One of radio’s strengths is its universality. It enjoys widespread use that cuts across demographics of race, age, gender and, perhaps most beneficial to its continuing vitality, economics. Because of that wide-reaching following and because of the impact of media consolidation on programming and broadcast content, any changes in the medium potentially affect millions of Americans.
While the Project did not conduct a content analysis of radio in the same fashion as it did with the other media sectors analyzed in this report, stories about the state of radio content were not difficult to find. More often than not, they were splashed across front pages. It was a change of pace for the medium used to sitting in the background.
We will focus this year on four of the most prominent changes in the content of radio: the FCC’s renewed enforcement of broadcast decency regulations, the potential (though not yet certain) impact of satellite radio, the launch and first months of Air America, and the changing voice of NPR.
While few realized it at the time, perhaps the biggest impact on radio content for 2004 began not on radio, but on television. The incident that brought the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” into the national lexicon, the baring of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in January, brought instant public attention to the simmering issue of broadcast decency standards.
Sitting at home watching, the Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Michael Powell, had the same shocked reaction that was taking place in living rooms across the country. The year before, Powell had earned a reputation for wanting to rid corporations of regulations, which he considered costly burdens on their market freedom and First Amendment rights. In Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, however, he discovered something the FCC for more than nearly two decades had shunned – a desire to regulate the content of the public airwaves.
The politically embattled FCC head, some skeptics charged, had also found in the incident an issue that had public support. Powell and the FCC took the public outcry as a signal that broadcasters had gone too far and it was time to rein them back in. (On September 22, 2004, the FCC reported having received 540,000 indecency complaints, a record, about the incident.) Whatever the motivation, Powell’s embrace of regulations here was new.
Within days of the Super Bowl incident, the FCC responded with new “zero tolerance” indecency standards. While some of the public was rushing to the Internet for a closer look, or replaying the incident on their TiVos, broadcasters began strategizing. For the most part, though, they focused on how to avoid the risk of being fined, not on clarification of what some complain are ambiguous FCC guidelines about what constitutes “indecent” content.1
A March 2004 article in Billboard reported that “The FCC’s current guidelines consider three criteria when determining whether something is indecent: the explicitness or graphic nature of the description of sexual or excretory organs and activities, whether the material dwells on or repeats at length those descriptions and whether the material appears to pander to (sic)or is used to titillate or is presented for shock value.”2
Some critics have said the new focus has failed to address the real issues of on-the-air decency – the fixation with sex in media. The media critic Wayne Friedman, in MediaPost’s TV Watch, noted that “a study released…by the Kaiser Family Foundation…found 67% of American parents thought the [Jackson] incident was of ‘no consequence.’ “3 Rather than a flash of bared breast, “the same study said 60% of parents were concerned about the amount of sex their children are exposed to on TV…”4 In other words, Friedman wrote, “parents seem more concerned with other suggestive content in primetime shows than one fleeting breast of a pop singer.”5
In late September 2004, the FCC’s five commissioners unanimously agreed to fine CBS a total of $550,000, the largest fine ever for a television broadcaster. It was based on a fine of $27,500 for each of 20 CBS-owned television stations and did not, in spite of rumors to the contrary, bring fines against some 200 CBS affiliates who also aired the show but are not owned by Viacom6 (CBS’s parent, which also owns the radio broadcaster Infinity).
On October 13, the FCC seemed to be staking out broader territory when it announced that it was imposing a $1.2 million fine on the FOX Network for content included in the reality program “Married by America.” The show, broadcast during the so-called pre-10:00 p.m. “family hours,” showed images of nude female dancers interacting with the male guests at a bachelor party. The network obscured any nudity with digital blocking and prefaced the episode with a standard warning that the content of the show would not be suitable for younger viewers. But the FCC, which reportedly received 159 complaints about the episode (quite a few less than the Janet Jackson incident, and even the FCC’s method of counting complaints is being questioned), has said that the digitizing of the images was insufficient and the sexual actions taking place between the dancers and the men were sufficiently explicit to warrant the fine.7
Radio has also had its share of problems with decency. Long before Jackson and Timberlake appeared on the fifty-yard line, radio had shock jocks like “Bubba the Love Sponge,” whose program reportedly once included the on-air castration of a pig. The argument could rightly be made that Jackson’s half-time show appearance was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Jackson touched off a far more widespread public discussion of the decency question than ever before. And that very public discussion, along with very heavy fines, has had a very real effect.
