If it ain't what it used to be, maybe it's better. Listeners are up. So is the influence of underwriters, a.k.a. advertisers.
By Nicols Fox
Nicols Fox writes about media and culture from Bass Harbor, Maine.
An hour before airtime at "All Things Considered," National Public Radio's flagship news program, the atmosphere in the newsroom is quietly chaotic. A chocolate Lab meanders through. And someone with a baby. Correspondent Nina Totenberg passes by, elegant, detached, a world apart. Producer Michael "Willey" Sullivan is shoeless. He makes an adjustment to a tape and flings it onto a pile of other reels on the floor. It hits with a clatter.
On a shiny white board at the back of the room Sullivan updates the lineup for the evening's show using a marker, adding, erasing or moving pieces to fit. There are problems. A huge chunk of time needs filling. Something else won't fit where it's supposed to go.
"You could button it and stick Winnie [Mandela] down there," someone suggests.
"Not my favorite."
The shift is made anyway.
"Jean, roadmap change," Sullivan calls out. Administrative coordinator Jean Durr materializes to draw up yet another diagram of the board to photocopy and send around.
Today some of the first reporters to reach the Kurdish refugees are filing stories. John Hockenberry is calling from the Iranian border, angry that his report won't air; the producers decided to go with a stringer in the midst of a battle in a different area. Tempers flare. There are curses. Sullivan doesn't like killing a report by one of NPR's own correspondents. But, he says regretfully, "I'm not going to tear up the show to accommodate John at this point." Someone from Morning Edition gets on the line with Hockenberry to tape a piece for the next day.
Another roadmap change. Durr is called back. "Oh man, like it's totally changed," she grumbles.
Host Noah Adams works at his computer screen unperturbed. The chaos sweeps over him. "I salute you," he calls out to no one in particular. "How do you say that in Latin?"
Director Marika Partridge seems oblivious to the chaos. Transfixed beneath a headset, she samples one CD after another, picking out bits of music – the "buttons" that link pieces on ATC and the "zippers" that allow local stations to interrupt – the highly idiosyncratic, director "signatures" regular listeners recognize. Partridge watches the board as she listens, noting the changes, switching her choices.
"Was that town in Turkey?" someone calls out.
There is still a space. Sullivan will fill in with an essay by poet Andre Codrescu, a Romanian exile and regular ATC commentator whose quirky perspective is popular with listeners. Sullivan searches for the tape among the reels on the floor.
William Buzenberg, vice president for news and information, wanders in and glances at the board. "Does it sing?" he asks Sullivan.
"I'll take hums."
"All Things Considered" turned 20 last May. NPR itself is just a bit older. It began as an underfunded group of visionaries out to transform radio news using government money and a handful of educational stations. Buffeted by politics, financial crises and management bungles, it has nevertheless survived to become one of the country's basic information sources. NPR now has 431 member stations, and its "cumes" – radio listeners are measured in weekly cumulative totals of listeners who tune in at least once a week – have grown from 3.1 million in 1976 to 12.1 million listeners today. Which puts it within striking distance of the 14 million estimated CBS audience for the twice-daily 15-minute "World News Roundup" programs. NPR has clearly moved from being a supplement to being The News for many Americans.
Public radio owes a lot to the firm of Cheney, Schwarzkopf & Powell. The Gulf War – like Watergate, Iran-Contra and Tiananmen Square – brought the news-hungry to a halt at the NPR signal. According to Arbitron, the war fattened its audience by 14 percent, inspiring NPR marketers to put out a T-shirt boasting "Air Superiority." If the history of those earlier crises repeats, some of that add-on will stay tuned.
Yet as NPR basks in some satisfying successes, many longtime listeners wonder if the network's relentless search for corporate and foundation underwriting – which often comes with strings attached – has impaired its objectivity and made it as ratings-conscious as the commercial networks. Others see a gradual erosion of the skepticism that once made NPR's approach almost unique in radio news. They detect an increasingly establishment tone and a heavy reliance on administration sources.
It is five o'clock, and you are driving through Nebraska, over the empty hills and past the scattered farms. You switch on the radio, wandering around the lower end of the FM dial. Then you catch it, the signature ATC theme. You hear the wail of a baby dying of cholera in Bangladesh, Nina Totenberg analyzing a Supreme Court decision on abortion, Noah Adams talking with striking miners and Cokie Roberts predicting trouble for handgun legislation.
