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Media Matters

December 17, 2003

Breaking News Fails to Please Some Listeners

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
National Public Radio

This may be the column where I differ with the concerns of some listeners.

'Where's My Vivaldi?'

The announcement of the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces pushed NPR into its "news special" mode. But some listeners found this important news story an intrusion on their usually predictable Sunday morning. Listener Siochain Hall writes:

Are we, as listeners, again to be inundated with numbing news of Saddam Hussein's capture? Will we be flogged with the dastardly deeds of the dictator 24/7, so that we listeners can turn off the NPR radio station altogether till the frenzy wanes?

Brenda Beasley also wrote in:

I am sick and tired of the same old rehashed news over the capture of Saddam Hussein! I feel imprisoned by this constant barrage of radio coverage (until I turn the channel, of course). We, the American people, don't need to be spoon-fed a blow-by-blow account of this one event, in a variously disguised version every hour! I missed my Sunday NPR programming very much, and there are plenty of other things to report on in the world besides this! Please get on with the show!!

There were quite a few e-mails like these. Not surprising, since public radio listening, especially on the weekend, is supposed to be more relaxed.

In recent years, NPR has been quite deliberate about providing the public radio stations and the listeners with the expectation that they can count on NPR to be there when a big story breaks. Even on weekends.

This means when a big story happens, as it did this weekend, NPR does more than just provide an hourly update on a newscast. It means bringing in extra reporters, producers and editors to make sure that a major story gets covered by going "live" and staying on the air until the story seems fully reported.

"Re-Capping the Story..."

Live coverage of breaking news can take hours. A news event may have moments of genuine drama, but those may be followed by more moments, or even hours when not much happens. That's when the program starts to fill by summarizing (again) what has happened up to that point. What the listeners don't hear is the gnashing of teeth in the control room, the plaintive appeals to politicians and academics to delay their breakfast and come on the program and the churn of stomach acid in executive offices as they listen to the hosts try to row with only one oar (metaphorically of course).

It would be easy at that point for the producer to say, "OK, we've said everything there is to say. Let's bail out!"

But pulling the network of stations together, especially on a Sunday, can be Herculean, and a producer may be hesitant to end the broadcast too soon in case another news event might occur.

Feeling NPR's Pain

As I listened to the special broadcast here in Washington, D.C. on public radio station WETA, I felt NPR's pain. I have an appreciation of what goes into a broadcast like that.

So, I was surprised at the number of angry e-mails from listeners who wanted their local station to stop the broadcast and get back to regular programming.

Normally, whenever NPR breaks into a station's regular programming (with the permission of the station), NPR may offer a news special. A station may agree to air it or not. That is their prerogative. I receive a lot of e-mails both pro and con.

Because of radio's intimate relationship with its listeners, a change in the broadcast schedule is something done sparingly. With most news specials, my e-mail runs about 60/40 from those who dislike the change to those who appreciate the special.

Feeling the Listeners' Pain

This time, the responses were uniformly hostile from listeners who described themselves as either liberal or conservative. The liberals were convinced NPR was reporting Saddam Hussein's capture in a pro-administration light; conservatives said they were appalled that NPR reported that many problems remain in Iraq after Saddam's capture. Many who wrote said they preferred, in any case, not to be disturbed by the news on a Sunday beyond the headlines on the hourly newscasts.

As the listeners' ombudsman, it pains me to say so, but I think these particular listeners are mistaken. NPR did an extraordinary job in providing a remarkable news special in a short period of time. Most of the listeners were, I believe, well served on a day of major developments on NPR.

Vivaldi concerti have their place, but not last Sunday morning.

I'm Not a Judge But I Play One on NPR

Nina Totenberg's three-part series on the 50th anniversary of the legal decision of Brown v. Board of Education aired on All Things Considered earlier this month.

It was an excellent and compelling series, but listener Nancy Geimer objected to the voices of actors who read the words of some of the legal players:

I'm writing because my husband and I are disappointed that you have resorted to having voice talent re-enact the history of Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath. I understand that you don't have actual audio footage from those long-ago hearings, but it would have been more characteristic of NPR to maintain your journalistic integrity by having someone read the transcripts, identifying the speakers (like I've heard Nina and others do in the past...). The actors make your story too much like what commercial news media has stooped to, and it's something that I first insisted to my husband that you would never do!

Just to test it, we went to your Web site to listen, together, to the story and, sure enough, he was right. Now we're both let down. Please don't do this again. We need one source of news we can totally trust.

Barbara Campbell was the NPR editor on the series. She thinks listeners, for the most part, understand the difference between real and re-enacted voices:

We did say clearly that the voices were those of actors reading the justices' notes from their private conferences, so there would be no deception or confusion. I'm sorry if the listener missed the notice, I know that can happen, but that's the nature of spoken communication.

That being said, I also find the use of actors a bit jarring, but this series comprised three 12-minute pieces. It would have been unworkable to do it otherwise. Four minutes or so of Nina with no other voice is fine, but three-times-12 minutes of even her terrific presentation would be too daunting for the listener.

I didn't find the actors' voices jarring at all. It was (in my opinion) a terrific production element. It added to the drama of the telling without sacrificing either credibility or clarity.

New Ways of Reporting for Radio?

This is likely the subject of a future column, but I think NPR should feel free to experiment with other forms of radio reporting. The decades-old form of radio reporting now heard on NPR (intro-script-interview-script-interview-conclusion-next story...) may be in need of reinvention or at least of some reinvigoration. Some broadcasters are experimenting with new forms of storytelling -- even in news. Why not on NPR?

Nina Totenberg's series was a welcome and valid change in the traditional NPR sound.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by e-mail at

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman