Will middle age dull down public radio?

NPR strives to keep its edge

WASHINGTON — Listless in the Las Vegas desert, Lamar Marchese thirsted for a classical radio station. Elvis just wasn’t cutting it. So Marchese and his wife started a public radio station in a lot behind Sam’s Town Casino, next to an R.V. park.

“People wandered in thinking we were a Laundromat,” Marchese says.

KNPR went on the air in 1980. Today, the station is housed in a $4.5 million home, with an ever-increasing audience.

Welcome to a prosperous middle-aged public radio.

In the era of vapid soundbites, programs such as National Public Radio’s hit show “Fresh Air” are provocative and in-depth, providing a glimpse of American life and culture minus the Gap ads and endless talkshows about fire and brimstone.

Think of it as sophisticated reality — a reality covering everything imaginable, from cars to news to moon cycles.

Public radio audience stats are climbing worldwide. Revenues are stable. Station relations are relatively peaceful. Expansion plans are in the works.

NPR — still very much the mothership network — just opened its 11th overseas bureau, in Rio de Janeiro. At a time when TV newsies are cutting back their foreign presence, NPR is stationed in Beijing, Berlin, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, Mexico City, Moscow, New Delhi, Rio, Rome and Tokyo.

Closer to home, NPR’s construction of a large production facility in the Los Angeles area is under way.

Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) — a recently formed venture of Minnesota Public Radio and operator of KPCC 89.3 — is likewise planning a sparkling home in downtown L.A., scheduled to bow June 4. (KPCC’s primary home will remain in Pasadena.)

Public radio isn’t as liberal as it used to be, but it’s still brain food and it’s still the same basic formula –public/cultural affairs, classical music and jazz. Or rather, the winning formula to counter commercial radio babble.

Hear this out: Shock jock Howard Stern vs. NPR’s “Morning Edition” with Bob Edwards. Fart jokes vs. Placido Domingo live from Lincoln Center. A quickie, top-of-the hour news update on the AM dial vs. NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

And so while the rest of the media runs for budgetary cover, noncommercial public radio is cutting the red ribbon.

Maybe it’s because NPR has become its own brand of Establishment, since the baby boomers who began the alternative radio venture in the 1970s are today’s Establishment.

Think of NPR as a TV network; it produces and distribs shows. Most public radio stations arrange their day around NPR’s key shows, such as “Morning Edition.”

But many don’t realize there’s another radio net/distributor, Public Radio Intl. (PRI), which produces with BBC World Service and Boston’s WGBH the news program “The World,” and distributes such hits as “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor and “This American Life” with Ira Glass.

Midlife crisis

Still, NPR is the bigger, older brand — and it is suffering a midlife crisis, with programming is at the center of the problem.

Some public radio veterans say there is a creeping reluctance on the part of NPR management to offend stations or listeners with anything too radical or controversial.

“There is a risk in any media arena that an entity is victimized by its own success,” observes PRI prexy-CEO Stephen Salyer. “Sometimes people say, ‘Gosh, it’s working, why would we want to change it?’ ”

Some suggest in fact that public radio is occasionally beholden to its corporate sponsors — the various GEs and ExxonMobils that fund some of the shows — and hence is unenthusiastic about tackling really touchy subjects.

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin recently wrote an exasperated column criticizing NPR’s news division for not doing enough investigative journalism.

Dvorkin also questioned why NPR’s “All Things Considered” turned down the opportunity to address the inflammatory issue of capital punishment by not airing a docu tape about an execution.

Eventually, the tape was aired by NPR member station WNYC in New York (and later others) and caused a lot of soul-searching — something NPR as a whole is supposed to foster in its listeners.

NPR prexy-CEO Kevin Klose agrees one of the most pressing challenges is developing innovative shows.

In May, NPR tapped CBS “60 Minutes” producer Jay Kernis to head all programming. One show in development is a midday newsie type — just the sort of show that would appeal to NPR’s audience: smart, savvy, urban and urbane –the signature public radio listener.

Many tune in

More than 16 million listeners tune in each week to NPR programming carried on about 630 stations, according to fall 2000 stats compiled by Arbitron Nationwide.

Overall, more than 24 million Americans tune in per week to the roughly 700 public radio stations.

“As an entity, public radio treats its audience with respect,” Minnesota Public Radio VP Craig Curtis says. “Sometimes we are a little too over-earnest.

“On the whole, it provides a terribly valuable place to go where you can be treated like an adult.”

The competish

The biggie commercial radio shows still beat out NPR in terms of weekly listeners. Paul Harvey boasts about 18 million listeners a week and Rush Limbaugh about 15 million, Curtis notes. Howard Stern, who gets about 8 million or 9 million listeners a week, roughly ties with NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

“Morning Edition” host Bob Edwards isn’t likely to catch up with Stern or other multimillion-dollar deejays anytime soon in terms of pay. Public radio execs say top NPR hosts like Edwards make in the six figures, but that’s it.

