Mass marketing peaked in the 90s, and gave us classic, memorable TV ads : Planet Money Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's __________.

The best part of waking up, is _______ in your cup!

Got ____?

If you can identify these brands based on tagline alone, it's possible you... are a 90s kid.

The '90s were arguably the peak moment of advertisers trying to make an impression on us that could last for decades. They got us to sing their jingles and say their slogans. These kinds of ads are called brand or image marketing. And it became a lot harder to pull off in the 21st century.

On today's show, we look back at the history of advertising, and two pretty unassuming products that totally transformed ads.

This show was hosted by Sarah Gonzalez and Kenny Malone. It was produced by James Sneed, and engineered by James Willets. It was fact checked by Sierra Juarez, and edited by Molly Messick. Alex Goldmark is Planet Money's executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+
in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

Why '90s ads are unforgettable

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: OK, do you guys remember any commercials from, like, our childhood or growing up?

SASHA: The Chia pet - cha cha cha chia (laughter).

CARLA: The cough drops - the (singing) Ricola.

CARINA: Or Meow Mix - the (singing) meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow...

SASHA: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: These are my sisters, Sasha (ph) and the twins Carla (ph) and Carina (ph).

There's no, like, jingles anymore. Like...

SASHA: I literally just had this conversation the other night.

GONZALEZ: Surely some of you have thought this before - that they just don't make ads like they used to. And, like, yeah, maybe ads in the '90s were cheesy and obnoxious, but they were memorable. We would sing their jingles. We knew their whole script. Like, my twin sisters used to reenact this one commercial over and over when they were 7 years old.

So you guys had these little, like, go-kart kind of things, and you guys would, like...

CARINA: Crash them into each other.

GONZALEZ: ...Crash into each other.

CARLA: Get out and get mad that one of us didn't have insurance.

GONZALEZ: I just remember you guys going, like, do you have car insurance? Why don't you have car insurance (laughter)?

CARINA: Because insurance is too expensive. Get Solo (ph).

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

CARLA: Oh, my God, Carina.

GONZALEZ: We did not really watch that much TV when we were kids. And yet, we remember these commercials fondly and, like, in weird detail.

CARLA: I, like, remember, literally, the phone numbers from, like, the bail bonds commercial (laughter).

SASHA: (Laughter).

CARLA: I remember the carpet cleaning company was (singing) 800-588-2300, Empire.

SARAZ GONZALEZ, SASHA AND KARINA: (Singing) Empire.

CARLA: I remember that.

CARINA: Now if we need a bail bondsman or a carpet cleaner, Carla knows the number.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Yeah, I mean, you're remembering phone numbers from 20 years ago plus.

CARINA: Target customer base right there - 7-year-old girls (laughter).

SASHA: For bail bonds.

GONZALEZ: And, you know, whatever - maybe we all just remember commercials from our era because it's our era, right? Or - or - hear me out here - maybe, for better or worse, there was actually something special about advertising in the '90s.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Today on the show - the evolution of advertising...

GONZALEZ: As told through two of the most bland, unexciting products which also happened to be two of the most famously advertised products - soap and milk.

MALONE: And it all leads up to what some experts call the peak of mass marketing - the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: So OK, gut-check me a little bit. Am I, like, the grumpy old lady now that's like, (imitating older adult) they're not as good as they used to be.

Like, is it me, or is there something to ads in the '90s?

ANNIE WILSON: I think it's both.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

MALONE: Annie Wilson teaches advertising and consumer behavior at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

WILSON: I think there's a little bit of nostalgia because it's part of your childhood and growing up. So I think it's a little bit you. But it's also - there was something genuinely special about the '90s because of where it sits technologically. And that actually changed the creative strategies of advertisers that made them, I think, more fun or more memorable on a collective level.

GONZALEZ: This was the thing about the '90s. The ads were ubiquitous. We all watched them collectively. And the '90s gave us some, like, real, real gems. Maybe she's born with it...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Maybe it's Maybelline.

GONZALEZ: Mentos.

MALONE: The freshmaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Fresh goes better - Mentos freshness. Fresh goes better with Mentos fresh and full of life.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Mentos - the freshmaker.

MALONE: I mean, come on. That's in your head all day.

GONZALEZ: All day.

