Being heard on NPR is considered by many as a sign of having made it. But it's more than just a status symbol. Authors and musicians who are interviewed on NPR notice that their new book or CD starts selling briskly -- and usually within 24 hours. But how does one get on NPR? It's a question that puzzles many.
Getting Reviewed on NPR
If someone is in the news or is a politician in the spotlight, chances of being interviewed are reasonably good. But people from the so-called "cultural industries" tell me the rules of how to get on NPR are unclear. I often get e-mails from authors, musicians or their agents asking how to breach the apparently impregnable walls: "Whom should I approach? Is there one editor who decides? Why doesn't anyone at NPR let me know a) if they received the book and b) why they have chosen not to interview me or my client?"
As ombudsman, I have no influence (and should have no influence) over the specifics of coverage. Those decisions properly belong to the editors and producers. They are the journalists/gatekeepers who sift through the thousands and thousands of books and CDs that arrive annually and who have to make the tough choices. Those choices are made against the backdrop of heavy and insistent demands of the daily hard-news agenda. Each writer or artist must be judged on his or her news value, and each book or CD on whether it has significant audience appeal.
That may sound hopeless. It is complicated. But it isn't impossible. There are many ways to get NPR's attention.
'Hey! Over Here!'
There is a helpful description on the NPR Web site that explains how to pitch a news story to NPR. This includes everything from individual stories to commentaries, audio postcards and freelance offerings. There is a link as well for new program development, for those who want to propose an on-going series or program.
That may work for news. But how should one pitch books and music to NPR? There seems to be no intake system on the NPR Web site similar to that available for news stories.
Here's how the system works (most of the time):
Know the Programs
First, no one person is responsible for picking which authors or musicians will appear on various NPR programs. Each program is responsible for the books and CDs its producers think will best appeal to their listeners. Each program's producers also choose the authors or musicians that will likely make for a good interview with the show's host(s).
Because there is so much published every year (more than 60,000 books were published in the United States in 2004), it is impossible to know about every book or CD that comes on the market. Larger, more established publishing houses have long-standing relationships with individual NPR programs. They know, for example, to send a new book on science and technology to NPR's Science Desk or to NPR's Science Friday, as opposed to Morning Edition. The producers at Morning Edition may decide to interview a science-oriented author. But for science writers, the chances of being featured are better and more consistent on Science Friday and occasionally on Talk of the Nation.
The same goes for music. Recording companies know that All Things Considered may be more open to doing an interview on classical music because that program has done them in the past. Other programs have affinities for other musical genres (a very high interest in singer-songwriters seems to predominate on the weekends, for example).
New CDs are sent to all NPR programs, on the off chance that a producer or an editor will think, "This might just work…" But just as often, CDs that are sent to NPR in general end up abandoned. They will lie around, unheard and unappreciated, and eventually go away.
NPR cultural programs such as Performance Today operate much differently. "PT" is all about classical music and as a result, it has a more systematic approach to CDs. But non-classical music CDs sent to Performance Today will most likely also be abandoned.
So if one is a musician with NPR-aspirations, it's best to know the programs and target them individually, rather than flooding NPR with copies and hoping to be discovered a la Lana Turner. NPR is not Schwab's Drugstore.
'All Songs Considered'
One tip for new (and some not-so-new) musicians would be to check out the submission Web page of NPR's All Songs Considered.
This is NPR's online music program that specializes in new music. It does accept CDs from independent musicians who have not yet signed with a recording company and who have produced their CD themselves. All Songs Considered has been an important online pioneer in finding and showcasing new talent. Bob Boilen is the originating producer of this venture, and he and associate producer Robin Hilton at npr.org deserve kudos for this activity.
The 'Dibs' System
There is a system of sorts inside NPR for settling arguments among programs that want first "dibs" on an author or a musician. It's known (not surprisingly) as the "dibs" system. A program will send out an all-staff internal e-mail claiming "dibs" on an author or a band or the like.
NPR "acquired" programs -- those produced outside of NPR at member stations, or by independent producers, but still distributed by NPR -- are not part of this "dibs-ing" system. That's why the same author may sometimes be heard on The Diane Rehm Show (produced at WAMU in Washington D.C.); on Fresh Air with Terry Gross (from WHYY in Philadelphia); and on NPR's Morning Edition. Co-ordination between NPR and the member stations has improved. But it's still not flawless.