NPR unites listeners from San Mateo to Bangor, from Duluth to Charleston. Except for "Monitor" and the Mutual Broadcasting System, which feeds an hour-long program in the early morning, NPR delivers the only daily broadcasts that attempt to give news junkies more than a quick fix.
As commercial radio news has declined in the wake of deregulation, NPR has been happy to take up the slack. Most of the member stations run several hours of news. In addition to "All Things Considered," NPR produces "Morning Edition" and "Weekend Edition" – in all, 305 minutes of news programming a day, plus seven more hours of updates and rollovers, or repeats.
Public radio listeners consistently list the news programs as one of their top reasons for tuning in – and forking over urgently solicited "membership" fees. Richard Eiswerth, director of station services for NPR, says, "Without doubt the news programs have the greatest carriage," or ability to attract listeners, of any NPR programs.
Bob Gottlieb, artist, writer and sometime gardener, is the quintessential NPR consumer. When he came to Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1973 and settled into a small apartment, he began listening to NPR, then running the Watergate hearings gavel to gavel. In the evenings it was "All Things Considered" for analysis of what he had heard during the day. "Public radio has been my companion," he says.
Longtime listeners think of NPR as a kind of family. When Gottlieb left Maine for a while to live in Chicago, Kentucky and Florida, "NPR was one of the things that provided continuity," he recalls. "There was something I could count on wherever I was."
According to studies by the Simmons Market Research Bureau, 40 percent of NPR listeners are college graduates, compared to 19 percent of the general population. More than one in six has a graduate degree. They are more likely to be male than female; most fall in the 35-to-54 age bracket. They are also relatively well off, with 35 percent making at least $50,000 a year. Thirty percent of NPR listeners consider themselves conservative and 30 percent liberal, compared to 40 percent and 20 percent among the general population.
Journalists are heavy listeners to NPR. A study by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press reported in 1989 that 88 percent of journalists surveyed felt NPR was a positive influence on journalism – as compared to 60 percent who felt that way about Dan Rather. In this year's "Best in the Business" poll, WJR readers voted Charles Osgood of CBS best radio reporter but second, third and fourth places all went to NPR (Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer).
Public radio grew out of the "educational" radio stations, mainly at colleges and universities, that were born in the '20s. In 1967 Congress authorized the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to develop and fund, with government money, programming "responsive to the interests of the people." Or, as Buzenberg puts it, "Instead of delivering a mass audience of consumers to advertisers, our purpose was – and still is – to speak to citizens of a democracy, providing information that a free and educated society cannot live without."
Buzenberg is known for his high-flown pronouncements and his fervor. "Bill thinks we're on a mission from God," says one observer. "Other people think we're just reporting the news."
NPR, incorporated in 1970 and funded by CPB, gathered 90 educational stations into a fledgling network. In 1977 it merged with the Association of Public Radio Stations and began providing stations with program promotion, training and management.
Today NPR is responsible for far more than news. Along with ATC, "Morning Edition" and "Weekend Edition," it produces and distributes 25 other programs ranging from classical music to bluegrass, from drama to automobile repair.
But in 1983 NPR was reportedly near bankruptcy. The crisis during Frank Mankiewicz's tenure as president has been blamed by subsequent administrators on faulty planning, inept management and a then-new computer accounting system that was not closely monitored.
Mankiewicz says he can't remember any computer problems. It was mostly politics, he says. "I should have been nicer to the people at CPB." The network's huge projected shortfall could have been solved by a loan from CPB, he says, but the organization "wouldn't do it as long as I was there. They didn't like my independence."
For whatever reason, the network was left projecting a $9 million deficit. After Mankiewicz left, CPB did, in fact, extend an $8.5 million line of credit, of which NPR needed only $7 million. While member stations lent a hand by upping contributions, some of the shortfall was avoided by brutal cutbacks. "It was a very, very painful time. There was blood running down the halls," says Jane Couch, vice president for development. By 1989 NPR was back in the black, finishing the fiscal year with a surplus of $7.8 million.
But there were ongoing administrative problems. Adam Clayton Powell III, hired as news director in 1987, stayed less than three years. Complaints about editors on his watch – one reportedly skipped a staff meeting to watch a soap opera – reportedly were ignored and morale suffered. Two editors were let go before Buzenberg was called home from London to take over as managing editor; he fired at least one more.
"The national desk and Washington desk weren't working," he says. "They are critical to our operation."
A tall, dapper, earnest man with an agreeable manner, Buzenberg has been with NPR since 1977 as a reporter, foreign correspondent and bureau chief in London.