MALONE: And then there was, of course - uh - this whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whassap (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Whassap.

MALONE: This, of course, a commercial from Budweiser.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yo, who's that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yo. Yo, pick up the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Whassap.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whassap.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Aaah (ph).

WILSON: There was a time when people were actually walking around being like, whassap.

GONZALEZ: Annie says that to understand how advertising got to its, like, '90s pinnacle and to what it is today, we can look back at one company that Annie calls the OG of advertising. So we're going to stop there. Is the origin story, like, there was a guy named Procter, there's a guy named Gamble, and one thought he had the whiter soap than the other one? Like, is that...

SHANE MEEKER: It was - kind of.

GONZALEZ: Really (laughter)?

MALONE: This is Shane Meeker.

MALONE: I am the Procter & Gamble company historian and corporate storyteller.

GONZALEZ: The corporate storyteller?

MEEKER: Corporate storyteller.

GONZALEZ: That sounds, you know, like it can be interpreted not well.

MEEKER: (Laughter).

MALONE: Yes, yes. Shane is not a corporate spin master. He is a historian for Procter & Gamble, which is kind of a company known as a soap company - you know, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent. But they sell tons of products.

MEEKER: Tide and Crest and Tampax and Pepto-Bismol and Swiffer and Pampers and...

GONZALEZ: So many brands owned by one company.

MEEKER: ...Olay, Pantene, Old Spice...

GONZALEZ: Like, 10 companies control most of the brands in the grocery store. It's wild. Anyway, this part of the advertising story is all about the radio - the first on-air mass marketing.

MALONE: Good old radio - now, when the radio became popular in the 1920s, Procter & Gamble was like, this is a whole new way to talk to our customers - game changer. Now, in 1923, they sponsored a fancy new daytime radio show called Crisco Cooking Talks, which was 15 minutes of someone basically reading recipes on the radio that I assume contained a lot of Crisco.

GONZALEZ: And housewives - oh, they were riveted. Then Procter & Gamble did some market research and learned that housewives wanted radio to be more than just instructional. They wanted it to be entertaining, too.

MEEKER: So right around 1930, we decided to try a very new type of daytime radio entertainment, which was called the dramatic serial.

MALONE: The dramatic serial.

MEEKER: These would offer, you know, a compelling storyline which would encourage listeners to tune in day after day.

GONZALEZ: This was like actors and a script, a whole dramatic plot that the company funded, paid for, just so they could advertise soap on the show.

MALONE: One of these dramatic serials was called "Ma Perkins."

MEEKER: "Ma Perkins" was about a self-reliant widow and her business problems and family concerns, and it quickly went national - one of the most popular daytime programs.

GONZALEZ: Every day, before "Ma Perkins" came on the radio, there would be usually one very, very long radio ad for, in this case, Oxydol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For a wash that sparkling clean with less rinsing work, use new deep-cleaning Oxydol. With just one rinse, Oxydol is deep-cleaning, deep-cleaning, deep-cleaning. And now for "Ma Perkins."

GONZALEZ: And then the show started.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, at last Fay has begun to open up her heart to Ma about what happened during the two weeks she was in New York with Spencer Grayson.

GONZALEZ: What did Spencer do in New York?

MALONE: You have to stay tuned, Sarah. That's the whole point. It's serialized. But yes, uh, Oxydol was not the only product for which there was a whole radio drama created. Other companies were doing this too, explicitly for the purpose of running ads on their shows.

MEEKER: Colgate-Palmolive also had some as well.

GONZALEZ: Why was it, like, soap people always?

MEEKER: I honestly don't know why soap companies end up being the ones who necessarily came up with that, other than, you know, it was a great way to bring your brands where your consumers were.

GONZALEZ: And, you know, the consumers were housewives, so - cleaning products. But anyway, people noticed this weird soap connection, and the dramatic serial got a whole new name.

MEEKER: Mostly because soap companies were really kind of starting them, and they were dramas, which is where the opera bit comes in - so, soap opera.

GONZALEZ: This is where the soap opera comes from - dramatic shows created just to sell housewives actual soap. Some people knew this. I had no idea.

MALONE: I also had no idea, for what it's worth.

