News & Politics

Has Success Spoiled NPR?

Forty years after public broadcasting was born, National Public Radio has it all—fame, money, and a powerhouse news operation. But has it lost what made it special?

The gray-haired lady wears walking shoes with thick rubber soles. Her husband sports a fanny pack. Tourists from Houston, they’ve come to see the sights of the nation’s capital, including the home of Washington’s hottest news outfit.

Every Thursday morning, National Public Radio runs a public tour through its headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue near DC’s Verizon Center. The tour starts in the lobby, where photos of NPR personalities flash on a giant television screen. Each picture sparks exclamations as visitors match the faces with the voices they know so well—“That’s Michele Norris. She’s so pretty.” Occasionally someone pulls out a camera and takes photos of the photos.

Today the couple from Houston grow excited as they enter the second-floor space that houses the staff of Morning Edition, NPR’s popular newsmagazine. The man runs his hand along the nameplates outside offices. Leaning into cubicles, his wife strains to catch glimpses of staffers who sit with their backs to the hallway, eyes fixed on computer screens.

Out of nowhere Steve Inskeep, a Morning Edition host, glides up behind the group. The tour guide introduces him, and Mrs. Houston gasps. With a hearty “Good morning!” Inskeep slips by, steps inside his office, and closes the door.

“Oh, my,” the woman says. “That was Steve Inskeep.”

When reporter Nina Totenberg started there in 1975, NPR had all the fame and reach of an underground newspaper. “When you called sources, nobody had any idea who you were,” she recalls. Legendary political operative Frank Mankiewicz had heard not a single broadcast before he was recruited to head NPR in 1977. By 1983, the network stood on the verge of bankruptcy.

Those days are long gone. Since Lyndon Johnson made public broadcasting part of his Great Society, NPR has transformed itself from ragtag alternative radio into a mainstream news powerhouse with more bureaus worldwide than the Washington Post and 26 million listeners a week—twice as many as a decade ago. Morning Edition draws the second-biggest radio audience in the country next to The Rush Limbaugh Show.

Gone, too, are the days when every round of federal cuts promised financial ruin. Today, only 1 percent of NPR’s revenues come from Congress. Virtually alone in the media, it is a financially robust organization devoted to reporting on foreign affairs and public policy—success that’s drawn competitors like Washington Post Radio.

Over the years, as NPR grew in popularity, it came to dominate the public-radio airwaves and erase the homegrown, eclectic flavor of local stations. Hundreds of stations, like Washington’s WAMU, ditched the locally produced shows that gave them their identities and hitched their fortunes to the NPR brand. Public radio—once a smorgasbord of music and cultural programs—today carries a steady stream of news and talk shows, most of them nationally produced.

While NPR has more listeners and more money, it isn’t going blithely into middle age. For all its success, growth in public radio’s audience has flattened recently, rattling the industry. Years ago public radio adopted the commercial-radio strategy of building its audience to attract corporate sponsors and increase revenues. Now that its financial well-being is tied to the size and loyalty of its audience, any drop in listening is cause for concern.

Declining audience numbers coincide with the controversial departures of brand-name hosts Bob Edwards and Tavis Smiley and NPR’s top news executive, Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Marimow, who exited awkwardly last fall after only eight months on the job.

All of which makes for a sense of urgency as public broadcasting nears its 40th birthday. In an internal memo, a top editor wrote, “This is a critical moment for NPR News, for all of NPR really.”

“Did Walter Cronkite Start This Way?”

NPR owes its existence to legislative chicanery. In February 1967, LBJ’s White House rolled out the Public Television Act, proposing the first-ever federal funding of television stations. But in the draft of the bill sent to Capitol Hill, nearly every appearance of “television” was followed by “and radio.” Stranger still, the insertions were in a different typeface.

Working until dawn the night before the White House unveiled its bill, a couple of administration officials—one a former engineer for the University of Michigan’s radio station—had doctored it with scissors and tape. Acting on their own, the two hoped to throw a lifeline to the nation’s more than 300 educational radio stations, most on college campuses, whose funding was drying up as philanthropies swooned over the power of television.

Their plan worked. Radio remained in the bill, which was renamed the Public Broadcasting Act, and twin not-for-profit organizations were created. The Public Broadcasting Service, which would oversee public television, got the lion’s share of money. National Public Radio opened in 1970 in I Street offices with virtually no furniture.

Created to produce and distribute programming to those educational stations, NPR is a membership organization, its board of directors filled mostly with local station managers.

In its first days, NPR hewed to a ’60s-style idealism, according to Listener Supported, NPR veteran Jack Mitchell’s history of the network. Bill Siemering, the first program director, wrote in its founding mission statement that NPR would “celebrate the human experience.”