"We did have some problems," he admits. Over the years some very good people have left for various reasons, usually more money. Jay Kernis, Barbara Cohen and Robert Krulwich are all now at CBS.
"This place operates much better on consensus...on a collegial basis," Buzenberg says. But there are still defections. After Buzenberg took over, reporter Jim Angle defected to host "Marketplace" on rival American Public Radio.
One of NPR's troubles may be the number of people who've been there a long time. Susan Stamberg, Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer, Noah Adams, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts are household names to millions of listeners. They form a logjam at NPR's summit but wouldn't think of going anyplace else – at least not seriously. Adams left for a try at hosting a Minnesota Public Radio show but after a year made a dash for home.
Former ATC host Susan Stamberg, now doing features, says she has turned down several job offers. (A source at Mutual Broadcasting says one reason she declined a job there was the lack of support staff.) Stamberg recently finished a piece on Zelda Fichandler, founder of Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. She says she "dropped in and out on her for almost a year. I would never have been able to do that anyplace else."
Frank Fitzmaurice, formerly an executive producer for NPR and now producer of Monitor's cable TV channel, points to more attention to detail at NPR, which results in a difference in quality. "Commercial radio is crap – and that's the word you can print."
Two former NPR employees say that now, in commercial radio, they are expected to work harder with less backup and produce more in a shorter time. Jim Angle says the truth is that some NPR people are overworked – the correspondents with regular beats like Congress or the White House, for instance – and some are underworked, filing nothing for weeks at a time. "It's very uneven," he says.
The working atmosphere, the relatively small staff, the creative freedom, the sense of common purpose – the clubbiness that listeners sense – all begin on Washington's M Street. A sign over Stamberg's desk keeps it all in perspective: "It's just a radio program."
To some inside NPR it's a stagnant pool; to others it's a cauldron of intrigue. The triumvirate of Totenberg, Roberts and Wertheimer is said to wield considerable power, possibly because their backgrounds predispose them to rein-taking. Wertheimer, NPR's chief political reporter before becoming host of ATC, is married to Fred Wertheimer, the head of Common Cause. Totenberg's husband is former Colorado senator Lloyd Haskell. Roberts, daughter of the Louisiana politicians Hale and Lindy Boggs, has long been a part of Washington's power circuit and is married to Steven Roberts, the political and foreign policy editor at U.S. News and World Report .
According to The Washington Post , Totenberg saw that candidate Matthew Storin, now of the New York Daily News , was steered away from the news director position that he was competing for with Adam Clayton Powell III. And Wertheimer herself admits that she, Totenberg and Roberts tried to get Jim Angle to apply for the M.E. job when Powell didn't work out.
Still, these one-time nobodies of radio news now radiate their own incandescence. Totenberg and Roberts often dispense their wisdom on TV as well as on NPR. Chief political reporter Roberts appears on ABC's "World News Tonight" and "This Week with David Brinkley"; legal affairs correspondent Totenberg appears regularly on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
Support from the federal government through CPB no longer goes directly to NPR but to member stations. NPR, says Buzenberg, is now "market driven." That is, member stations have to like what NPR produces enough to come up with the stiff station membership fees – enough to pay for the programs NPR produces. What they like are programs that bring in big audiences, which, coincidentally, their underwriters also like.
Nearly a quarter of NPR's $33 million in revenues in 1990 came from foundation, corporate and association grants. Jane Couch was hired in 1982 to increase such funding, which in 1983 amounted to only $2.7 million. She reports record giving this year – more than $12.5 million – most of which will go into future budgets, with only $4.2 million earmarked for 1991 itself.
Despite the new record, NPR's 1991 foundation fund raising fell $1 million short of its goal. As a result, the four-member "Specials" unit was axed, as well as two administrative positions. Also cut was one "Weekend Edition" host position, leaving Emil Guillermo out of a job. In addition, says Buzenberg, there will be no second correspondent in Moscow and no more money for travel. NPR correspondents don't accompany President Bush on every trip now; they just cross their fingers and hope a crisis doesn't show up holes in their coverage.
The network has always run lean, staffers will tell you. But salaries, once notoriously low, have recently become more competitive – about $70,000 for hosts and $50,000 for correspondents. Still, it's a standing joke, says APR's Jim Angle, that NPR "has always relied on the kindness of large newspapers." That is, NPR's stringers sometimes have been spouses of well-paid Washington Post or New York Times correspondents posted overseas. With their travel and housing expenses taken care of by their spouses' papers, and with access to the wires, they could afford to do pieces for the $100 or so NPR would pay.