MEEKER: As the popularity of "Ma Perkins" grew, a question began to be asked, which was, so just how many people are listening to this thing? And at that time, nobody really knew because the rating systems had not been perfected and was not even really developed yet.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So the company came up with a pretty clever way to try to get at some of this information through the "Ma Perkins" soap opera itself.

MEEKER: Basically, what we did is we announced a promotion on the program, which we said was, you know, sending an Oxydol box top plus 10 cents, and you get a packet of flower seeds back in the mail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, eight packages of our own "Ma Perkins" favorite flower seeds, enough for a whole flower garden.

MEEKER: Because the only way that they would know that offer is if they were listening to the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The eight varieties include mixed petunias, giant mixed cosmos, and harmony marigold, those exotic deep-colored flowers...

MEEKER: So over a million consumers actually sent in.

GONZALEZ: That's how you guys tracked ratings?

MEEKER: That's how we knew. That's how - actually, believe it or not, that was the first precise information ever obtained on radio coverage, even, at that time. And as far as we know, that was the first evidence that radio advertising by itself was also selling goods.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, this appears to be the first evidence that the radio could sell things. Because, you know, people were buying these flower seeds based on this ad they heard on this talkie new radio thing.

MALONE: And then when the TV became commonplace in homes in the 1950s, the radio soap operas moved to TV soap operas - much bigger production, and brands started co-sponsoring the soap operas. So now we got multiple ads on one TV show.

GONZALEZ: Like Colgate and Tide together or Procter & Gamble...

MALONE: Colgate would be a competitor, but...

GONZALEZ: Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.

MALONE: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Whew, sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: You're Crest, right? What are you guys?

MALONE: But - right, exactly.

GONZALEZ: TV unlocked a whole new way to advertise to people. It was sound and video, like, the most compelling form of advertising ever.

MALONE: Yeah, all these new advertising techniques start popping up. And decade by decade, you can see them develop.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, like, in the '50s, at first the ads were mainly attribute focused, like our peanut butter is crunchy, salty, it's brown, whatever. Ads we're just informative. But towards the end of the '50s, it becomes all about trying to differentiate your product from another extremely similar product.

MALONE: This is like a side-by-side. And you know what this is. It's an ad that goes something like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Bill Thirlby (ph) just shaved this side with new Schick Powershave, this side with another method.

MALONE: Guess what? One side's better than the other. And by the '60s, ads are getting even more entertaining than that shave demonstration. The '60s through the '70s - and into the '80s, depending on who you ask - is often thought of as the creative era of advertising. This is when we start to get into storytelling in ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Let's get Mikey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: He won't eat it. He hates everything. He likes it. Hey, Mikey.

MALONE: Taglines and jingles also really start taking off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (Singing) My bologna has a first name, it's O, S, C, A, R.

MALONE: We start to get ads that look like modern day advertising.

GONZALEZ: After the break, the '90s and one of the most popular ads of all time, an ad campaign that is so recognizable, you will probably know what it is if all we say is it's two words and a question mark.

MALONE: It is an iconic ad that helps us consider the question behind all of advertising, does it actually convince people to buy?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: OK, in the early '90s, the milk industry was having a big problem. People had been drinking less and less milk for years and it was hitting scary new lows. Milk processors in California - so the people who turn raw milk into the milk we consume - were getting pretty worried. So they decided they needed a big new marketing effort.

JEFF MANNING: You know, milk advertising had been so serious.

GONZALEZ: This is Jeff Manning, the guy who wanted to rebrand milk, step away from, milk, it does the body good.

MANNING: Give me something edgier. Give me something hipper.

MALONE: Jeff was the head of the California Milk Processor Board. And all of the milk processors in the state decided to basically tax themselves three pennies for every gallon of milk they processed to be spent mostly on TV ads. Their budget was over $20 million a year.

MANNING: Which is an insane amount of money. Twenty million dollars for a national program would be a big budget, be a big budget. We were doing it in the state of California.

GONZALEZ: Three ad agencies were going to compete for the milk gig. They all showed up at a hotel in Oakland, Calif., to give their big pitch. The first agency goes, then the second, and - eh.

MANNING: They were more - they were more about milk.

GONZALEZ: Milk - how boring. But then the last agency walks in, and, ooh-hoo (ph), these guys were cool.