Siemering came from the State University of New York’s station in Buffalo, where he had opened a storefront studio to give voice to inner-city blacks. For the 1971 debut of NPR’s first program, the afternoon newsmagazine All Things Considered, reporters covered clashes between college kids and police in anti–Vietnam War protests.

“Today in the nation’s capital,” a correspondent told listeners, “it is a crime to be young and have long hair.”

Siemering hired veteran reporters—notably Linda Wertheimer, who had worked at the BBC and CBS Radio—but also welcomed outsiders. Jay Allison was a stage manager at Arena Stage when he walked through NPR’s doors in the mid-1970s. “There was a sense that they were inventing themselves and casting around for their own identity,” says Allison.

Working as a freelancer, Allison set out to capture voices seldom heard in the media: farmers, tattoo artists, artisans. NPR staffers, Allison says, “took very seriously the ‘public’ part of their name.”

Science correspondent Robert Krulwich came to NPR in 1976 from the Washington bureau of Rolling Stone magazine—a recruit of Judith Miller, who was an NPR contributor before going on to Pulitzer Prize fame, and later infamy, at the New York Times. At Rolling Stone, Krulwich had the Herculean task of extracting copy from Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist who, Krulwich says, had “basically retired to a full-time life of inebriation.”

At NPR, Krulwich turned coverage of economics into a three-ring circus that tricked listeners into following—and understanding—developments they might otherwise ignore. He wrote a three-part opera on interest rates with excerpts from a Paul Volcker speech. To explain competing theories about a drop in oil prices, he created two country-music singers from the Persian Gulf.

Krulwich’s unconventional reporting wasn’t the norm at NPR. Nor was it always appreciated. He was suspended after he affected a Polish accent during a live interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, then President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser.

“There was a lot of hit-and-miss back then, but there was a lot of surprise, too,” he says. “It had the quality of ‘Let’s put on a show.’ ”

Susan Stamberg, veteran of a weekly news show on American University’s WAMU, was among the early hires with on-air experience. When All Things Considered stumbled in its first year, Stamberg was given the reins, becoming the first woman to anchor a national news broadcast. Stamberg’s nasal voice and playful style defied the tradition of newscasters as father figures.

For a goofy story that’s legendary in public radio, she and correspondent Ira Flatow took microphones into a dark closet and chomped on wintergreen LifeSavers to confirm a listener’s claim that the candy threw sparks. “Do you think Walter Cronkite got started this way?” Stamberg asked Flatow.

When Frank Mankiewicz was named NPR president in 1977, he was a star. Part of a glamorous Hollywood family—his father, Herman, got an Oscar for the Citizen Kane screenplay; his uncle, Joseph, for directing All About Eve—Mankiewicz had spent a decade in the Washington spotlight as Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary, George McGovern’s campaign manager, and a local TV anchor. Fond of baroque music and wordplay with William Safire, he was everything NPR wasn’t—flamboyant, charismatic, and wired to power. Later, first with Gray & Company and then Hill & Knowlton, he would become one of DC’s most renowned PR men.

“I know everyone in Washington, and half of them owe me something,” he famously said.

Mankiewicz set out to make NPR as much of a player as he was. At the time, the network was operating on a shoestring budget. It didn’t even have a White House reporter. But the new boss promised that it would become the nation’s leading broadcast news organization—“alternative radio” only in the sense that it would do the same news as commercial broadcasters but better.

Mankiewicz opened NPR’s first foreign bureau, in London, and hired journalists—including Barbara Cohen, managing editor of the Washington Star and wife of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen—from the city’s establishment. Wertheimer recruited her Wellesley College classmate Cokie Roberts, wife of then–New York Times reporter Steve Roberts and daughter of legendary congressman Hale Boggs. The duo, along with Totenberg, lunched with Mankiewicz often and lobbied—often fiercely—for better coverage. In the newsroom, they sat near one another in an area called “the fallopian jungle.”

Mankiewicz: No Home for Garrison Keillor

Ever the showman, Mankiewicz pulled strings with friends to get media attention that would put NPR on the map. In 1979, when then–Senate majority leader Robert Byrd announced that the Panama Canal Treaty hearings would be broadcast on radio, Mankiewicz reached out to him.

Byrd, Mankiewicz says, didn’t even know what NPR was. But the network got an exclusive and aired 37 days of gavel-to-gavel coverage, the first live broadcasts from the Senate floor.

To seize the morning drive-time audience that was the mainstay of commercial radio, Mankiewicz launched a second newsmagazine, Morning Edition. The show debuted November 5, 1979—one day after Iranians seized the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The 444-day crisis stoked the growth of what would become one of the most successful shows in radio history. Morning Edition today pulls in 13 million listeners a week.