Less than a month after the MTV halftime show, The Associated Press reported that Clear Channel Communications was initiating its own “zero tolerance” policy for its radio stations and subsidiaries. It said the policy would “include company-wide training and automatic suspensions for anyone the FCC alleges has violated indecency rules on the air. ‘If the FCC accuses us of wrongdoing by issuing a proposed fine, we will take immediate action,’ [Clear Channel President and CEO Mark] Mays said. ‘We will suspend the DJ in question, and perform a swift investigation. If we or the government ultimately determine the offending broadcast is indecent, the DJ will be terminated without delay.’ “8
The guidelines have caused some stations to re-evaluate and, at times, re-edit song lyrics. Some observers see a chilling effect that, at least occasionally, has gone too far. In one instance, an attorney told Danny Miller, co-executive producer of Fresh Air (a radio program produced at Philadelphia public radio station WHYY) that the program should not play a song by the singer Nellie McKay because it contained the word “sucks” in its lyrics. While the word was not used in a sexual fashion in the song, the attorney said, the word itself could be construed as having a sexual meaning. Fresh Air played the song but edited it so that the offending word was sung backwards-“skcus.”9
At another NPR station, KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, the commentator Sandra Tsing Loh was fired for an incident that stemmed from an editing error. During the course of a piece about her husband’s performance at a rock concert, Tsing Loh used a four-letter expletive that was to be removed or “bleeped” before broadcast. The editing never took place and Tsing Loh was fired shortly after the piece aired. She was later offered her job back but declined.
The largest radio decency uproar in 2004 came in February, when Clear Channel dropped the popular and controversial shock jock Howard Stern from six of its stations. The media organization was facing a $495,000 fine from the FCC (in July the A.P. reported that Clear Channel had reached a $1.75 million agreement with the FCC to resolve indecency complaints that included, but were not limited to, Stern).
The result hardly hurt Stern. Infinity Broadcasting added nine markets to the thirty-odd where Stern was still broadcasting (including four where Clear Channel had dropped Stern), and his ratings went up.
But Stern, who after all is called a “shock jock” because he likes to push against the establishment, didn’t stop there. The radio personality came out against what he called the FCC’s “witch hunt” and the ties between Clear Channel and the Bush administration. In an article on the CNN.com website, Stern was quoted as saying, “Clear Channel is very tied to the Bush administration…Clear Channel for years has been defending me…I criticize Bush and then I’m fired… They acted out of politics.”10 In a Los Angeles Times article, Judy Rosen noted that after the Clear Channel incident, Stern’s revamped Web site looked “more like Mother Jones than Maxim.”11
A scan of the Web site on August 12, 2004, included, alongside a link to photos from a party in Pam Anderson’s hotel room, articles about Iraq, multiple articles on George W. Bush, Ohio’s value as a swing state and a link to register complaints with the FCC with a list of shows that have had indecency claims brought against them.
Stern, who has 8.5 million listeners, also has a record of political advocacy, including support of Governor George Pataki of New York and of Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and before that governor of New Jersey. It has been suggested that the “frat boys” who supposedly make up Stern’s listening audience are in fact very coveted swing voters.12 (It should be noted that by December 23, 2004, Stern’s homepage was back to its old mix – with galleries of ‘Porn All-Stars” and Ms. Amputee 2004 and promotion of Stern’s forthcoming projects eclipsing links to two FCC stories.)
Clear Channel’s action against Stern’s show also led to wide speculation that he and other controversial radio personalities would soon abandon the over-the-air radio system in favor of the more flexible, cable-like format of satellite radio. On August 5, 2004, XM Satellite Radio announced that the shock jocks “Opie and Anthony” would be taking their show to one of the satellite network’s premium pay stations starting October 4. Opie and Anthony, some may remember, are the former WNEW-FM morning-show personalities who were pulled from the air and fired by Infinity for broadcasting graphic audio of a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
By early October Stern announced that he too would move to satellite radio.
Regardless of what one thinks of Stern, his defection from the public airwaves and his publicly stated contempt for the FCC constitute something of a “shot heard round the world” for radio. The idea that one of the medium’s biggest celebrities would declare the medium dead (and name the FCC its murderer) and then head to satellite affects the entire industry.
