Isn’t It Called National PUBLIC Radio?

I’ve always had a soft spot for National Public Radio, even though I admit I rarely listen to it these days.  But long before cable and satellite options proliferated NPR, much like its television counterpart PBS, provided a welcome alternative voice and a listening environment that I often equated to a zen garden.  My small upstate New York college had an on-campus affiliate that was the holy grail for broadcasting students to work at–while we had student-run radio at the time that I was deeply involved in, it was carried over “campus current”–effectively being broadcasting through the wiring in the walls–which meant almost every broadcast would be accompanied with an ominous hum and crackle any time there was a hint of wetness on the wires, which given the walls’ cheap construction and the climate was often. At my school,  NPR was an actual over-the-air FM outlet, so anyone who was able to get an on-air shift there was able to be clearly heard anywhere both on campus and off.  My cousin hosted an overnight progressive music show, and I had friends who were reading news for him.  I fondly remember waking up before dawn on snowy winter mornings to see the end of his shift and was amazed by how real professionals with far better equipment operated.  The station would then transition into the national feed of Bob Edwards’ Morning Edition, and we’d all have breakfast listening to his Washington roundup.  And yes, it was political, but anything but biased.  In ensuing years, I was a regular listener, especially on the days when Edwards would have veteran baseball announcer Red Barber call in from his Florida home and would chat at length about old time baseball and new time gardening, among other issues.

Which I why I stopped and took notice when DEADLINE’s Ted Johnson dropped this story yesterday that put the network in a seldom-cast spotlight (at least these days):

The NPR editor who penned an essay criticizing the network for what he saw as bias in its coverage of Donald Trump and a host of other issues has resigned.

Uri Berliner, who had been a senior business editor and reporter, posting his resignation letter to NPR CEO Katherine Maher on his X/Twitter account.

“I am resigning from NPR, a great American institution where I have worked for 25 years. I don’t support calls to defund NPR. I respect the integrity of my colleagues and wish for NPR to thrive and do important journalism. But I cannot work in a newsroom where I am disparaged by a new CEO whose divisive views confirm the very problems at NPR I cite in my Free Press essay.”

Per Johnson, Maher was especially rankled at the fact that he publicly dissed his management’s way of running things:

Maher criticized the essay in a note to staffers, writing, “Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

And for that alone, Berliner deserved to be reprimanded.  One doesn’t necessarily have the right to publicly question the way things are being run while you’re getting a paycheck without taking the risk of biting the hand that feeds you.

But that doesn’t mean that those that don’t get a paycheck can’t and in his essay, Berliner makes frequent references to audience research that cites that more of them have apparently had problems with that attitude, and you all know how favorably I tend to view someone that takes advantage of research to make a point.

So I read every word in Berliner’s essay.  And here are the ones that stood out most, with the last cited paragraph the one I found most compellinh:

Back in 2011, our audience leaned a bit to the left but roughly reflected America politically; now, the audience is cramped into a smaller, progressive silo. 

Despite all the resources we’d devoted to building up our news audience among blacks and Hispanics, the numbers have barely budged. In 2023, according to our demographic research, 6 percent of our news audience was black, far short of the overall U.S. adult population, which is 14.4 percent black. And Hispanics were only 7 percent, compared to the overall Hispanic adult population, around 19 percent. 

Last year, NPR laid off or bought out 10 percent of its staff and canceled four podcasts following a slump in advertising revenue. Our radio audience is dwindling and our podcast downloads are down from 2020. 

Even within our diminished audience, there’s evidence of trouble at the most basic level: trust. 

In February, our audience insights team sent an email proudly announcing that we had a higher trustworthy score than CNN or The New York Times. But the research from Harris Poll is hardly reassuring. It found that “3-in-10 audience members familiar with NPR said they associate NPR with the characteristic ‘trustworthy.’ ” Only in a world where media credibility has completely imploded would a 3-in-10 trustworthy score be something to boast about.

The balance of Berliner’s essay does lay a lot of his disillusionment at the feet of Maher’s predescessor, John Lansing.  Lansing was CEO of the network from 2019-2023 after a storied career when he ran many of the Scripps businesses prior to their acquistion by Discovery, including highly successful networks like HGTV and Food.  More recently, he had been the head of the government agency that ran Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.  I knew Lansing from those worlds and knew he was buttoned up, especially in contrast to his predescessor Jarl Mohn, who I knew way better, especially by his onetime stage name Lee Masters.  Masters was a top executive for E! and MTV Networks and was once an on-air radio personality at the same WNBC radio station that had Howard Stern as its afternoon drive personality.  The words seismic shift would certainly apply to the attitude pivot NPR took on with his hire.   It wouldn’t have been unexpected given Lansing’s background to have seen NPR skew a bit more conservatively.