In his six years as president, Mankiewicz showed more passion for NPR’s news division than for its cultural arm. Siemering’s mission statement had promised that NPR would “preserve and transmit the cultural past.” But Mankiewicz believed the network would make its mark in news.

After Morning Edition’s debut, Minnesota Public Radio executives approached Mankiewicz about national distribution of its A Prairie Home Companion, a Grand Ole Opry–style show of music and storytelling. The show, hosted by then-unknown Garrison Keillor, was a hit on Minnesota radio’s network of Midwestern stations. But Mankiewicz declined. “I thought it was elitist,” he says. “I thought it would attract upper-class suburbanites who wanted to laugh at middle-class America.”

Miffed executives at Minnesota Public Radio banded with other stations to create their own distribution company, now called Public Radio International. Prairie Home became the first national public-radio hit from outside Washington, and Keillor became a cultural phenomenon.

Bill Siemering’s 1970 mission statement had declared that NPR would not be sullied by commercialism: NPR “will not regard its audience as a ‘market’ . . . but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning, and joy.”

Mankiewicz thought commercial radio could teach NPR a few things about building audience—and leveraging it to make enough money to allow the network to operate without government support.

New revenue streams became critical when the Reagan administration cut public-broadcasting funding and threatened to zero it out. In 1981, declaring that NPR would get “off the fix by ’86,” Mankiewicz launched ventures to raise half of its revenues from private sources.

Among his schemes: sell sponsorship of NPR to companies in exchange for on-air credits—what is today called underwriting. That represented an unprecedented commercial intrusion into NPR, but Mankiewicz had few qualms. “We’re prepared to enter almost any profession except the oldest one,” he said.

Within a few years, thanks in part to Mankiewicz’s generous spending in the newsroom and on new ventures, the network was $9 million in debt. Scott Simon, who was then a reporter, told listeners that the newsroom had run out of paper. Cokie Roberts was offered notepads as she made her rounds on Capitol Hill.

Bankruptcy papers were drawn up, but at the last minute the Corporation for Public Broadcasting saved the day with an emergency loan. Mankiewicz, blamed for the crisis even by NPR reporters, was forced to resign.

Despite Mankiewicz’s failures, his successors over the next 20 years followed through on much of what he put in motion.

Each of them aimed to build NPR’s identity around a top-flight news operation. Nina Totenberg splashed into prominence in 1991 when she broke the story of Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. NPR threw itself into covering both wars in the Persian Gulf, and with each conflict, the number of listeners spiked.

After the 9/11 attacks, NPR fed local stations coverage for 2½ days. “It was the first time in NPR history that we did round-the-clock coverage,” says programming chief Jay Kernis. “Since then we’ve come to realize that this is our job. This is the business we’re in.”

Today NPR produces nine news-and-talk shows for broadcast and only two music programs. In January it halted production of Performance Today, the country’s most popular classical-music program, and of SymphonyCast, another classical show. It handed off both to American Public Media, an offshoot of Minnesota Public Radio.

NPR’s retreat from cultural fare has drawn fire. A report this fall by the National Endowment for the Arts warned of the growing commercial influence on public radio, which it said has an “obligation beyond maximizing audiences.”

Ken Stern, CEO of NPR, says the network is not giving up its cultural mission but is doing more with partners. Its most recent acquisitions for national distribution are cultural shows, including World Cafe, a contemporary-music show produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s public-radio station.

NPR also is moving online with music-themed podcasts, Internet-only programs, and streaming live rock concerts. This summer it will launch a digital-music service that pools the offerings of public stations nationwide.

NPR still offers a lot of music and culture, Stern says, but its focus will remain news because that’s where it can deliver the best public service. “There’s a serious, almost desperate need in this country for in-depth, balanced journalism,” he says. “The economics of commercial media have driven that out. NPR has stepped into that environment and said, ‘If not us, who?’ ”

Mankiewicz never found a way to get “off the fix” completely, but NPR didn’t give up trying. Eventually, demographic shifts delivered an audience big enough that it could do just that. In the 1980s and ’90s, increasing numbers of college-educated baby boomers reached an age at which they cared about national and world affairs. With commercial broadcasters retreating from serious journalism, NPR found itself with a virtual monopoly on the news that smart, curious boomers wanted.

NPR’s growing audience translated into growing revenues. Programming fees paid by stations to NPR—which are based on the number of listeners to its shows—soared, doubling to $64 million a year in the past decade.

The network also used its educated, affluent audience to attract business support. Last year, corporations anted up $41 million—double the total from five years ago.

