR practice to routinely interview staff members who had written books on NPR newsmagazines — a practice that to me and many listeners and station executives felt increasingly promotional — and I am happy that the criteria for such interviews are now much stronger.

That's not to disagree with the future prognosticators. NPR does indeed have a monumental task navigating to the digital future; I spent a decade before I came to NPR reporting on just those challenges, and they are real. NPR and the member stations must confront the challenges inherent in the transition head-on or risk going the way of newspapers. With some creative thinking, that future can include local stations, which have advantages in the ability to go live during breaking news events and to connect to local communities, and it can also include digital listening.

(Turpin argues that NPR and member stations are not avoiding the issues. "Everyone is working out how podcasts fit into their overall long-term strategy," he said, acknowledging past worries over whether "podcasts potentially cannibalize the radio audience." But those conversations "have moved to a very different place," he said, with the realization that the two forms "serve different audiences. This isn't some kind of zero-sum game.")

I hear regularly from listeners who feel NPR's on-air sound has become too commercial. I'm for anything that keeps the actual news time commercial-free; there already seems to be too little time each day to get to every perspective and every story. NPR listeners are smart enough to figure out where to buy a book they are interested in after hearing an interview, and they will also figure out where to download a podcast that they find potentially of interest after hearing about it in an NPR interview. NPR even has a handy directory that it could promote on air — as long as that promotion is during its promotional minutes, not news time.

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