(This article was originally published in Current in 2003.)
Hey NPR! How ‘bout you quit the station bashing and we’ll quit our NPR sniping?
Sure, it’s a long held tradition. You ridicule our news people as pathetic rookies. We trash your editors as arrogant idiots. It’s been a good game.Only something new is happening. The bureau chief system is working!
And I hate to let the ways of the past get in the way of the future.
First, an Anecdote
Let me use one NPR editor’s slip of the tongue to indict your entire corporate culture. (One last snipe, then I’m done.)Remember when you hosted a meeting between your managers and a bunch of us local news directors? It was back during a management regime change and we were pressing our case for continued support of the new bureau chief system.You’ll recall a well-meaning national editor – who I personally respect – was quick to attest to the virtue of the bureau chiefs.
The editor said that the bureau chiefs (based in various regions around the country to work directly with stations) were great because they could, “serve as our first line of defense.”
First Line of Defense?
Well, now. That was an interesting way of putting it. Apparently, NPR news strategists see the bureau chiefs in olive drab fatigues, standing guard in their editorial outposts.
Watch out! I think I see an onslaught of station-based barbarians from Cleveland!
I don’t know about you, NPR, but that “first line of defense” remark spoke volumes about the culture that spawned it. It’s as if you Mass Ave insiders are still fighting the cold war with the stations.
The Cold War is Over.
It was the early 80s when I clocked into the public radio system, and we were already a decade into our little experiment. Yeah, we had a good model in our minds – this thing where all us far-flung stations pool our piddly funds into a national kitty and out comes Susan Stamberg.NPR did its part to invent something to listen to. We stations did our part getting our feeble signals up over the campus walls and across the amber waves of grain.
The model was brilliant but it’s always suffered from meager resources. No wonder we’ve behaved like brutish competitors much of the time.And of course when it came to delivering news in those early years, you network people certainly hoped to exploit the available resources at local stations. But, let’s face it, we sucked worse than you!
Thank god we stayed together.
The present picture is vastly different. The whole system has evolved in tremendous ways. And where NPR News has emerged as this dominant journalistic force in America, so too have station news departments expanded, matured, spawned new news departments, and created a coast-to-coast constellation of outstanding journalists.
Keep the Frame, Change the Picture
So I’m coming to my point, NPR.
If you’ve taken an arrogant stance toward station-based reporters – who can fully blame you? It comes with the system design.
We’ve all conspired to put you on the pedestal. We WANT you to be a paragon of achievement. We NEED you to be great.The truth is, the greater you are, the greater we are.
So – thanks for the greatness. We forgive the arrogance.
Now can’t we all just get along?
Bureau Chiefs Provide Missing Link
The key is mutual respect – and I see that key opening doors today. I’m talking about the success of the bureau chief system.
Fortunately, the bureau chiefs are proving to be much more than guards at the castle gates.In fact, they are the harbingers of a new era. The latest evolutionary advance in the NPR system.
Pick your metaphor. If the NPR news network is like a giant neural system -- sending and receiving messages from all the extremities -- the bureau chiefs are right there at the synapses.
If the news network is like a giant tree – drawing nutrients from the American soil -- the bureau chiefs are at the tip of the roots.The point is that the bureau chiefs represent a new tier of connectivity and bring a whole new level of interaction between NPR central and the far-flung stations.
The bureau editors work largely under the radar – dealing not with A-reps or PD’s but with news directors and reporters. They go to work by staying at home in Maine, Georgia, Ohio, California and Washington State. They phone-in their work to Mass Ave. And the whole damn thing depends on two-way trust and respect.They don’t fully know it but the bureau chiefs are repairing the frayed fabric of our war-torn system.
Five Year Effort Yields Success
It’s been five years since NPR established its bureau chief system, partly at the behest of PRNDI, Public Radio News Directors, Inc.
(You may recall PRNDI got its start in the mid-80s as a coalition to return insults to NPR. Thankfully, we’ve outgrown that angry phase!)At the heart of the problem was a contentious editorial relationship between the NPR National Desk and station-based reporters around the country. The expanding stations demanded more responsive editors. The overworked desk had too few of them. The stations saw stories popping in front of them. The desk saw only what the Times or the Post saw.