In 2003 Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc, died and left NPR $236 million—the largest gift any news organization or cultural group has ever received. The money has paid for some newsroom expansion, but most of it—$200 million—is stowed in an endowment. Last year, Kroc money accounted for only 4 percent of the NPR budget, CEO Stern says: “We still have to go out and raise $140 million a year.”

At 9:30 every weekday morning, NPR’s editors and producers gather in a conference room for the daily news meeting. Staff from the West Coast production facility, opened in 2002 at a cost of $13 million, weigh in via speakerphone.

On a November morning after the 2006 election, editors are kicking around stories to examine the fallout from the Democratic takeover of Congress. NPR delivers lots of news from Capitol Hill, the White House, the Supreme Court, and federal agencies.

But much of today’s conference reflects NPR’s new global reach. It boasts 18 foreign bureaus, nine of them opened since 2000 in hot spots like Kabul, Baghdad, and Dakar. Discussions about stories in the works hopscotch from elections in Congo and a water crisis in Kenya to tiger farms in China and youth culture in Japan.

On the domestic front, correspondents are filing stories on New York City’s plan to give cash incentives to poor kids who stay in school, Patti LaBelle’s first gospel CD, and the battle between marching bands at the Ohio State/Michigan football game.

Listeners don’t always grasp the breadth of NPR’s coverage when they catch its programs in snatches, often while driving. In the early days, staffers had to worry about filling only 90 minutes of All Things Considered. Today NPR produces more than 40 hours of news and talk each week.

Even during the Mankiewicz years, NPR chiefly followed the lead of other news organizations. “Everyone sat in the news meeting with the New York Times in their lap,” says Goucher College president Sandy Ungar, who hosted All Things Considered and other NPR programs for several years starting in 1980. “We talked about how to do the same stories the Times did but cheaply.”

These days, NPR often goes deep on stories that other media give the once-over. On election night, while the TV networks ran one-hour specials, NPR aired nine hours of coverage. After Hurricane Katrina, NPR opened a New Orleans office and aired reports that brought listeners to tears. “They’ve stuck with it longer than anybody else nationally except maybe the New York Times,” says Mary Blue, a communications professor at Tulane University.

Such commitment has attracted talent fleeing the shrinking world of commercial news. After Ted Koppel signed on as a contributor last year, the Wall Street Journal joked that so many ABC staffers have jumped that the TV network “has almost become a farm team for NPR.”

Emmy-winning ABC reporter Michele Norris joined NPR in 2002 to host All Things Considered. “It was like getting a call from the majors,” she says. “The Yankees were calling and saying, ‘How’d you like to pitch?’ ”

In ten years at ABC, Norris saw chances to do in-depth news shrink. “When I first went into television,” she says, “I was doing six-minute features. Then they were four-minute features, then two minutes. NPR was a place where you had a chance to get to the fourth question. It was a place where people didn’t leave the heart of their story in their notebook at the end of the day.”

Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman joined NPR last April after 19 years at the Baltimore Sun. “When I started at the Sun, we had eight or ten foreign bureaus,” he says. “When I left, we had one. You almost never traveled for the Sun. How can you cover the military if you can’t go to Iraq?” At the Pentagon, Bowman found that the NPR name carried clout. “It’s easier to get people to talk,” he says. “They want to be on NPR; it’s a big deal for them.” ➝

Goodbye Bluegrass, Hello news

NPR owes it success today in part to a man who worked there in the 1980s in its first audience-research department. Growing up in rural California, David Giovannoni was introduced to public radio as a teenager when he heard Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” on KPFK out of Los Angeles.

He logged hundreds of hours at his college’s radio station and went on to study public radio as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. After NPR hired one of his mentors from the faculty, he dropped his studies and came to Washington, arriving days after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.

NPR’s audience research was primitive. To calculate the number of listeners to All Things Considered, Giovannoni rented computer time from the Brookings Institution and hand-entered data from Arbitron listener diaries. “Dave brought the maniacal statistical focus,” says Michael McCauley, author of NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio. “Instead of making conjecture about what people were listening to, he took a really hard look at it.”

Giovannoni left in 1986 but continues analyzing public-radio’s audience as a consultant near Gaithersburg. Among his findings: News and talk shows are more likely than music programs to generate donations. He also discovered that audiences tend to value national programs more than local shows.

Over the years, Giovannoni persuaded public radio that ratings are not a dirty word. When he got to NPR, stations had little idea how many listeners were tuning in. Few cared. They aired what they thought listeners should hear. The result was an eclectic mix of news, symphony performances, shows on ethnic music, even college lectures.

Giovannoni’s research shattered the notion that such programming constituted good public service. His numbers showed that many niche programs—broadcasts of city-council meetings, say—were ghost towns on the airwaves. If no one is listening to your shows, he told programmers, you are abrogating your public trust.