Is this what the new vigilance on the part of the FCC will mean? What is the future of traditional “terrestrial” radio in a climate that seems increasingly confusing and fiscally dangerous for broadcasters?
At this point, it’s hard to know for sure.
What seems more certain entering 2005 is that the new impetus of the FCC to regulate decency will inevitably become entangled with advances in technology that are creating new radio. That is the real challenge for policy makers, particularly for whoever succeeds FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who in January announced his resignation to pursue other paths. His embrace of morality through regulation – and by extension the FCC’s – collides head on with the passion for technology that led him to be a champion of deregulation.
The question is how (and whether) government can balance moral values and concern for the public interest with a philosophy of free market and free speech.
The second major development of 2004 was satellite radio’s move from a curious technology most people had never heard of to the Next New Thing. Big names were joining its ranks. Major business publications were doing cover stories about it. And, while some in old media turned out to fight it in Congress, the biggest terrestrial radio company made sure it wouldn’t miss the satellite boat.
From the perspective of the listener, satellite radio may not seem very different from terrestrial radio. It’s an audio broadcast received through a receiver. Unlike traditional radio, however, content is broadcast not from ground-based antennae but from satellites, allowing radio stations to be broadcast — virtually uninterrupted — nationally (see Sidebar).
Currently, two satellite radio networks are competing in the U.S., XM and Sirius. Their appeal, like that of the Internet or cable TV, is that they are the ultimate niche form of radio. XM, the industry leader, offers subscribers 122 different narrowly targeted channels for about $10 a month. Want to hear music from the 1940s? They’ve got that channel. Want the Nascar network? It’s here. Boston weather and traffic? All yours. Sirius, launched about a year after XM and the smaller of the two, offers its own collection of 120 stations.
Many involved in radio are quick to point out that by sheer numbers, satellite radio hasn’t arrived yet. An October 1, 2004 press release from XM announced that the company had exceeded 2,500,000 subscribers as it closed its third quarter. Sirius announced its subscriber numbers as more than 800,000 by late November 2004. Given that audience numbers in Arbitron’s Radio Today indicate that “over-the-air” radio reaches some 94% of Americans (the U.S. Census Web site counts a population of 295 million) these subscriber numbers represent a small percentage of radio users.
And the economics of satellite radio aren’t even close to being there yet. A Barron’s article of August 30, 2004 noted that XM and Sirius combined are losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 million a year.13
In spite of all this, other trends in radio indicate that satellite might be in the right place at the right time.
Because it runs on a subscription basis, it is able to avoid such economic concerns as declining ad sales and the devaluation of advertising and promotion spots that are affecting its commercial over-the-air owner groups.
In a way, XM and Sirius are capitalizing on a version of the highly successful formula of National Public Radio. Satellite listeners essentially become “members” of either XM or Sirius. In doing so, they are making a financial statement that this is a product that matters to them. Moreover, because receivers are built to translate only the XM or Sirius signal, they are locking themselves into one network. The networks are therefore building a solid and loyal audience that is perhaps dissatisfied with what they can receive on traditional commercial radio.
Some observers have also noted that zero-tolerance and the expanding applications of the FCC’s decency standards may result in a situation where investors no longer see satellite radio as an experiment but as an opportunity – to be involved in a medium that has greater flexibility and content freedom than terrestrial radio. When he defected to Sirius, Howard Stern declared that traditional radio was dying, and that satellite was radio’s future. “‘It’s time to go,’ Stern said on his show… ‘I believe more in satellite than I do in radio.’ “14
And there are respected radio insiders who not only believe in the future of satellite but are willing to lay money and reputations on their bets. In November 2004, Sirius Radio signaled a further coming of age when it announced the hiring of Mel Karmazin as CEO. A former president of Viacom, Karmazin was the man at the helm of Infinity during its meteoric rise from, reportedly, a $10 million company to an $18 billion company. It also seems significant that Clear Channel Communications, the terrestrial radio giant, owns about 2.5% of XM Radio.15 Given that, it might be wise for others to hedge their bets before dismissing the impact satellite might have on the medium.
