Bud Abbott and Lou Costello perform their classic "Who's on First" routine.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello perform their classic "Who's on First" routine.
An email from a reader or listener to this office can quickly turn into an Abbott and Costello routine: Who reported the story on what platform? Where? When? And how can audience members provide feedback? The editorial uncertainty stems from confusion over which content is produced by NPR, which comes from other producers and how to contact those who have power over editorial decision-making.
The majority of emails this office receives comes from listeners tuning in to NPR programming on traditional radio platforms. To clarify how listeners and readers can give editorial feedback, we put together an explanation of who does what in NPR's corner of the public media world.
What is NPR?
NPR is a national news organization that produces its own content, which airs on a network of local member stations. It also acquires programs that it distributes to those stations. Those stations often refer to themselves as "NPR" overall, even though some of their content — the amount varies from station to station — has no connection to NPR; in addition to their own local news and talk content, they acquire programs from other producers (more on that later).
Of the people listening to NPR-produced content, the bulk of these listeners still tune in by setting the dial to those local stations. The relationship between member stations and NPR is critical to the operation of the public media organization.
It started in 1970 when approximately 90 public radio stations came together to form NPR, Inc. National programming like All Things Considered in 1971, NPR's first Spanish-language newsmagazine Enfoque Nacional in 1979 (now discontinued) and debuting later that year, Morning Edition, became available for member stations to air locally. The midday Here & Now debuted at WBUR in 1997, and in 2013 it became a co-production with NPR. The top-of-the-hour several-minute newscasts are another key offering from the NPR newsroom.
The partnership has been successful: As of fall of 2018, NPR's broadcast radio programming, including the weekend comedy shows like Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, reached 50 million people each month, according to Nielsen.
But NPR produces nowhere near 24 hours of content each day. To fill the gaps, it distributes some major public radio programs produced by its member stations, including Fresh Air with Terry Gross (WHYY), On Point (WBUR) and 1A (WAMU). Not every station carries every show, however, because stations are independent broadcast entities, licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to program for their individual communities.
What is not NPR?
NPR is not the only source of programming on those radio waves, either; other radio organizations produce public radio content.
Minnesota-based American Public Media (APM) is the second-largest producer of public radio programs in the U.S. APM produces Marketplace and other original content, and it also distributes content from the BBC and The New York Times.
Public Radio International (PRI) and Public Radio Exchange (PRX) merged last year (but confusingly enough, maintained their independent identities). The joint PRI/PRX venture is another public radio organization that both produces original content and distributes a mix of programming. PRI's The World and The Takeaway are among their programs.
When listeners email us with concerns about APM, PRI, PRX or WNYC shows, we direct them to contact those producers directly.
The digital complication
NPR launched NPR.org in 1994. Since then, it has added other digital platforms steadily, including the NPR News app (which shares digital text and audio stories), smart speakers (which offer up some programming directly from the NPR newsroom, such as the hourly newscasts, and also streams of member stations) and NPR One, an app that provides a steady flow of audio stories.
Digitally, NPR's website and podcast content reached 57 million users per month in 2018. (This data does not include audience numbers from either of the NPR apps or smart speakers.)
A quick reference guide for the audio content heard by listeners.
The increase in the number of digital platforms for sharing NPR content has not made it any easier for listeners and readers trying to figure out what is NPR content and what is not. Just as happens at member stations, NPR content, a station's own reporting and non-NPR produced programs flow together seamlessly on the NPR One app. In addition, the app includes content from producers outside the public radio sphere, such as podcast networks Wondery and Gimlet Media.
And if you search for a particular topic at NPR.org, you'll get segments from On Point, 1A and Fresh Air (again, all distributed by NPR but not editorially controlled by NPR). If you do a cursory Google search for programs like PRI's The World and The Takeaway, you'll be led to NPR pages for these shows.
The cross promotion of non-NPR shows on NPR web pages could be seen as a public service to offer as much information in one central place as possible.
But it's no wonder listeners are confused.
Having listeners assume that all public radio they consume is NPR programming is great from a marketing perspective. But from an editorial perspective, it becomes a bit murkier; it's easy to conflate even opinion shows with NPR programming.
NPR has a clear ethics code that applies to programs it produces. Content that is distributed by NPR but not produced in-house (known as "acquired content") is also expected to follow NPR policies. A 2015 update to the NPR code of ethics includes independent producers and journalists associated with acquired programming under the NPR umbrella. But other producers have their own editorial standards that vary. These blurred boundary lines contribute to a lack of transparency; some listeners and readers understand the difference and others don't.
As public trust in the media hovers only slightly above the all-time low achieved in 2016, research shows the importance of "improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias." Finding a way to clarify the editorial decision-makers behind the programming would allow for better feedback.
Justin Lucas, director of audience relations and engagement, said he and his team are working to help with that. "The landscape of public radio is a whole complex system and I don't think it's going to become less complex anytime in the near future," said Lucas. "I also don't think it's homework that we should expect our audience to do before they contact us. The burden shouldn't be on them there."
In an effort to meet audience members where they are, Lucas said, "If you go to our contact form right now and say you want to contact Marketplace, a pop-up will show up and tell you how to contact Marketplace, even though it's not our show."
He added, "We know that folks don't understand everything that NPR does and what the differences are between NPR, their local NPR station and other public radio organizations that they might also hear on their station, and that's fine. As long as they come in through the contact form we will figure out where their message was intended to go and we will get it there."
Lucas' description of the "whole complex system" only getting more complex is accurate. NPR has expanded well past the narrow purpose it was founded for almost 50 years ago. This month, NPR debuted its first true crime podcast (structured as a single story told week by week) about an unsolved murder during the Civil Rights era, and a new video series exploring how technology will shape the future (neither being traditional radio ventures).
With these innovations come confusion for some. Discerning what is produced and distributed by NPR versus what is not will help listeners understand the guiding editorial principles used for reporting (you can find NPR's standards here).
But if all else fails and you can't remember who is who? Just email us.
Special thanks to Lori Kaplan, Steve Mulder and the Audience Insights and Research team.
Juliette Rocheleau (@juliettetalk) is an Editorial Researcher for the Public Editor's office.