Longtime public-radio types didn’t appreciate the message—or the messenger. Garrison Keillor mocked audience researchers as “guys in suits with charts” and worried that they were selling public radio’s soul. But in time Giovannoni’s ideas won the day. Most stations today consider listener numbers and loyalty as key measures of their public service. The more time people spend listening, the more good the station is doing.

WAMU was the first Washington public-radio station to buy into the Giovannoni approach. Licensed by American University, the station debuted in 1961 with news, music, and educational programming, including poetry readings and foreign-language instruction.

In the early 1970s, WAMU’s half-hour bluegrass show gained a following among Appalachian natives moving here for jobs. By the early 1980s, the station was airing more than six hours of bluegrass, country, and folk daily—“music in the American tradition,” its slogan said.

“The folks who were avidly into bluegrass really helped build the station,” says Lettie Holman, WAMU’s manager of programming. They were the station’s most dedicated volunteers and its biggest contributors.

Things changed in 1991, when NPR debuted Talk of the Nation, its first news-talk show. WAMU took to heart Giovannoni’s research. It decided that a news format offered the biggest audience and represented the best public service. It rebuilt its afternoon schedule around Talk of the Nation and over time replaced its local music shows with national news and talk shows. First to go was the three-hour Lee Michael Demsey Show. In 2001 the station canned the afternoon drive-time show Bluegrass Country, hosted by local legends Jerry Gray and Ray Davis.

Each time, music loyalists blitzed the station with protests. But ratings climbed. Today about half a million listeners tune in to WAMU each week—one of the five biggest audiences in public radio.

Music and culture still hold a spot on the margins of WAMU’s schedule. On weekends it airs A Prairie Home Companion and Mary Cliff’s Traditions program of blues, folk, and ethnic music. It also offers an online stream of bluegrass music that it launched after the 2001 format change, a pioneering move for a public-radio station.

WAMU’s prime hours, however, are given over to news and talk shows from national producers, especially NPR. Its 15-hour schedule from 5 am to 8 pm most weekdays features 11 hours of national programming and only two locally produced programs—The Diane Rehm Show and The Kojo Nnamdi Show. The station brands itself so closely with the network that it adopted the slogan “Your NPR news station in the nation’s capital.”

Classical Conundrum: To Air is Divine?

WAMU’s success with news on the FM dial hasn’t gone unnoticed. The all-news WTOP, Washington’s highest-rated station, last year moved to FM and a stronger signal. Bonneville International, which owns WTOP, joined the Washington Post to start a news station aimed at the NPR audience. Station execs said they would offer shorter, peppier reports—“NPR on caffeine.”

“We’re slugging it out for many of the same listeners,” says Jim Farley of Bonneville.

WETA also gave the news-and-talk format a brief run. Founded as an arm of the nonprofit WETA television in 1970, it was known chiefly for its classical music. When NPR launched Morning Edition in 1979, WETA declined to carry it, sticking instead with classical music even as the audience for news skyrocketed.

“They never would vary from the music,” Frank Mankiewicz recalls. “I told them, ‘I’ll send cassettes of classical to the nine people you’ve got listening to it.’ ”

In the 1990s, WETA saw its ratings and funding slide. In 2005 the station dumped classical music and switched to a news-and-talk format. It was a painful move for WETA general manager Dan DeVany, a classically trained musician. But his dwindling audience raised the Giovannoni question: Was airing classical music to a small audience maximizing WETA’s public service?

“You can argue that public service is not being transacted if people aren’t listening,” says DeVany. “You can be doing great things, but if that transaction in terms of listeners is not there, then you may really not be fulfilling your mission, even though you may get to feel good.”

The move to news caused a furor, and ratings dropped even lower. The numbers rebounded, but WETA still was overshadowed by WAMU.

Two months ago WETA caught a break when WGMS, one of the nation’s top-rated classical-music stations, decided to give up the format for pop and rock, which it hopes will attract the younger listeners that commercial advertisers want. WETA hustled back to a classical-music format and discontinued its NPR programming except for short, top-of-the-hour newscasts.

“It was a smart move,” Giovannoni says. Not all of WGMS’s 300,000-plus listeners will switch to WETA, but the station’s numbers—and thus its public service—should grow. WETA has the strongest FM signal in the area, reaching 52 counties. And for the first time, it has a monopoly on airing classical music in Washington.

WETA’s switch also means the station can establish an identity apart from NPR—an identity that may prove critical. For years NPR and local stations have been mutually dependent: NPR relied on local stations to broadcast its programs, and stations leaned on NPR for high-quality programs that brought in big audiences.