Public radio staffers, however, can take solace in knowing that Americans think public radio and public TV are one of the best returns for their tax dollars, right up there with the military, according to a recent poll.

“Public radio has been able to innovate like no other media has been able to do,” Corp. for Public Broadcasting prexy-CEO Robert Coonrod says.

Previous D.C. pressure

In 1995, former Washington pol Newt Gingrich led a fierce congressional assault on NPR, denouncing it as a liberal bastion wrongly drawing from the public trough. When Gingrich’s Capitol Hill career crashed and burned, the furor over public radio and TV dissipated.

Coonrod doesn’t fear the new Republican administration. “We have every reason to believe that things won’t change,” he says.

These days, NPR’s attention is largely focused on an aggressive agenda of growth that would make a Fortune 500 conglom weary:

  • Expansion includes the previously noted L.A. area production center, slated to open early next year. Klose says the Culver City site will boost NPR’s West Coast coverage. Now there are about eight editorial staffers in L.A., and another eight in the Bay Area. Number of California staff will more than double.

  • NPR recently launched a satellite division, NPR2, which will program two, 24-hour channels for Siruis Satellite Radio. Siruis, which has been plagued by several delays, is scheduled to broadcast 50 commercial-free music channels and as many as 50 entertainment, news and sport channels directly to cars. Drivers would pay a monthly subscription fee.

  • In early May, NPR Worldwide extended its overseas reach via a 24-hour digital stereo channel on the Eutelsat Hotbird Satellite. Channel can directly reach 25 million homes from western Europe to Russia. This, of course, is contingent upon homes upgrading their existing satellite dishes.

    Already, NPR transmits programming overseas via 140 stations, cable, other satellites and short-wave radio. Programs also are carried by the Armed Forces Network on military bases and can be heard on the Internet.

  • New programming expansion is planned for all NPR’s divisions — including newsmags, talk and information, entertainment, jazz and classical/opera.

Kernis, who took over in early May as head of programming, is something of an NPR crown prince, and Klose is betting on him to give the net more of an edge.

Actually Kernis began his career at NPR. He was a co-founder of “Morning Edition” and went to CBS television in 1987, where he worked first as a producer for the news division and then for “60 Minutes.”

Kernis is an avowed culture buff and wants to make sure the arts receive their fair share of airtime.

“Most Americans can’t name their lawmakers, but they can name the Seven Dwarfs,” he says. “More parents know what’s in ‘Harry Potter’ than what’s in the budget. ‘Harry Potter’ is very important to people’s lives. It deserves attention.” The challenge is to find the balance that must be struck.

Is it too complacent?

One of public radio’s more quirky celebs, Ira Glass, is among those wary of the public radio status quo, saying NPR has fallen into middle-age complacency.

When the public radio industry held its annual confab in Seattle in early May, Glass vented during an interview with a local publication, saying public radio spawns “a risk-averse culture.”

In general, public radio veteran and new SCPR topper Bill Davis agrees with Glass’ sour assessment of public radio’s program sked. In December, he ankled his post as senior VP of programming for NPR to take on the new gig in Los Angeles.

At SCPR, Davis says he plans to develop local programming for KPCC as well as programming that can be syndicated nationally.

“I think Ira’s comment is generally pretty spot on,” Davis says. “If you look at public radio mainstays, all those programs are long in the tooth.”

He’s right.

“All Things Considered” just celebrated its 30th birthday; “Fresh Air” is 25; “Morning Edition” recently turned 20; “Talk of the Nation” is 10.

“The first thing we need to do is expand our gene pool: The number of people in public radio who are white and educated at elite East Coast private institutions is totally out of whack to the population at large,” Davis says.

In the coming months, Kernis says he will conduct a top-to-bottom review of NPR’s lineup.

“Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” is one new show NPR has hit the mark with. The irreverent weekly quizshow is NPR’s fastest-growing show, with audience jumping 169% since launch in mid-1999. The show, co-produced by NPR and WBEZ in Chicago, is hosted by Peter Sagal.

Klose says equally as important as new programming is making sure there are enough resources to keep core programming strong.

“NPR is the national glue for hundreds of community and local-based stations,” Klose says.

Relations are good these days between NPR and its 337 member stations, buying programming directly from the net. There are another 350 or so stations that retransmit NPR programming.

Today, 10 of the 15 seats on NPR’s governing board are filled by station toppers, meaning it’s the stations that largely decide the net’s fate and pick top officers, such as Klose.

A journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Klose went on to head U.S. Intl. Broadcasting, which runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, among other overseas broadcast services.

Despite the challenges that Klose and his colleagues are facing, most observers agree that in the end, NPR largely will continue to set the tone for public radio — one that the majority of its aud will find appropriate.