At the very least, the bureau chief idea was to improve communication. But it offered much more. If you could really combine the editorial vigor of NPR with the breadth and reach of local public radio reporters, you might just harness the biggest, kick-ass radio service ever invented.It was agreed that the bureau chiefs would have some tutoring to do – but mostly that’s where the news directors came in. Not everyone would serve up network stories. Not everyone should. (Not everyone wants to either.) But PRNDI and NPR agreed there was a lot more talent out there to tell a lot more stories deserving national coverage.
The system was born. It went through some growing pains. And now it is beginning to click.(At the moment of this writing, NPR says exactly half of the NPR national stories pending broadcast are from stations; the other half are from NPR staff.)
Poll: Not ”Excellent,” But Not “Poor” or “Fair” Either
Earlier this year, NPR and PRNDI collaborated on a survey to assess the system’s progress.
The survey looked at attitudes both from the station perspective AND from the bureau chief perspective. From either view, the glass is definitely more than half full.(The survey used a scale where 5 = excellent, 4=good, 3=average, 2=fair, 1=poor.)
Overall, the five bureau chiefs combined to rate the relationship with stations as a 3.9.
In turn, fifty-three station news directors showed a combined satisfaction with the bureau chiefs of 3.5.
On the whole, this first real snapshot shows remarkable success.For example, one of the big questions NPR managers used to ask again and again is, “how responsive can stations be to our needs?” The question was always laced with doubt. Now we can answer that with some firmness and the answer is “better than good.” The NPR bureau chiefs gave stations a 4.1 for their responsiveness.
The bureau chiefs were quizzed on other aspects of their station relations. All were positive. They especially lauded the stations for story pitches and for providing helpful feedback.The news directors were quizzed on 12 aspects of their bureau relations. A few problem spots emerged.
For example, the news directors find weakness in the bureau chiefs’ abilities to cultivate new reporters as network contributors. Frankly, the bureau chiefs have been smart to begin their relationship-building with the proven contributors first. But long-term it will be critical that bureau chiefs adopt new talent.
On the other hand, the news directors give good marks to the bureau chiefs for their editing skills, their news judgment and their availability and accessibility.
Where to Go From Here
I don’t know about you, NPR, but that feels pretty good!
It seems we’re changing from a dysfunctional family to one that’s managing to toss out old baggage and getting on with more productive behavior.
We need to credit many people – but especially Ellen Weiss who has the impossible task of managing the National Desk. Ellen has proven receptive to station needs. And she’s shown genuine interest in opening the gates without inviting mediocrity.In fact, Ellen is the one who keeps talking about “raising the bar.” I hope that isn’t just another way of saying NPR needs a “line of defense” against the great unwashed reporters of Cleveland or elsewhere.
What I hope it means is that there really is a uniform standard of quality that applies to everyone -- NPR staff, station reporters, veterans, rookies, etc. It should not matter who is tending the bar. (And you really must keep an eye on those veterans near the bar.)
The problem in the past is that the bar has been treated more like a bungee cord, stretched lower and higher according to various editors’ whims.Still, it’s a given, regardless of the rigidity of the bar, that there will always be some advantage to a reporter that has a good working relationship with an editor. And that’s why the bureau chiefs are critical to the long-term success of our system.
Here are my modest suggestions to keep us growing in this promising direction:
1. Support the Growth and Development of Local News Departments
When a bureau chief calls, let’s make sure there’s a well-trained reporter ready to answer! I can think of no greater goal in public radio today. When a station can break and “own” a major story, sport a beat system and back it all with solid credibility -- benefits accrue to the station. The benefits multiply when the station appears on the national network. Plus, there’s no better time to invest than right now while commercial radio has taken an extended holiday from news.
2. Expand the Bureau Chief System
NPR should double the number of bureau chiefs in the next 10 years. At present, the ratio of bureau chiefs to network and “network-ready” reporters is out of balance. One bureau chief had 17 news directors reply to the survey -- which means he works with at least twice that many reporters! (And remember that bureau chiefs have to edit NPR staff reporters, too!) This leads to frazzled nerves on both sides as edits are postponed, timely pitches go unanswered, and the chiefs have no choice but to avoid in-depth projects and creative risks because they can’t afford the time.