That relationship is being tested by new technologies that give NPR the means to reach listeners directly, without the local stations as go-between. Less than two years after launching its first Internet podcast, NPR produces 70 podcast programs—some created solely for the Internet and others that repackage radio shows. Several NPR shows are among the top-rated downloads from Apple’s iTunes.

Sirius satellite radio carries Talk of the Nation, Fresh Air, and other NPR programs. Insiders say Sirius wants to buy the rights to Morning Edition and All Things Considered and has offered multimillion-dollar deals. So far NPR’s board, made up largely of local-station executives, has declined. Those two shows anchor the schedules—and fundraising drives—of many stations. If more listeners tuned in via satellite, they would lose audience.

“NPR is biting at the reins right now,” says John Sutton, an Annapolis radio consultant who was director of NPR’s audience research in the 1990s. “It’s being held back by its structure as a membership organization.”

To protect themselves, DeVany says, stations need to create programming that gives them a presence in their communities. Producing original programming—particularly news shows—isn’t cheap, and a shakeout in public radio may be coming. “Not all stations in the system will survive,” DeVany says. “There is a point at which Darwin will take over.”

NPR’s Stern paints a rosier picture. He sees stations and NPR and other networks sharing programming, music libraries, podcasts, and other resources to create a digital treasure house of content available via radio, computer, handheld device, and technologies not yet invented.

In Washington, WAMU has joined with WTMD, a public station in Towson, for a high-definition digital broadcast. HD technology makes it possible to split a broadcast signal and “multicast” several program streams simultaneously. HD radios cost $200 or more, but prices are falling, and HD soon could become widely available.

WAMU broadcasts two streams in addition to its main channel. One stream is dedicated to the bluegrass it took off the air in 2001. Last fall, on its second HD channel, it began carrying WTMD’s broadcast of country, rock and other genres.

NPR executives hail this partnership as a pioneering use of digital technology—and an example of the kind of cooperation needed for the future. “Everyone’s a producer,” Stern says. “Even the smallest stations have valuable content. We need to pool resources, share resources, push our content out.”

Calculating The Bob Edwards Effect

In the first half of last year, David Giovannoni and his colleagues released seven reports that featured dozens of charts, pounds of analysis, and one bombshell: After more than a quarter century of growth in listening, public radio’s numbers are weakening. For the first time, the public-radio system is losing a share of the radio audience. The number of people tuning in is slipping, as is the number of hours they’re listening. Worst of all, the baby boomers—public radio’s most loyal listeners—are spending more time with commercial radio.

With most media today struggling for audience, many executives would see good news in Giovannoni’s data. Between 2003 and 2005, the number of hours people spent listening to public radio dropped just 2.5 percent.

This may be only a dip. Some inside public radio argue that ratings spiked artificially with the major news events that hit at the start of the millennium—the disputed Bush/Gore election, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Beginning in 2004, absent a national crisis, the numbers settled to normal levels and growth patterns.

But the drop in listening may be the start of a trend. Numbers are down across all genres of programming—music and entertainment as well as news. Public radio, Giovannoni says, must face the fact that it’s no longer growing. “This is an industry that has budgeted for growth since day one, and we have not grown in three or four years. The sound hasn’t reached Washington yet, but there are train wrecks out there.”

Giovannoni’s reports gave new impetus to old debates in public radio, particularly over audience diversity. Should public radio grow by reaching out to new listeners—minorities or young people? Or should it work to “superserve” its core audience and increase the hours they spend listening?

NPR’s audience is largely white; the median income is about $70,000 a year; most listeners are baby boomers, though public radio in recent years has attracted significant numbers of Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers.

According to Giovannoni, these demographics are the natural result of NPR’s appeal to the intellectually active and curious-minded—attributes typical of the college-educated. He is wary of trying to build audience with shows targeted at specific demographics—minorities, twentysomethings, conservatives, whomever. What’s designed to attract a specific type of person might chase away others, he says: “No single channel on any mass medium serves all people.”

Despite Giovannoni’s caution, many in public radio—including NPR executives—want to increase audience by reaching out to a broader spectrum of listeners. NPR in 2002 launched a talk show targeted at African-Americans and featuring Tavis Smiley, who hosted a popular BET program. In short order, Smiley’s NPR show was pulling in nearly a million listeners a week. But he quit in 2004 and started a firestorm with charges that the network wasn’t doing enough to market his show. NPR, he said, didn’t care about listeners who weren’t part of its private club of educated whites.

“NPR stands for National Public Radio,” he told the online magazine Salon. “It’s not National Some-of-the-Public Radio.”

NPR followed up with News & Notes, a black-focused newsmagazine. This spring it will add a two-hour public affairs and cultural program targeted at blacks and hosted by Michel Martin, an ABC veteran.