For 1992 Buzenberg asked the NPR board for a 25 percent increase in member station contributions. The board cut his request to 8 percent, which the member stations, basking in post-Gulf War euphoria, agreed to. The lesser increase means that plans to develop an investigative or "documentary" unit will have to be put on hold.
But cries of hardship don't play well with commercial radio executives like Ron Nessen, vice president of news for Westwood One, owner of NBC Radio and Mutual Broadcasting. "NPR has this image of being the poor relation going up against the big network greats. In fact, NPR's news budget is twice our budget. My feeling is they have an awful lot of money. I'm envious...very envious."
Indeed, NPR's national desk is up from three editors to six, and Buzenberg plans election coverage in 1992 from the major primary states. In addition to extending ATC, he wants to reinstate the afternoon national call-in program aired during the Gulf War. "Our role is to provide more news," Buzenberg says.
Whatever the budget, there is no fairy godmother, and NPR's money often comes with strings attached – especially with the restricted grants that fund specific areas of coverage.
Last year Richard Salant, a former CBS News president and NBC vice chairman, resigned from NPR's 17-member board when it failed to act on his proposal that NPR stop accepting grants earmarked for news coverage of particular issues and geographical regions. Of grant money NPR receives, "almost all of it is restricted in one way or another," says Jane Couch. Some givers designate their contributions simply for news and information, but others are specific: The Lilly Endowment, for example, contributes funds for the coverage of issues affecting children and youth; the United States-Japan Foundation provides grants for coverage of Japan and U.S.-Japan relations.
Salant said he had no concrete evidence that NPR's news agenda had been compromised by pressure from sponsors, but the potential made him nervous.
"My concern," he said, "is that when you accept funds for specified purposes in news, that permits the funder to participate in news judgments, which I think should be strictly made by the news organization."
"Salant was wrong," Buzenberg says. "We are far more principled about our funding than public television. Salant thought we were selling out. He never talked to me. I was offended by that."
In April Buzenberg went to Chicago to ask the MacArthur Foundation to fund educational coverage. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I only do this about six times a year." Others he's talked to include the Pew Charitable Trusts, the German Marshall Fund, the Dodge Foundation and the Ford Foundation. "It's part of my job."
But NPR Managing Editor John Dinges worries. "It's a problem," he says. "We're more independent than any news organization I can think of. I would prefer money with absolutely no strings attached. The essential reason I'm concerned about restrictive grants is because [while] it doesn't ever affect whether or not we give favorable or unfavorable coverage to something, [it does affect] whether we cover it at all." Dinges thinks some areas have been covered "more extensively than we would have if left to our own devices. Sometimes I think we're a little bit skewed in our overall mix of coverage."
"Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards says, "It could become 'News For Sale,' where you cover what's supportable by grants and ignore what isn't." He detects a creeping commercialism, especially in the funding credits of some of the member stations, which go on longer than what NPR allows itself and increasingly sound like standard commercials.
While the development and news departments are separate, reporters have been known to push for a funding search when they want to cover a specific topic. When Stamberg wanted to do a story on the Jewish community in Shanghai, for example, she sought aid from the development division, which obtained enough funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for Stamberg to do interviews and research within the United States.
NPR's financial state is "a fragile thing," says Buzenberg. Chrysler's five years of support for "Performance Today," for instance, runs out this year and no new sponsor has been found. Another NPR-distributed program, "Heat with John Hockenberry," has been canceled for lack of funding. It won a Peabody Award last May.
Any pretense that corporate underwriters are merely benevolent benefactors has been abandoned as NPR acts more and more like a commercial network and funders act more and more like advertisers: NPR's department of audience research is preparing three volumes of information to present to potential underwriters. One will contain the Simmons Market Research Bureau's study on listener demographics, including what products they buy.
NPR also faces competitive pressure from its nonprofit rival, American Public Radio. APR, which recently appointed its first vice president for news, can offer its hour-long "Monitor" morning and evening news programs to public stations at bargain prices because they're subsidized by the Christian Science Church. Now NPR has decided to extend "All Things Considered" next year to two hours beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern time, putting it head to head with "Monitor."
NPR's budget and listenership have grown, and underwriters are looking more like sponsors of commercial radio, but ask whether NPR has abandoned its original goals and you hear a mantra recited endlessly by all the old-timers. "It's not changed, it's just gotten better" – the party line.
