Good, Gray NPR | The Nation


Good, Gray NPR

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If it is relatively easy to discern NPR's (and public radio's) aversion to political risk-taking, it's somewhat more difficult to explain its resistance to freshening up its programming along the lines suggested by critics who crave innovative, sound-rich fare. NPR staffers interviewed for this article point a finger at NPR management in general and two sober executives in particular: Bruce Drake, the vice president of news and information, and Barbara Rehm, managing editor. Before coming to NPR, Drake worked at the New York Daily News for twenty-one years. Rehm is a ten-year veteran of the Daily News, after which she spent four years in the early 1990s at Voice of America. Staffers describe them as bureaucrats who possess a narrow political and cultural imagination. For years Drake has opposed the creation of an investigative unit, and NPR is currently without one.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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Last May NPR hired, as a second managing editor, the highly regarded editor of the Baltimore Sun, Bill Marimow, who was fired from the newspaper after he raised one too many complaints about the Tribune Company's inexorable quest for high quarterly profits at its Baltimore property. Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for stories about police brutality, has overseen the creation of a number of new beats and staff positions, and he is pushing his reporters to do more investigative reporting and hard-hitting journalism. His main accomplishment so far is an award-winning series by Daniel Zwerdling that documented brutality against immigrants at New Jersey detention facilities. But NPR sources anticipate future discord between Drake and Marimow.

Regardless of what Marimow does, NPR's political reporting will undoubtedly remain relatively bland and cautious. But in a rapidly changing media landscape, it's not at all obvious that a play-it-safe editorial formula will enable NPR to prosper. The average listener is 50 years old and white. Down the road, will younger listeners embrace the polite reporting model that NPR currently adheres to? Possibly. But it's also possible that they will opt for tastier, more opinionated fare on the Internet or satellite radio, especially now that "podcasting," a way of posting audio content online, allows listeners to create their own radio menus.

One way, perhaps, for NPR to confront the challenge is by re-examining the values of its original mission statement, which called for interpretation (in contrast to strict adherence to "hard news" reporting), artistic innovation and gutsy investigative reporting. That approach points toward a journalism that pokes back at lies with outrage and indignation, and programming that is pungent, offbeat and passionate--qualities that NPR's competitors, Public Radio International and American Public Media, have brought to bear with outfits like the American RadioWorks documentary unit, and shows like Marketplace, This American Life, To the Point and The World (and as independent producers David Isay and Joe Richman have done on NPR itself).

What might fresher programming sound like? Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, who is one of NPR's more incisive critics, points to an All Things Considered documentary by Noah Adams on the origins of the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome." "As he traced the roots of the song," Dvorkin explains, "and how it so powerfully affected people, the documentary went live to Spelman College in Atlanta, where the school choir performed it straight into All Things Considered on Martin Luther King's birthday.... It showed the true power of radio and NPR at its best."

But change won't be easy, according to Bill Buzenberg, who was vice president of news and information at NPR from 1990 to 1997 and is now senior vice president of news at American Public Media. "NPR has a fear of doing kick-ass journalism at the highest level," he says. "They're not hungry enough."

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