MANNING: Yeah. I mean, you know, jeans, no socks and penny loafers. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Oh, that sounds so cool (laughter).

MANNING: It was. Well, if you think about it, that's when everybody was wearing suits and ties.

MALONE: These cool ad guys in jeans - no socks - were from a firm called Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. They walk into the boardroom - no socks - and they're like, all right, Milk Processor Board. We did a little prank. We gave our colleagues at the ad agency fun late-night food, like cereal, and then we videotaped them.

MANNING: What they did was they cut a hole in the back of the refrigerators. They put a camera in there, and they put in empty milk cartons. So the people grab the bowl of cereal, they open the fridge. There's a carton of milk, and they lift it out. They shake it. Now, this is all being taped...

GONZALEZ: Recorded, yeah.

MANNING: ...Filmed, yeah. They shake. It's empty. They pull the other one out. They shake it. That's empty too. And they go crazy. OK. That was the brilliance of what we ended up calling the milk deprivation strategy. Give people the foods. Give them the food - the Cheerios or the Oreos or the fudge brownies - and then take milk away. Take it away. Don't let them have it. And they won the business, obviously.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. What is a peanut butter sandwich without milk?

MANNING: Without milk?

GONZALEZ: No, it's nothing.

MANNING: Nothing.

GONZALEZ: This led to a very famous commercial. Some guy who is very into Alexander Hamilton, first head of the U.S. Treasury, is listening to the radio while making himself a smooth peanut butter sandwich - no jelly. And there's a $10,000 question that comes on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

ROB PAULSEN: (As character) Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

PAULSEN: (As character) All right. Let's go to the phones and see who's out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SEAN WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Hello?

PAULSEN: (As character) Hello. For $10,000, who...

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

PAULSEN: (As character) Excuse me?

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

MALONE: But, no. He's got peanut-butter mouth. He tries to pour himself milk, but the carton is empty.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

PAULSEN: (As character) Your time is almost up.

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

PAULSEN: (As character) I'm sorry. Maybe next time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Got milk?

GONZALEZ: Got Milk? - a classic. A national milk group then licenses Got Milk? from the California milk group, and Got Milk? goes national. Very soon, 91% of adults know the campaign - just, like, incredible awareness.

MALONE: But the California milk group also wanted to know kind of the same thing that the Procter & Gamble people wanted to know with their whole, like, flower seeds thing on the radio. Were these ads getting people to change their behavior? Were people drinking more milk?

GONZALEZ: So three whole years into Got Milk? the milk board looked at its effect on milk consumption. They looked at the per capita consumption in the U.S., which looked like a staircase, just down, down, down. And they looked at milk consumption in California. And Jeff says three years and $60 million later, milk consumption was still going down in California, a little less than the national numbers, but yeah, still down.

MANNING: I mean, it's not easy to change consumer behavior. And so it took at least those first three to get people to start to change behavior.

GONZALEZ: But then five years in, the milk board looked at consumption again, and...

MANNING: We did not raise the per capita consumption, but we flattened it.

GONZALEZ: So they did not get people to drink milk more, but Jeff says they didn't lose milk consumers either, and that was worth a lot of money.

MANNING: Exactly. Right. If - a packaged goods company would say we defended our share of the market.

GONZALEZ: Jeff says the genius of Got Milk? is that it took this totally dull, been around forever, not new thing and made people feel something about it.

MANNING: There was no emotion around milk. It's a commodity. It's white. It's in the fridge. It comes in gallons. And then suddenly you were laughing and smiling, and there was some emotive connection with milk that simply did not exist before.

MALONE: Milk got its moment, it became cool. And and Got Milk? was used in all the glossy magazine celebrity milk mustache ads.

GONZALEZ: For people who were not around to see these ads, it was basically just every big celebrity rocking what I can only assume was Elmer's glue on their upper lip parading as a milk mustache.

WILSON: I do remember, like, ripping out the Got Milk? ads and, like, putting them on my wall and in my locker.

MALONE: Again, our ad expert, Annie Wilson.

WILSON: Like, you would not do that now.

MALONE: Now, Annie says the milk mustache is basically the beginning of modern influencer culture. And yeah, we were just feeling good feelings about good old milk.