Next fall NPR will launch a morning news show aimed at 25- to 44-year-olds that will be broadcast not only by local stations but also on HD radio, Sirius satellite radio, and the Web.

During WETA’s run as a news station, it reached out to Washington’s diplomatic and immigrant community with international news shows, many of them from the BBC. “If we do not find a way to diversify our audiences and grow them from every standpoint,” DeVany said at the time, “we’re going to become irrelevant.”

WETA’s return to classical doesn’t mean that public radio should give up that mission, DeVany says. “We were very happy with the format and doing terrific things.”

Giovannoni and others argue that public radio’s best strategy for growth is to persuade its core audience to tune in more often. NPR has found success by narrowing its focus to news and talk. Now it faces the challenge of keeping its formula fresh.

Radio consultant Sutton says the network may be delivering too much of a good thing. While high in quality, its signature talk programs—The Diane Rehm Show, Talk of the Nation, and Fresh Air—have a similar texture, with earnest-sounding hosts exploring serious topics.

“The perceived sameness of it all may be getting in the way of new growth,” Sutton says. “We need to surprise people and reinvigorate the listener’s interest.”

NPR’s biggest hit in recent years is Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me. The weekly news-quiz show appeals to NPR’s core audience and trades on its interest in news but sounds nothing like the typical fare. It rolls through an hour with off-the-cuff banter among such personalities as P.J. O’Rourke and Paula Poundstone.

A troubling footnote to Giovannoni’s report is his finding that listenership is down for NPR’s flagship newsmagazines, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Listening to the two shows declined nearly 6 percent between 2004 and 2005.

There are lots of theories on why. Some blame inconsistency in local programs as well as local news coverage inserted in the broadcasts. Others say too many of the network’s stars are long in the tooth. Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam called NPR the “retirement community of the air,” citing Daniel Schorr, who’s 90, as well as the graying Koppel and Diane Rehm: “What was once an insurgent radio movement now sounds like Chet Huntley reading the evening news.”

The decline may reflect fallout from NPR’s decision in 2004 to push out Bob Edwards, Morning Edition’s first host. Management thought the show needed a nimbler host who could handle breaking news and report from the field. Edwards, who’d been hosting NPR programs for 30 years, seemed wedded to the studio.

The handling of his departure—he was demoted to correspondent before he left for XM satellite radio—outraged many NPR diehards. The network’s ombudsman said he got more than 5,000 e-mails, virtually all from listeners distraught that “their lives just won’t—and just can’t—be the same.”

Says Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, a Takoma Park–based coalition of stations: “Personality is a huge factor in radio, and when you change personalities, there are some listeners for whom it’s just never the same.” The show, he adds, “has lost half a step.”

NPR’s harshest critics say its broadcasts drone like newspaper copy. “NPR is run by newspaper people,” Edwards told the Los Angeles Times after his departure. “Sometimes I think they don’t even like radio.”

Edwards’s comments were seen as a slap at the leaders of NPR’s newsroom, including Bill Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and former top editor of the Baltimore Sun. Marimow came to NPR in 2004 as managing editor and was named news executive in February 2006. Eight months later, he stepped down and took the post of ombudsman amid reports that he’d been pushed out. He soon left to edit the Philadelphia Inquirer.

NPR is nearing the end of a search for a new top news executive. Neither NPR nor Marimow explained publicly why he didn’t work out. Reporters say they loved working with him and praise his editing skills and commitment to investigative journalism. But some say he was tone-deaf to good radio. “I had a lot of respect for him,” says Nina Totenberg. “But I don’t think he ever understood broadcasting. I think he felt he got it, but I don’t think he did.”

Within NPR, executives and reporters say they have spiced up broadcasts in recent years. A cadre of young talent—including Capitol Hill correspondent Andrea Seabrook and national-desk reporters Robert Smith and Luke Burbank—is giving broadcasts energy. Smith once donned a Santa suit to join a Seattle tradition in which dozens dress as St. Nick and parade drunkenly through the streets.

Programming chief Jay Kernis says the newsroom works constantly to keep things fresh. “There is still too much ‘print’ writing on the air,” he wrote in a memo to staff last year. The best reporters, Kernis said, are performers who bring emotion and passion to stories. He paraphrased Voltaire: “Touch their hearts. Then what you say will be imprinted on their minds.”

This is the mantra of veterans from NPR’s first days. That was no golden age, the old guard is quick to say. Coverage was thin and often relied on long, tedious interviews with academics. But now that it’s a media juggernaut, they say, NPR’s lost some of what made it special. With a sizable balance sheet to consider and a big audience that sees it as a primary source of news, producers hesitate to experiment on the air. Shows have become a little predictable, the sound a bit flat.

