On the clock: Stations lobby NPR for changes to timing of newsmags

By Mike Janssen

Public radio leaders are discussing how and whether NPR can give stations more freedom to reuse its newsmagazine segments and more opportunities to insert local news into All Things Considered.

NPR has convened two committees of station representatives to examine the “clock” — not one that hangs on the wall, but the schedules that dictate what happens when in the flow of the network’s newsmagazines.

An average listener might not even notice the intricacies of this minute-to-minute formatting. But it’s of utmost importance to NPR and station hosts and producers as it demarcates the beginnings and endings of newscasts, stories, underwriting credits and all other programming elements.

The talks, which NPR initiated with an advisory group of program directors before assembling a panel of station execs, delve into sensitive issues such as NPR’s placement of underwriting spots next to specialized program segments and stations’ increasing interest in showcasing their own local coverage.

Station programmers want NPR to allow more wiggle room in the current clock, particularly during All Things Considered. They want leeway to insert more local content as they seek new ways to hold the attention of their listeners, who enjoy ever-expanding options for watching and listening on digital devices.

“We live in a different era than we used to,” said Steve Nelson, p.d. for MPR News, the news service of St. Paul–based Minnesota Public Radio. “Media has changed. Radio has changed. The way people are using us has changed.” It’s “the right instinct” for NPR to re-evaluate a format that has changed little over many years, he said.

“The way people listen to public radio has changed dramatically in the past decade, while the newsmagazine clocks have largely remained the same,” wrote NPR spokesperson Anna Bross in an email. “One of the goals of the project is to ensure the continued financial success of the programs for NPR and Member Stations.”

Bross would not discuss details of the ongoing discussions between NPR and station executives, but network executives have cited audience and revenue pressures as considerations. In a July email to station leaders, NPR News chief Margaret Low Smith cited falling cume and average–quarter-hour listening for NPR shows. She also noted a significant decline in NPR’s corporate underwriting from 2011 to 2013, “a trend we expect will ultimately be mirrored in local markets.”

A simple solution made complex?

Review of the clock got underway early last year with urging from the Public Radio Program Directors Association. In July, NPR announced the creation of a station advisory team of five program directors.

Ensuing discussions between NPR executives and that group revealed “vital business issues that need to be explored,” NPR producer Brendan Banaszak wrote in a November post on a private blog for communicating with station reps. In response, the network assembled a second panel made up of top managers at seven stations.

Members of both committees declined to discuss details of the talks with Current. But the clock came up at a November board meeting of Public Radio In Mid America, held in conjunction with the Public Radio Regional Organizations meeting in Oxon Hill, Md. One member of the general managers’ committee referred to a recent “challenging” conference call about the clock.

Negotiations over the clock are “a really, really, really big deal,” Tim Eby, g.m. of St. Louis Public Radio, told his PRIMA colleagues.

NPR newsmagazine clocks

The Morning Edition clock, left, features a greater number of shorter segments and newscasts, making it easier for stations to insert local content. Station programmers have asked NPR to make the ATC clock, right, more like the ME clock. (Click the image for a larger version.)

Not everyone understands why the matter needs to be so fraught with tension. “Some of us are kind of scratching our heads and saying, ‘This is not rocket science,’” said Jeff Hansen, p.d. at KUOW in Seattle. Hansen and programmers represented by PRPD have suggested what they see as a fairly simple resolution to stations’ needs: Revise ATC’s clock to match Morning Edition’s, which has long offered greater flexibility for stations to insert local news.

In an NPR survey of 150 stations, a majority of respondents said they wanted shows to share the same clock. NPR’s summary of the results didn’t specify which clock they preferred.

“We believe that the Morning Edition clock is great,” PRPD President Arthur Cohen told Current. “Just put it on All Things Considered and make a few tweaks. But NPR clearly wants to do something different.”

“It’s become this long, drawn-out process that’s taking an endless amount of time and a lot of Sturm and Drang,” Hansen said.

At a PRPD board meeting in January 2013, NPR executives presented reworked clocks that looked even worse to programmers than those currently in use, according to Hansen. The Morning Edition clock lacked a newscast at the bottom of the hour and featured a new cutaway that would have made it harder for stations to fit the widely carried Marketplace Morning Report, an American Public Media production, into the hour.

Tension over segmenting

In recent months, discussions about the clock have gone beyond the mere timing of breaks for local content. The committee of general managers is considering the extent to which stations can cover newsmag segments with other content and reuse newsmagazine segments in other dayparts, according to PRPD’s Cohen.