Meanwhile, back at NPR, putting "dibs" on an author is not necessarily a guarantee that the program will actually interview the person, or if the interview gets done, whether it will wind up being heard.
'Dibs' v. Journalism's Short Attention Span
Much can intervene to derail the well-intentioned plans of the editor or producer who first "dibs-ed" the author or artist. News can erupt, and what once seemed like a good subject for the program can be postponed or abandoned. Journalism's notoriously short attention span may also intervene, and an author or a musician may simply be less interesting after a day or two, especially if other media have run the story first. For an author, it's good to have a lot of "buzz" around. But too much "buzz" may be a death sentence, at least as regards NPR. As they say, timing is everything in show business -- especially when it comes to pitching one's wares to NPR.
Recently, an author complained to me that he had been told his book had been "dibs-ed" by one of the NPR programs. Other programs had contacted him, but the author did the honorable thing and told them that he was spoken for.
But when the expected interview never occurred, the author said he felt that he had been deceived because he was never contacted again. When he mentioned it, he was told that interest in his book had passed.
Time to Rethink 'Dibs-ing?'
The "dibs" system has been around for a long time… at least since the 1980s. No one seems to remember when it began. In many ways, the system still works well. Programs can plan a number of stories around an artist or author. Or if two programs want to interview the same person, they can co-ordinate so the interviews remain substantially different.
It also stops publicity-hungry authors and artists from playing one NPR program against another. For example, if Weekend Edition Saturday gets "dibs" on an author, the author can't call a program with a larger audience such as All Things Considered. "ATC" would be obliged to decline.
I asked Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, if he feels the "dibs" system, originally created to settle turf wars among aggressive programs, still works. Here is his reply:
I want to agree with (the author's) frustrations about NPR's unique and, to me, baffling "dibs" system. I think I remember that it's there to prevent all of the highest-rated shows ("All Things Considered", "Morning Edition", "Weekend Edition Saturday/Sunday") from grabbing interviews away from shows that may be just building an audience (i.e. "Day To Day," etc.) and to prevent NPR listeners from hearing about the same books (or movies, plays, music, etc.) more than once. But I find both reasons are losing whatever coherence they once had…
I feel that it hurts the weekly shows in particular (dare I say ours?). The daily shows have many more producers to "dibs" many more books and movies. The daily shows can accommodate hundreds of books and albums a year, while our weekly show, for example, can realistically do no more than about 35. When we know that a book, film or album has been "dibs-ed" by another show, we go on to something else. To be told several weeks or even months after the fact that we can have a certain book is often a useless courtesy -- the window of opportunity and interest for a book may have passed, and we have booked others that, in the interest of fairness, should not be canceled.
I agree with Scott that the once-useful "dibs" system now seems to have some serious flaws, even though it operates much better than it once did.
'Dibs-ing: No Monkey-Business Allowed'
The assistant managing editor at NPR News is Peggy Girshman. She agrees the system isn't perfect. But it has been improved, and generally, she says, it works:
There are plenty of examples, especially in the past, where the "dibs" system has failed us… When we converted the "dibs" to the (computerized) "superlist," we sought to improve the system. And we have succeeded, at least in part. Now, if you put in a "dibs," it automatically searches through all fields to see if anyone has "dibs-ed" anything similar… The new system also automatically stamps the "dibs" with the date and time of the "dibs," so no monkey-business allowed. In addition, it specifies the specific "dibs-er." So that means an INDIVIDUAL can be held to account for whatever action he has or hasn't taken on the "dibs." That makes checking up on the pursuit of the "dibs" easier.
But it's still not perfect. We don't have anyone "policing" the list to make sure that folks are following up on their "dibs" and making the contacts. In an ideal world, we would have someone doing that, say, if we had a centralized booking desk… For now, we'll live with our imperfect-but-generally-works "dibs" system.
One last point: As you know, "NPR" means many things to folks outside of NPR. It can mean anything from the local talk show on a small station in Alaska, or it can mean "All Things Considered." "Dibs" is one part of our attempt to ensure that when we contact an author, etc., we can speak with authority when someone says, "but NPR already contacted me." This protects the authors/musicians/etc. even more than it protects us. We will know if anyone called them from here and can then say, "Oh no, that program is a local program in Salt Lake City, this is for our national show" and then let the artist decide what to do.
Many artists and authors, unaware of how much better it is, still complain about the present system. So improvements are overdue and should be made known when they happen. When a new system is eventually implemented, I'll be among the first to "dibs" it too.