“It’s sort of like growing older,” says Jay Allison, the theater director turned radio producer. “You want to be careful that you keep the passion and wonder and excitement and joy of your youth.”

In 2005 Allison, now an independent producer and station manager on Cape Cod, launched on NPR This I Believe, reviving a commentary series of the same name from the 1950s. Allison collects and airs essays from individuals about the ideas that shape their lives. Contributors have included Newt Gingrich and Bill Gates, but most are ordinary people—accountants, teenagers, hospital chaplains, even prostitutes.

The series is not universally loved in the newsroom. “I hate it,” says Totenberg. “I don’t think that they’re interesting.”

But the essays are popular with listeners. Allison has aired nearly 100 and published an anthology that Publishers Weekly called “a feast of ruminations.”

Allison believes NPR has to step back from straight news occasionally. “We’re in this enterprise where we have to ask people to pay for something they can get for free,” he says. “Churches are the only other organizations that do that. The motivation has to come from a place deeper than the intellect. You have to be stirred.”

Susan Stamberg is often touted as the keeper of NPR’s creative flame. A couple of years ago she worried that broadcasts had become as sober as the New York Times. “We’ve become the good, gray Times,” she told the Nation magazine. “They’ve put color on their front page, but we’re upholding the gray.”

Since then, Stamberg says, new people have come in, and others have grown comfortable enough in their jobs to play a little. Morning Edition, she says, hums along with the two hosts who replaced Edwards, Renée Montagne and Steve Inskeep. “This fellow Steve Inskeep—I think he is fabulous. He is as good as anybody I have ever heard on the air,” she says.

“We’re moving away a little from this gray wash that I’ve been hearing too much of. It’s starting to breathe again in ways that remind me of the very earliest days, when we would take any chance, do any goofy thing.”

The ringleader of NPR’s push for more creativity is Robert Krulwich, the correspondent whose put-on Polish accent once landed him in trouble. He left NPR in 1983 for television, but he came back last year, in part to help remind NPR of its young and crazy days.

“I’m on a bit of a mission,” Krulwich says. NPR at times takes itself too seriously, he says. The answer is not standup-comedy training, but reporters must be encouraged to experiment and find new voices. Good reporters delight in learning, he says; that joy of discovery should ring out in their stories.

Krulwich notes that the New York Times and other titans of journalism have reinvented themselves two and three times. Now that it’s a grown-up success, NPR must do the same. It needs to relax a bit, goof around, and remember what it was like to be young.

“It would be an immense source of pride for me,” Krulwich says, “if NPR could find in its heart new beats and new sounds—not radically different ones, just different enough that they would belong to the people who are now 17 but who are going to be listening 40 and 50 years from now.”

If you don’t find those new sounds, he says, you start to die. “It’s a very slow death, and it isn’t very dramatic, not like in opera. But you wane instead of wax. And that’s the real question for NPR: Is it going to wane, or is it going to wax?”

Radio Wars

Arbitron ratings for Washington-area radio stations this fall.

Rank    Station (Frequency)    Format    Weekly Audience+
1.    WTOP (103.5)    News    790,000
2.    WPGC (95.5)    Hip-hop    683,000
3.    WIHT (99.5)    Top 40    673,000
4.    WKYS (93.9)    Hip-hop, R&B    604,000
5.    WASH (97.1)    Soft rock    535,000
6.    WHUR (96.3)    R&B, Motown    516,000
7.    WWDC (101.1)    Rock    485,000
8.    WAMU (88.5)    Public radio, news    466,000
9.    WMMJ (102.3)    R&B    460,000
10.    WBIG (100.3)    Oldies    421,000
11.    WRQX (107.3)    Pop    416,000
12.    WMZQ (98.7)    Country    389,000
13.    WJZW (105.9)    Jazz    369,000
14.    WGMS (104.1)    Classical*    329,000
15.    WMAL (630)    News/talk    311,000
16.    WARW (94.7)    Rock    294,000
17.    WETA (90.9)    Public radio, news*    288,000
18.    WLZL (99.1)    Latin pop    253,000
19.    WJFK (106.7)    News/talk    219,000
20.    WWXX (94.3)    ESPN sports    170,000
21.    WTEM (980)    Sports/talk    170,000
22.    WGTS (91.9)    Christian    169,000
23.    WPFW (89.3)    Pacifica Public Radio    169,000
24.    WTWP (107.7)    Washington Post Radio    153,000
25.    WAVA (105.1)    Christian    137,000
* In January WGMS changed its format from classical music to classic-rock music and its call letters to WXGG. WETA at the same time switched its format from news and talk to classical music.

+ Average number of listeners tuning in each week