Friday, December 12, 2008

Media: PRI 3, NPR 0

TORONTO, ONTARIO - National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States announced this week that it would cancel two daily shows, fire 64 people, and reduce its overall staffing by 7% because of investment losses and the general recessionary economic environment. While the announcement has set off a great deal of debate in the media community about the role of public radio, in my opinion, the big story is being missed--outside of its core news-magazine programs (All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition), NPR is often losing in program genres to the competing Public Radio International (PRI) network. In fact, with this latest announcement, I'd say it's PRI 3, NPR 0.

The relationship between NPR and PRI has always been somewhat confusing. While NPR was founded in 1970, PRI did not start until 1983. At that time, American Public Radio was formed as an alternate distribution mechanism to NPR--it did not actually produce programming. Renamed PRI in 1994, it began to produce its own programming about that time. For awhile, shows on PRI tried to accentuate its identity as different than NPR, but some years ago--about 2004 when Minnesota Public Radio spawned off yet a third distributor, American Public Media (APM), it seems everyone gave up and just started calling it all "public radio." Remarkably, the list of programs on the NPR web site actually contains shows from PRI, APM, and even Pacifica as well as NPR.

A rivalry between NPR and PRI actually seemed most acute after that time, as NPR moved to launch The Bryant Park Project, a morning news-magazine show for a younger audience. PRI had been planning a similar concept for some time, and while the Bryant Park Project debuted first in October 2007, PRI's The Takeaway made it to air in April 2008. While the traditional public radio audience was probably shocked at both shows, the Takeaway received more critical acclaim from critics including this one. The Bryant Park Project went off the air in July 2008, while the Takeaway continues. PRI 1, NPR 0.

This week's announcement included the cancellation of NPR's Day to Day, intended as a noon-time news program. Debuting in July 2003, it was the first show produced out of NPR West in Los Angeles (and the withdrawal of shows produced in Los Angeles by both NPR and APM is a significant topic for another day). Interestingly, that was not long after WBUR-Boston's local noon news show, Here and Now, broadened focus and began to be nationally distributed by PRI. The two shows never had exactly the same format, and Day to Day certainly was aired in more markets (WBUR itself aired both shows), but they certainly always were intended at the same target--a mid-day news-magazine. The cancellation of Day to Day will likely lead to Here and Now taking its slot on many stations across the country. PRI 2, NPR 0.

On the surface, it would appear that the other program targeted for cancellation by NPR, News and Notes, does not have an equivalent show on another network. This program, hosted in its current format by Farai Chideya, traces its root back to 2001, when NPR debuted the Tavis Smiley Program, an attempt to produce a daily news-magazine aimed at the African-American community. Smiley's high profile caused the show to be carried on NPR affiliates in places one might not expect, including Seattle's KUOW. In 2004, claiming frustration at NPR's non-diverse audience, Smiley left the program, but it has continued along under other hosts, including notables like Ed Gordon, ever since. Smiley currently does a television show for the Public Broadcasting Service--and a weekly two-hour radio show distributed by PRI that bears a strong resemblance to his original show on NPR. It looks like the original article--Smiley--has won out over a similar format without him, even if it isn't daily. PRI 3, NPR 0.

It should be noted that not all PRI-produced programs have been successful. In a notable recent example, an attempt to reach a younger audience with comedy-laced news, Fair Game with Faith Salle, lasted for just over a year in 2007 and 2008 before being canceled. PRI can fail with a concept as well--though I have to wonder how much worse an NPR attempt would have been (and perhaps the Bryant Park Project provided the answer).

So what lesson do we take from all this? I think it's simple. NPR has become one of the world's premier news-gathering organizations. It does an excellent job of producing news-magazine programs. That's an expensive activity, and I believe most would say NPR actually does this task relatively efficiently. It should remain focused on that mission, and also continue distributing shows produced at member stations as appropriate (e.g. WHYY's Fresh Air, WAMU's Diane Rehm Show, WNYC's Radio Lab, and WBUR's On Point--which I would point out used to be distributed by PRI). Innovative niches, on the other hand, should be left to local stations and to PRI, since in the end, it's those experiments that seem to survive.


Clark Boyd said...

Don't leave out PRI's "The World," which is now almost 14 years old and still going strong, going head to head, in many markets, with NPR's ATC. The World proves your point about niche programming (exclusively focusing on international news for a US audience). And yep, I've worked for The World for a better part of 13 of those 14 years.

Anonymous said...

Keeping score??? The PRI vs. NPR thing is just silly. And I must say, while there are many fine PRI shows, The Takeaway ain't one of them. It is an abomination, unlistenable...and I tried, I really tried.

It is well funded (by Knight Foundation and others) and the folks behind it are blindly determined to challenge Morning Edition, so unfortunately it will probably on the air for a while.

Hopefully they'll scrap some of the nonesense: the stupid sound effect "blips" between segments, the newsreader with the heavy British accent (hard to understand!), Hockenberry cutting off his co-host Udoji every chance he gets...


Brad P. from NJ said...

"The World" rocks. I'm checking my list of Public Radio shows on my iPod and I have pretty much a mix of PRI and NPR... I think it's about 50/50.