If you've ever heard someone say "I heard it on NPR" - there's a pretty good chance they're wrong. What NPR actually is, what it isn't, and how it all got so complicated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, BuzzFeed had a listicle titled, “29 Things Only People Who Work In Public Radio Will Understand.” Number 15 is, “You ask for a pronouncer for even the most simple names, just to make sure.” Number 27 is, “You’ve accepted the fact that your hard work helps some people fall asleep.” And number 18 is, “You’re sick of explaining to people the difference between NPR and local public radio.” But we’ve decided to take a stab at that one, if only because OTM Producer Chris Neary actually wants to explain.
CHRIS NEARY: I’ve had a full-time job in public radio for a few years now, but it took a long time to get. So sometimes when I see someone I haven't for a while, they’ll say something like, “It’s great you got that job at NPR.” Or, knowing what I’ll do, they’ll say, “I heard this great story on NPR today” and then they’ll recount something that was on Marketplace or This American Life. I smile and nod, usually. But here’s the thing: I don’t work at NPR. Nothing you hear on Marketplace or This American Life is “on NPR.” Here’s Seth Lind. He’s the Director of Operations at This American Life.
SETH LIND: NPR is kind of like the Kleenex of public radio brands, like it’s “NPR” and “public radio” are just used interchangeably by people.
CHRIS NEARY: NPR is not a radio station. It’s a building in Washington DC, with bureaus in other places, with administrators and coordinators, technical development and PR staff, and the people who create Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other shows. National Public Radio was born in 1970, but local public radio stations were broadcasting decades before that.
SETH LIND: And every station has its own organization and they take content from multiple distributors, NPR, APM, which is American Public Media, PRI, PRX and, you know, anyone – anyone else who’s just independently distributing a show.
CHRIS NEARY: On the Media is produced in New York City at the country’s biggest public radio station, WNYC. That’s who pays our salaries here at OTM. We work mostly out of a building in Lower Manhattan, far from Washington, DC. Anyway, I’ve talked to friends who, it's pretty clear, believe that WNYC is, in some way, owned or controlled or - something by NPR. Here’s WNYC Vice President for Content Production and Development, Chris Bannon.
CHRIS BANNON: NPR doesn't own any stations. In fact, the stations, you could argue, own NPR. NPR is a membership organization. The stations are the members. There is someone called an A-REP at every station. That person votes on major issues that are brought forward to the membership by NPR and NPR's board.
CHRIS NEARY: So stations are voters but they’re also, weirdly, customers of NPR.
CHRIS BANNON: Every year they come back to each station and say, would you like our fantastic newsmagazine show, and we’re going to charge you this price, based on your average listenership. So it’s supposed to be a fair system that is based on the amount of listening that’s done, relative to the size of each market, so that a station in Alaska isn’t paying the same fee as a station in New York City, which would break the station in Alaska and it would be probably unfairly low for the station in New York City.
CHRIS NEARY: It wasn't always this complicated. I talked to Brooke, who covered public radio way before becoming a host.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in 1983, NPR was trying to increase its independence from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public broadcasting's federal funding arm. It was getting about 50% of its money from CPB, at that point and wanted to reduce it way down and tried a whole bunch of ventures, all of which failed miserably, resulting in a shortfall of somewhere between 7 and 9 million dollars.
CHRIS NEARY: As a result of NPR’s budget crisis, Congress redirected the vast majority of the money they had been giving to NPR to local stations, instead. That way, stations could choose to pay for as much NPR programming as they wanted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It made presumably less powerful and empowered the stations more. Maybe this was an opportunity leapt upon to make NPR less important but honestly, I think this push to send the money around the country was not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. People were just really frustrated.
CHRIS NEARY: As lawmakers’ frustration forced a shift in power from NPR in Washington back to the local stations, those stations increasingly began to flex it. The first public radio distributor to really compete with NPR was launched by Minnesota Public Radio, after NPR declined to distribute its local old—timey radio show.
GARRISON KEILLOR: It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.
CHRIS NEARY: After the success with Prairie Home Companion, other distributors, including big local stations, begin to market their own national shows. So when you hear –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR - what that means is that WNYC owns and produces the show. It licenses it to NPR, which distributes it to the public radio stations, collects fees from those stations, takes a cut and then gives the rest back to WNYC, to pay to produce the show. Simple, right?
CHRIS NEARY: But the thing that makes this all so confusing is that it's not just that there's all these myriad public radio-making, acronym-having institutions, it’s that sometimes they make it, sometimes they distribute it, sometimes they join forces with other acronyms and split those responsibilities.
TOM ASHBROOK: From WBUR Boston and NPR, I’m Tom Ashbrook and this is On Point.
WOMAN: Welcome to The Takeaway, from WNYC and PRI, Public Radio International.
CATHERINE BURNS: PRX. This is the Moth Radio Hour. I’m Catherine Burns…
MAN: And WGBH Boston Public Radio.
TRENT GILLISS: On Being is distributed by American Public Media.
ERIC NUZUM: It’s just blah, blah-blah, blah-blah to listeners.
CHRIS NEARY: Eric Nuzum is NPR’s Vice-President of Programming.
ERIC NUZUM: They don't really understand the distinctions, which I think is offered in its attempt to be transparent and clear, which is good, but I think the net effect is it just creates more confusion as to what all these – this alphabet soup really is.
CHRIS NEARY: So does it matter if you know which cafeteria is serving up your public radio meals? Sort of, yeah. The best reasons for public radio to be clear about who is making what are, 1) knowing who to yell at when you hear something you hate, and 2) knowing who to praise when you hear something you like. That said, I almost never correct my friends, even though I work at a show that regularly hammers other media for lack of transparency. It’s hard to explain, without sounding like you’re lecturing. Here’s Sean Cole. He’s a producer at This American Life, and a contributor to 99% Invisible, which is part of the podcasting network, Radiotopia.
SEAN COLE: I remember going through security at the airport at one point, and I’m putting like my bags through the, you know, x-ray machine, whatever, on the, the conveyer belt. And the guy on the other side is like, “Microphone in there?” And I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Are you a singer?” And I was like, “No, I’m a reporter.” And – and he goes, “For NPR?” And I go – “Basically, yeah.” And he high-fived me. So, if I had like gotten into some conversation and corrected him, I wouldn’t have gotten a high-five. Sometimes it’s important to just go with the flow.
CHRIS NEARY: For WNYC's On the Media, I’m Chris Neary.