GONZALEZ: And people call this type of advertising brand or image marketing. And Annie says there are no direct sales goals with these types of ads. It is just I want you to see the product or the brand and feel good when you do.

MALONE: The milk people, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola - they are experts at brand and image marketing.

WILSON: When you think Coca-Cola, you think happiness. You feel good. But I can't measure the return on that - every time you see a Coca-Cola billboard or a Coca-Cola commercial - whether you're going to go out and actually buy Coca-Cola or not.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, it's really hard to measure the results of this kind of ad. But Annie says that in the '90s, brands were really, really focused on this brand and image marketing. Because companies were launching so many new products in the '90s, there was a lot of competition. So Annie says brands were just trying to capture mind-share over wallet-share, even. They wanted you to just know their brand over even buying their products because brands were playing the long game. They wanted to be around forever, and they just needed you to know who they were.

MALONE: And, you know, the '90s were kind of the perfect time for building up these brands, because advertisers knew exactly where to find our eyeballs. Like, we were all watching and reading sort of the same two things - TV and glossy magazines. And also by the '90s, advertisers had developed this whole arsenal of advertising tricks. They'd gotten unbelievably good at writing taglines and jingles. And I mean, just listen to some of these bangers that were running in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's me Lucky Charms.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: There're magically delicious.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Mommy, wow. I'm a big kid now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's Platinum Mastercard.

GONZALEZ: These are exactly the kinds of catchy ads that I feel like we just don't hear anymore. And Annie says that's because pretty soon after the '90s, the whole ad ecosystem changed.

WILSON: The reason that we think about it as this apex is probably less that it was, like, this big height so much as it died down after.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Brand advertising is built on mass viewership, and the idea that we would all repeat product taglines and jingles because we would all unavoidably see the ads over and over again. But mass viewership started to disappear when, among other things, the DVR came out in 1999. Now we could fast-forward commercials. Ooh, that one hurt advertisers.

MALONE: Yeah. A whole bunch of things then started happening that continued to keep us from all watching the same commercial. So, you know, the internet starts stealing more of our attention. Streaming sites with options for no commercials come out. Smartphones, social media - today, the chances that two people have seen the same ad for the same product are pretty low.

GONZALEZ: Which is why companies don't really even attempt to make a new jingle or tagline take off the way that they used to, because it is just harder to get complete awareness of a product today. But there are a few exceptions, a few companies that do still have this goal. Like, you can all probably name a lot of credit card companies or car insurance companies because they still do big mass brand marketing. They spend so much money to make sure that everyone knows their name.

WILSON: And so, for example, I might want to advertise my insurance brand or my credit card company on a kids' channel, not because I think kids are going to buy it, and not because I even think their parents going to buy it, but because when the kid turns a certain age and they need a credit card, for some reason, they just think Mastercard, or they have this good feeling about Mastercard.

GONZALEZ: This is why my twin sisters could recite car insurance commercials when they were 7 years old. It was all intentional - kind of dark.

MALONE: Now, after the '90s, brand marketing started having to share the stage more with a different type of advertising called performance marketing. These ads do have an immediate sales goal. This would be like, you know, how many people clicked through on your digital ad? And this is now what a lot of companies focus on.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And these ads - they are not really designed to appeal to the masses. They are targeted - super targeted. Because Annie says a lot of brands don't care about everyone knowing their product anymore. They just want their niche target market to know. And Annie says this does make advertising more efficient. But, like, what a bummer.

MALONE: You want the jingle back. That's what this is all about, isn't it?

GONZALEZ: I mean, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: On the next PLANET MONEY...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I never imagined this. You know, my work is on antitrust economics, but they do enjoy confrontation a little bit.

MALONE: What started out as an anonymous forum to help econ grad students find jobs eventually turned into just another internet cesspool. But no one knew where the toxic posts were coming from until an unlikely trio decided to look into it.

GONZALEZ: If you have a story you want to hear us do, email us - planetmoney@npr.org - or find us on social media. We are @PlanetMoney.

MALONE: Today's show was produced by James Sneed and engineered by James Willets. It was fact checked by Sierra Juarez and edited by Molly Messick. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

GONZALEZ: Super special thanks to Jeff Goodby, who was the person behind the "Got Milk?" slogan. And thanks also to Roland Rust and Alicia Swasey (ph).

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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