How 'Public' Is NPR? : NPR Public Editor "Public" is NPR's middle name. As befits an institution that answers to the public, there is always much discussion here among listeners and radio folk alike as to what that means. For most who contact me, the question is whether NPR is "public" in a way that makes it accessible and responsive to the listeners.
NPR logo How 'Public' Is NPR?

How 'Public' Is NPR?

"Public" is NPR's middle name. As befits an institution that answers to the public, there is always much discussion here among listeners and radio folk alike as to what that means.

For most who contact me, the question is whether NPR is "public" in a way that makes it accessible and responsive to the listeners.

Public Radio Means Accessible Radio

Here are some suggestions from listeners on how NPR could be more accessible and responsive:

1. 'Contact Us'

First, make the comment form on the NPR Web site more functional. Listener Robert Palmer finds it unwieldy:

I hate the form, and am reluctant to use it, and when I do I am tempted to use a false name, e.g., Jeff Dvorkin, Arthur MacArthur, or Current Resident. So please pass on to NPR that their form does not work... at least not on my... computer.

David Gray Stahl says while he understands the contact form is designed to limit unsolicited bulk e-mails, or spam, the form also impedes the listeners' ability to comment:

Writing and communicating with NPR should not be effortless, but neither should it be onerous. The technical change you made (in an attempt to limit spam) to require the use of a Web page to submit e-mails to NPR was in my opinion incorrect. It provides a barrier to people wishing to communicate with you; and will only temporarily improve the level of spam.

You can use filters to eliminate spam, you can respond directly to an e-mail message and require some action on a Web page to eliminate spam, etc. SPAM is an evil of the Internet age. But you should not let SPAM interrupt the flow of communication with your users. I believe your choice of using a Web page for communication will interrupt the flow of communication. Let users compose their thoughts in their e-mail editors (with spell check, fonts, etc) and figure out a better way to filter out the horrible SPAM. We have computers, and intelligence, we can find a way.

Maria Thomas, vice president of NPR.org, says the contact form was designed to cut down on the massive amounts of spam that flood the NPR Web site. Indeed, the amount of spam has been reduced. Most people who visit the Web site, she says, find it user-friendly:

... I would suggest you give your readers a sense of relativity. The truth is we've had very few complaints about the form relative to the *very* large numbers of its users. You should also know that for "corrections" we do not require users to act through the form. There is a link on every page on the left-hand column to "corrections". It leads here: http://www.npr.org/corrections/ where corrections@npr.org is easily accessible.

The other very important reason for the introduction for the form was to establish consistency across shows in terms of the accuracy and timeliness of NPR's e-mail responses... the form is key to helping us achieve this goal.

From my perspective, however, increasing numbers of listeners say they cannot easily get through and that, when they do get through, their e-mails are made less readable by the NPR form. They don't see the Web site changing to reflect their concerns.

2. 'Can I Contact an Individual?'

Listeners want to contact NPR reporters and correspondents directly. Many newspapers post the e-mail addresses at the end of the reports or op-ed pieces. Why can't NPR do the same?

Bill Marimow is NPR's acting vice president of news.

I just reviewed copies of today's New York Times and Washington Post, and as far as I can tell, those two newspapers do not put their staffers' e-mail addresses at the end of their stories. By putting the e-mail address at the end of stories, I believe a newspaper creates an expectation that a reader will receive a meaningful response from the reporter. The same, of course, pertains to NPR with our 26 million listeners.

Reporters (often) receive... hundreds of e-mails from our listeners. To expect a reporter to craft an individual response to that number of e-mails, while covering a beat and following up on major stories, is unrealistic.

That said, I believe strongly -- very strongly -- that our listeners should have a way of contacting our journalists, and I believe that can be done by writing a letter or simply picking up the telephone and making a call.

3. 'Why Only E-Mail?'

How can listeners contact NPR when they don't have e-mail? Jerry Butlin telephoned from Maitland, Fla:

... I resent that the only way to contact programs like Weekend Edition Sunday is by e-mail. They fail to take into account that there are millions of Americans without computers. It is as if our opinion doesn't count. I would urge NPR to go back to accepting our comments both by e-mail and post. Thank you.

I tried to navigate the NPR Web site to find out how to contact NPR by e-mail, voice mail and by the U.S. Postal Service. Here is where most of the information can be found: http://www.npr.org/contact/.

There is, however, one logical problem:

The postal address is on the NPR Web site. It is there so people know where to send their snail-mail letters to NPR. But if a listener is reading this information on the NPR Web site, it seems unlikely he or she will want to write to NPR via the post office. I called Mr. Butlin back to give him NPR's postal address. It is:

NPR / 635 Massachusetts Avenue NW / Washington, DC 20001

If you, dear online reader, know of any other "Mr. Butlins," please let them know how they can reach NPR by mail.

4. 'Calling NPR'

The main phone number (202-513-3232) is also listed on the Web site. If a listener calls the main number, it connects to a "phone tree". This allows the caller to choose from a variety of options including an option to leave a comment for a specific program. But this "tree" has some rather shaky branches.

I tried it for myself. I found the NPR phone system confusing, complicated and unsystematic.

To start with, every program message is different. Some have not changed their message for quite some time.

Here's what it sounds like:

'For 'Morning Edition,' press 1'

Morning Edition allows the listener to comment for 60 seconds, and the message says that your comments may be edited and used on the air.

So far, so good.

'For All Things Considered, press 2'

All Things Considered asks the listener only for a comment on Social Security. Someone might let them know that this story ended some months ago.

'For Weekend Edition Saturday,' press 3

WESAT offers a series of options:

"For tapes and transcripts, press 1. For a mailing address, press 2. If you are a book publicist, press 3. To speak to the senior editor, press 4. To speak to the senior producer, press 5. If none of these options is right for you, please hold."

I held the line, in an attempt to leave a comment, but the line suddenly went dead.

'Hello Operator!'

I asked Ken Stern, NPR's executive vice president what can be done to improve communications between listeners and NPR:

Historically, listeners could contact us in any way: by phone, by mail and by e-mail. They could contact us any way but they just wouldn't get an answer. If they got a response, it was largely by happenstance because there was no system for response and nobody with the job of responding to the tens of thousands of contact we get each month.

We think, however, that providing information to listeners is terribly important, and this year, we've, for the first time, set up systems and assigned people to respond to the thousands of inquiries we get each month. Now, for the first time, listeners can contact us and have the reasonable expectation of getting a response in a day or two. To accomplish this, we had to centralize the system through an online form. It may not be the most elegant solution, and I hope people forgive us for any limitations in the first few months of implementation, but the ultimate goal here is a very worthy and important one: to provide more information to our millions of dedicated listeners.

Everyone can still call or send us a letter, but I would encourage everyone to use the online form, so that we can be responsive to any questions, comments or concerns.

It is a worthy goal. But so far, many listeners say, the system adopted by NPR hasn't yet reached peak efficiency. Even though many -- even most -- NPR listeners are cyber-literate, they still feel increasingly annoyed by NPR's attempts to make the system more efficient and more spam-resistant.

As for those listeners who are without Internet access, many say they are frustrated in their repeated attempts to contact NPR by telephone or to even to locate NPR's mailing address.

I can see why.

One solution might be to broadcast contact information either at the end of the news programs or in regularly broadcast promotional messages. All listeners would benefit.