Instead, as Berliner attests, in times where overcorrectiveness has become the order of the day, the team that was entrusted became increasingly influencial:

Concerned by the lack of viewpoint diversity, I looked at voter registration for our newsroom. In D.C., where NPR is headquartered and many of us live, I found 87 registered Democrats working in editorial positions and zero Republicans. None. 

So on May 3, 2021, I presented the findings at an all-hands editorial staff meeting. When I suggested we had a diversity problem with a score of 87 Democrats and zero Republicans, the response wasn’t hostile. It was worse. It was met with profound indifference. I got a few messages from surprised, curious colleagues. But the messages were of the “oh wow, that’s weird” variety, as if the lopsided tally was a random anomaly rather than a critical failure of our diversity North Star. In a follow-up email exchange, a top NPR news executive told me that she had been “skewered” for bringing up diversity of thought when she arrived at NPR. So, she said, “I want to be careful how we discuss this publicly.”

John Lansing, the chief executive officer and director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, will become NPR’s CEO in mid-October.

(O)ut of frustration, on November 6, 2022, I wrote to the captain of ship North Star—CEO John Lansing—about the lack of viewpoint diversity and asked if we could have a conversation about it. I got no response, so I followed up four days later. He said he would appreciate hearing my perspective and copied his assistant to set up a meeting. On December 15, the morning of the meeting, Lansing’s assistant wrote back to cancel our conversation because he was under the weather. She said he was looking forward to chatting and a new meeting invitation would be sent. But it never came.

I won’t speculate about why our meeting never happened. Being CEO of NPR is a demanding job with lots of constituents and headaches to deal with. But what’s indisputable is that no one in a C-suite or upper management position has chosen to deal with the lack of viewpoint diversity at NPR and how that affects our journalism. 

Lansing soon after was replaced by Maher, who unlike both Lansing and Mohn has no media experience per se, having come from the tech world.  Not a surprise that she would lean even more heavily on her team.  The one with the kind of “representative” balance that Berliner discovered.

Berliner’s resignation came in the wake of an earlier suspension, which Johnson also reported on:

Berliner shared his suspension notice with Folkenflik, who wrote that it was for failure to seek approval for outside work, as well as for releasing proprietary information about audience demographics.

More than fair criticism.  What Berliner should have done, being the enterprising journalist he is, is to get someone else to write about all of this.  Particularly since there’s not an indisputable fact among any of the ones he cited.

There is simply no valid excuse in a media landscape where fractionalization and erosion is omnipresent for any entity whose existence depends upon popularity to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the fact that an awful lot of us feel radically different about things than we do.  We don’t have to agree with the more radical examples of those viewpoints.  But we absolutely can’t deny their right to be heard.

Which also means, for anyone who think I’m moving to the red camp, the hue and cry from the right-wing outlets who have now enthusiastically seized upon this as a clarion’s call to defund NPR are equally wrong.   You don’t get the right to dictate what the public wants to hear any more than any of Maher’s team does. I highly doubt that if Pravda were offered as an option in that Harris Poll it would have scored all that well, either.

I certainly hope Berliner can find an outlet other than, say, Newsmax for his insights to be shared.  We’re going to be hearing a lot of sob stories from mainstream and legacy media companies in the next few days as earnings reports from 1Q24 are emerging.  Far too many people are now unemployed as a result of agendas, overcorrection and political leanings, both good and bad.  Far too many rash decisions on both sides have been made of late that only exacerbate the problem further.  We collectively need more people with his experience, his balance and yes, his appreciation and ability to process real research out there to at least make those in charge aware of the facts in light of their opinions.  And the real impact that they have on others’ lives and livelihoods.

The only time I’ve listened to NPR lately is a brief check-in with its Los Angeles outlet, now referred to cryptically as LAist, which recently announced a partnership with THE ANKLER, who provides them with a weekly show on the media industry hosted by two of its snarkier podcast contributors, Elaine Low and Richard Rushfield.  Of all the topics they’ve covered, they chose to expound on their “exclusive” look at the prohibitive cost and ultracompetiveness of private schools in Los Angeles, and how it’s particularly impacted “struggling” Hollywood elites.  Let’s just say I switched off VERY quickly.

Considering Berliner lives across the country, he may not have been aware of that little NPR venture.  Well, I’m hoping he sees this.  And feel free to add it to your list of concerns about your now-former employers.  And hurry, because the next round of layoffs may not be far off.

Until next time…

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