Bill Siemering is the executive producer of "Soundprint," half-hour pieces on think-topics for American Public Radio, but 20 years ago he was launching "All Things Considered." He tires of articles like the one The Washington Post ran in 1989 saying that NPR is aging, gone establishment, not the "alternative" it once was. All he wanted was to get out of the studio and away from "that insufferable announcer sound." He wanted ATC to express the diversity of American culture through excellent writing, imaginative production and an informal style. Siemering is gone – "asked to leave," as he puts it – but with old-timers like Wertheimer a certain nostalgia persists for the Siemering style.
In baggy black slacks and red running shoes, Wertheimer sits in her cramped and cluttered office fingering an aging cookbook as if it were old lace. The book is one of those ubiquitous local productions put out by churches and women's groups, the ones that contain the real legacy of American cooking: the gelatin salads made out of tiny marshmallows and canned fruit, the chocolate cake made with tomato soup.
This one, from South Boston, Virginia, has a recipe for making ice cream with two cans. The smaller can contains the ingredients; the larger one the ice and salt. She wants to do a piece for ATC on two-can ice cream.
"Put the cream and the sugar and the flavoring in the smaller can and seal it tightly." Her enunciation is perfect as she reads to a visitor. Her pace is measured, her voice serious. There is not the slightest hint of amusement or condescension. It's not that "insufferable announcer sound" but one uniquely NPR's. Prep-schoolish, maybe.
"Then roll the two cans back and forth until the ice cream has set. Eat at once." It's the kind of piece ATC was famous for – the little slice of Americana, the kind that sometimes came perilously close to being too precious.
What people remember, the cozy telephone interviews known as "two-ways," resulted from having no money to do anything else, the old hands say. "The quality wasn't as good as people remember it," says Edwards. "We didn't have editors," he says. "We had no reporters of our own. Compared to that, we're [now] an empire. Those who are nostalgic haven't heard the tapes."
Sometimes it was a struggle to fill up the space. "We made a virtue of necessity," says Wertheimer, ATC's first director and the originator of the musical buttons and zippers – now an NPR trademark. She, for one, and ATC host Robert Siegel for another, don't miss the passing of those days. Pieces ran interminably, he says. Buzenberg remembers that they once did a half-hour piece on a visit to the dentist. There's no more, Wertheimer says, of "We'll be back in the next half hour with more of this interview."
Listener Bob Gottlieb, up in Maine, is still a fan, but he's spotted NPR's evolution. "They've lost some of their patience in telling a story," he says. "Recently they've been cutting people off, saying 'We have to go now.' I never noticed that before."
"There's much more pressure to go short," adds Siegel, since NPR became a primary source. Nevertheless, a certain languid quality remains. The pace of the spoken word on NPR is definitely slower than on commercial radio.
"It's sane, not hyped," says Wertheimer. "We don't talk down, we don't get freaked. Call it an island of calm discourse – of course, that sounds incredibly pompous when you say it."
Becoming the primary source of news for many people produced what Siegel calls "a certain mindfulness of our responsibility." The network has made that shift by hiring some no-nonsense news types.
Robert Ferrante, executive producer of the Morning News Service, came aboard two years ago after a stint at CBS. The "theories of the '60s died a long time ago," he says. "There was a time when NPR was an alternative to everything else, and that was wise. There was a mainstream news service." That's gone, he says, at least in radio. Now NPR has found its slot and addresses "the serious need for a news service that is really responsible to the rules of journalism – not to some cockamamie scheme to be different, or cool or camp."
When Managing Editor Dinges, a former editor on The Washington Post 's foreign desk, arrived in 1985, he didn't feel that NPR took itself seriously. He thinks the journalistic inferiority complex is gone now. It changed at Tiananmen Square. He thinks they should avoid sounding "gray" but agrees with Ferrante that "we don't want to be known just as a place where you hear offbeat features."
To any suggestion that NPR's character was or is "politically alternative," some hosts are quick to tell you that they are not now, nor have they ever been, liberal in their handling of the news. But ask Robert Krulwich if NPR was balanced when he was there from 1976 to 1984, and he answers with a resounding "No."
"I would sometimes mention it," he says. "I was covering business and economics, and I was well aware of the emphasis. But it was probably biased by demographics. It was [produced by] 25- to 30-year-olds. Now it's 35- to 40-year-olds."
When Jim Angle came in as editor of ATC, he says, correspondents never talked with conservatives – at least not on Capitol Hill. He says Barbara Cohen, then news director, told him, "There's a real problem in balance and fairness."