NPR leaders have long objected to stations’ practice of cutting away from Morning Edition to air APM’s Marketplace Morning Report, though that disagreement appears to have ebbed more recently. But NPR remains concerned about cutaways, according to Cohen, especially as it continues to insert underwriting announcements in the middle of show segments — a practice known as “embedded underwriting.”

PRPD and some stations have complained to NPR about the growing frequency of the spots. As stations increasingly seek to cover entire segments with their own content, they run the risk of obscuring embedded credits.

Some p.d.’s have also requested greater freedom to move and reuse segments from national shows as they develop unique streams of local and national content for middays. The BBC, whose programs are now distributed stateside by APM, and Public Radio International are even encouraging stations to break their programs into segments for reuse in various dayparts.

But at last year’s PRPD conference, NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson told programmers that segmenting NPR newsmagazines could hurt the programs’ “brand equity” and have a negative financial impact on public radio.

Station programmers want to know why they can’t reuse material they’re paying for, Cohen said. “In the outside world, people can use content however they want,” he said. “Stations who pay the freight are being restricted.”

Further complicating matters are internal divisions within NPR, where news programs are “walled off from each other,” said KUOW’s Hansen. “They compete against each other for resources and guests. There’s not a unified NPR program service. You have to approach the entities as if they’re political entities.”

Hansen and other programmers are likely to wait for some time before NPR addresses their concerns. “There is still much work to do before we settle on a new clock design,” wrote NPR’s Banaszak in a Jan. 13 blog post for station staffers. “That work will include working with our station advisory team to mock-up prototypes to make sure the new clocks work for stations. And we will be testing the changes with listeners.”

NPR’s effort to address the complex web of issues along with stations is a “really positive thing,” said PRPD’s Cohen. “They seem to understand stations, and PRPD is more optimistic now than we’ve ever been. But it’s going to be lots of work.”

Questions, comments, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net

  • Don Hibschweiler

    A good “baby step” to take now would be to make the optional cutaway at 44:30 available in both hours of ATC. It’s currently available only in the second hour.

  • David Martin Davies

    If NPR is worried about local stations cutting away from their news magazines to air local content – then make your segments so good that no one will dare cover them up. It’s a competition for the ears of the audience. Local stations are also fighting for relevance with their listeners and can not be content to be just another delivery device for NPR. So on those days when ATC is stocked with stories that day about the snowstorm in NYC and your station is in the Southwest where it’s dry and 70 degrees – what are you going to do?
    What we are looking at is the unraveling of the present system. I can imagine a future where local stations will select from a menu and stack the stories that they want to air – assemble and compile the best ATC show for their market.

  • f0rtylegz

    Out here in Portland, Oregon NPR has turned into the same show from 3am until 1pm, when they run an hour of BBC news, and then no more Fresh Air… we get Q from Canada with Jian Gomeshi. We learn about our neighbor to the North, and the music they like.

    Every change OPB has made since I moved here in early 2006 has been a disaster. They got rid of The Writer’s Almanac. Then we took on the great World Have Your Say… but that only lasted a couple of years. OPB started it’s own lame show called Think Out Loud. Most of the people who work at OPB are involved in this failure. Emily Harris was the main voice of the PDX focused show. They fired her after many years, and now she is NPRs correspondent in Israel.

    But the real problem with OPB is that all of the shows follow the same stupid clock. There is the nonsense music beds with local correspondents speaking over random music. There is how the shows are divided into little short stories with few real questions and dialogue. Here in Portland when they give the stations they have to go through a list of 25 stations… FOR WHAT REASON from the 1940s? They break, and then say, “Your listening to…,” beg for money, or tout their advertisers like Cancer Treatment Centers of America, or Givalia Coffee, then come back, tell us what show we are listening to, reintroduce everyone again, and then another little segment. ALL of the shows are the same… Morning Edition, The (horribly smug) Takeaway, two hours of Here and Now, Thunk OutLoud, and Q, all have the exact same clock. I’ve never counted how many times in an hour you will here, “Yer listening to…,” but I bet it gets near 20 times an hour.

    But there is NO depth. No great voices. No insights or breakthroughs. No surprises. It’s bland, same old white bread chat, that is FORCED into a ridiculous clock. You would think that radio would compete, and get better, but here in Portland, management has poured all it’s money into Think Out Loud.

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