3. Adopt Shared Work Policies
Stations often undermine NPR (and themselves) by barring qualified local reporters from doing network stories. I’ve never understood this. The local audience is well served when a local reporter contributes a national story. Everybody is. This is why my department abides by a “shared work” policy in which reporters are encouraged to work with NPR editors on company time provided the story is an original assignment. (Not to be confused with a local story being re-versioned for national air – that’s done on the reporter’s own time. But that, too, is encouraged.) The shared work policy requires advanced editorial planning with the bureau chief and some flexibility among the local staff – but it promotes network cooperation.
4. News Directors & Bureau Chiefs Need to Collaborate
Bureau chiefs are accountable to NPR. Station reporters are accountable to their news directors. This makes for tricky relationships between chiefs and reporters – but not if news directors are there to facilitate matters. News directors can be sure a reporter is trained and qualified to the point of being ready to pitch. And the news director can be a singular source of contact for the chief. Bureau chiefs, on the other hand, have to yield to the news director when it comes to the internal workings of a station. (For example, you can’t play favorites with my reporters. If you want an environmental story, you’ll have to respect my beat system and work with my environmental reporter.)
5. Define the Bar in Word & Practice
I like the idea that there is a rigid bar of quality. Above the bar is the great stuff we all seek to put on the air… and below is the weak or mediocre content that fails to serve our listeners. It is troublesome to talk about one bar for NPR and a different bar for the local station. We need to talk about the differences but assure the same quality. And we absolutely have to get past this stupid idea that national news is more important than local news. Then, if some stations make exceptions to their quality standards, at least they know they’re making exceptions, not excuses.
6. Train, Train, Train
It will be challenging enough to agree on quality standards since radio hinges on creativity and subjectivity and personality and other aesthetic imperatives – but we can offset that debate by bolstering every person who claims a purpose on the air. We’re trying to define the bar AND carry out its practice. This is happening: NPR has resolved to grow its training program for both in-house staff and for station-based personnel. The regional bureaus are beginning to host training days for staff and station people. PRNDI has a group of trainers, including yours truly, who can customize training. The problem lies in prioritizing budgets. Training should not be what you only do when you have a surplus.
7. Measure Success by Going Beyond Story Count
NPR will tout its bureau chief system’s success by pointing to the increasing number of stories coming from stations. That’s great and we’re grateful. But what proportion is coming from the same handful of contributors? Let’s track the number of stations who are working with the bureaus and see if we can’t grow that number and their contributions. In addition, let’s be sure the stations are pulling their weight when it comes to breaking news, in-depth pieces, sound-rich canvases, etc.
8. Mix & Match NPR Staff & Station Contributors
In the spirit of building strong working partnerships between NPR and stations, there are many opportunities to break down walls. Basing a network reporter in a local station is one way (KPBS hosts Scott Horsley, for example). Or by placing bureau chiefs at stations. What about splitting the cost of a reporter? With mutual respect and admiration come new opportunities and new ways of doing things. I’m sure AFTRA is crazy about the idea.
9. Open New Portals for Radio Journalism
Airtime is a precious resource and we need to use it wisely. I don’t wish to see more domestic news at the expense of foreign news. And nobody is suggesting here that news from stations should push out news from NPR staff. But the bureau chief system will unlock more great stories from America’s heartland and we owe it to the people to tell those stories. Local stations already are having to push network programs out of the way to make room for what they must do; it behooves us to think about this from a shared perspective. Perhaps the solution is in the digital future, when we are unshackled from our linear, real-time dilemma. In fact, NPR should get busy in this respect because stations are already inventing numerous collaboratives and simply going around NPR.
10. Pray for Ellen Weiss
I don’t envy Ellen. She’s probably not entirely convinced this whole bureau chief thing is what’s best for the network. The cold war conditioned us all. But there’s something about Ellen that is looking for change, wanting to stay in front of the curve, to do more than play system politics. If anyone can harness the verve and excitement within reach of her National Desk, Ellen can. Let’s send her some encouragement, okay?
Get Over It!
So, what do you say, NPR? Is it a truce?
Can we close that musty chapter that once told a story but can’t any more? Can we get on with “the promise” – especially now that we’ve seen such stimulating signs of success?I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll meet you at the bureau.