NPR felt pressured by conservative criticism, says Cohen, now Washington bureau chief for CBS News. "It was quite sharp in the early '80s...We made a point to add conservative commentators – we probably gave John McLaughlin his start."
Angle says it was Siegel who finally eliminated liberal bias. Siegel declines to take full credit. But he confesses that on returning from London in 1983 to become news director, he asked, "'Are we describing the country that elected Ronald Reagan?' In some ways we weren't. I felt we were perhaps reporting more of a sentimentalized version of the news."
Many shared the idea that NPR was liberal – certainly those in the conservative camp. "It was fun to call it Nicaraguan Public Radio," says Peter Arnold, press secretary to Congressman Bob Livingston of Louisiana, a Republican with a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
Conservative media critic Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media admits he hasn't monitored NPR for at least three years, but he still insists that "progressives," whom he describes as "defenders of communism," are overrepresented at NPR. Irvine has been a guest on NPR in recent years.
Media analyst Robert Lichter studied NPR during the 1988 election, "charting every sound bite." He found the coverage of Bush and Dukakis pretty balanced but with twice as many negative stories as positive about both candidates. Lichter describes NPR as the industry leader in beating up on the election system.
Nevertheless "NPR is pleased to consider itself a player in Washington now," says liberal media critic Norman Solomon, co-author with Martin Lee of Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media . When journalists become part of the establishment, "the watchdogs aren't watchdogs anymore. It's so insidious, this spirit of collegiality with power brokers and movers and shakers rather than with the people affected by their policies."
Solomon sees NPR's news as "more homogenized" – less geared to risk-taking. He describes interviews with book authors E.J. Dionne and Clark Clifford in which the writers were never challenged. He notes a tendency to go along with the administration on foreign policy issues, to select guests from a narrow list of establishment talking heads.
One observer says that because some NPR editors have never worked outside the organization and never been reporters, "they tend to construct their own reality" out of wire and BBC reports and handouts – a habit that irritates some veteran reporters who know the truth can be more complex.
The whole question of balance crystallized with the Gulf War. Buzenberg says NPR played it straight, striving for "a skeptical but balanced" editorial approach. Bob Edwards of "Morning Edition" says some listeners "expected us to take an anti-war stand and felt betrayed."
But Norman Solomon called Daniel Schorr's clear identification with the Allied forces during his two-hour call-in show "outrageous."
"He was clearly very enthusiastic. During one two-way he said, 'The news from the Persian Gulf is terrific, isn't it?'" Buzenberg says he and others on the staff were troubled by the "occasional" use of the personal pronoun, as in "our troops." "It was talked about, and I sent an internal memo around."
But there were also many calls and letters questioning NPR's patriotism. Says Siegel resignedly, "War is not the kind of event that makes people like their radio."
Meanwhile, as some listeners worry that NPR is sounding more and more like every other news source, funding uncertainties will continue to create more pressures to please underwriters (or advertisers) with ever-larger audiences (or markets) – the same pressures pushing network radio news programs off the air.
Korva Coleman will read the news tonight. She takes her place in the tiny news booth. Host Noah Adams is already in another booth going over his copy, pronouncing words to himself. Through the glass of the control room, he looks like a goldfish blowing soundless bubbles. Co-host Robert Siegel arrives and slips into his seat.
In the control room Marika Partridge readies her stack of CDs, buttons and zippers marked. She hands the first one to the engineer, who sets it up. Then she gives the opening reports to the backup engineer, who feeds the tapes into position, each to start precisely at the beginning.
The next 90 minutes, if everything goes properly, will be a small masterpiece of coordination. Partridge sits up high; she will signal to Coleman, Adams and Siegel like a conductor, directing them with hand movements, counting down each piece with a timer. Her signals come a fraction of a second before they are to speak to make the transition sharp. To the engineer she keeps up a steady monologue. "Hit the stinger." "Ready for both." "Open them up." "Take Roberts out." "Ready on one." "Ready, hit it." "Take him out."
When Siegel mispronounces a word, he says it again correctly. During a break he calls out "razor." Associate producer Jonathan "Smokey" Baer will take the tape and expertly cut out the flub before the next feed. Twice a piece of music runs a fraction too long. "Oops," says the engineer.
"This is caca," says someone in the control room. "This piece stinks. I think she brutalized the mix." The culprit is not identified.
In an hour and a half it is over. "Take out both hosts," says Partridge. Then, to her engineers, "Good job." Another program of "All Things Considered" has been produced live for the first feed. l