Even the special receivers required for listening are becoming increasingly available. Hertz and Avis offer satellite radio in some of their rental cars and Honda and Porsche offer it as an option in their new vehicles. General Motors now offers XM in its new cars. Both Sirius and XM have developed equipment that can be brought out of the car and into the home, and XM has developed the personal, portable Delphi MyFi.
This is not the first time questions and challenges have been raised over the introduction of new media technology. Why, skeptics wonder, would listeners pay for something they’re already getting free? Similar arguments surrounded the starts of cable television and satellite television and even the addition of the FM radio band.
Both XM and Sirius operate under 8-year licenses awarded to them by the FCC in 1997. And as with cable television before them (and FM radio before that), those in the broadcast industry have not welcomed the new technology with open arms.
The battle over satellite radio goes back about 15 years. In 1990 Satellite CD Radio (now Sirius Radio) approached the FCC with a plan to begin a 30-channel digital radio network. The National Association of Broadcasters, a Washington, D.C.-based “trade association which represents the interests of free, over-the-air radio and television broadcasters,”16 initially made little noise about the proposal. That dismissal of satellite’s possibilities lasted until 1992, when the FCC set aside “a 50-megahertz swath of radio spectrum for new satellite services – two and a half times the size of the FM and AM bands combined,” as Forbes magazine recalled in its September 6, 2004 issue.17
That article noted that in the early 1990s the NAB was already working to protect the interests of its membership from the new technology of satellite television. The article quoted a “former NAB lobbyist” saying, ” ‘The NAB viewed satellite TV like it was the Death Star. Clearly they didn’t want satellite radio to repeat the same pattern [as cable]… They got broadcasters across the country to hammer like hell on the Congress and the FCC.” The article went on to say that the NAB literature’s central talking point was straightforward: … ” ‘There is no need for ‘more’ radio service, no need for national radio service and no need for more competition in radio service.’ “18
But the satellite radio networks’ founders continued working and maneuvering through the FCC’s bureaucracy.
In November 2001 XM Satellite Radio (which, as American Mobile Satellite, had been one of the original four companies applying in 1992 when the satellite bandwidth was approved) began broadcasting.
And there is now another wrinkle that could prove important. Perhaps most troubling for terrestrial radio, XM radio has patented technology that will allow the satellite network to insert local content – such as weather and traffic – into its broadcasts. While the satellite radio networks are required, according to their FCC licenses, to broadcast content nationally, XM’s patent seems to step carefully around that rule.
To navigate signals in metropolitan or densely built areas where buildings and other obstacles would hinder broadcast from the satellites, XM Radio designed a system that included Earth-based transmitters that broadcast the same content as the satellite signal. But those terrestrial transmitters also have 20 additional “blank” radio stations each. As the system currently operates, the XM satellite receiver switches between the extra-terrestrial and the terrestrial signal depending on which is stronger. Listeners never know which signal they are listening to or when the signal switched.
The transmitters, all monitored from XM’s control room in Washington, D.C., could easily be used to insert local news, weather and sports. Since the transmitters are spotted throughout certain urban areas, and can be individually controlled, one could also envision a situation where news reporting could become as hyper-local as all radio once was.
Hypothetically speaking, this system would not seem to violate XM’s satellite agreement (though setting it up would be costly and would require a shift in XM Radio’s operating system). Because these signals would be sent via XM Radio’s satellites, the content would still be nationally broadcast. The station could still be accessed by anyone using an XM receiver. Not only could the person driving through Boston hear whether traffic was snarled around Fenway Park, so could a person stuck in L.A. gridlock.
The National Association of Broadcasters has claimed that any such local system would be a violation of government regulations and the FCC’s intentions when it created the licenses for XM and Sirius. And their position had at least some support on Capitol Hill in 2004.
Congressmen Charles Pickering (R-Miss.) and Gene Green (D-Tex.) introduced H.R. 4026 — the “Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act of 2004″19 — which would bar satellite companies from broadcasting programming that varies from location to location.20
The irony is difficult to ignore. In a landscape where a single corporate entity, Clear Channel, owns 1,211 stations in almost 189 markets21 (and, interestingly, a significant amount of XM Radio stock) it’s puzzling that any government entity is suddenly concerned with the state of local radio content. Is letting a satellite radio network insert local weather or traffic reports into a broadcast any different from, say, letting a company like Cumulus use voice-tracking technology to perform the same function on “over-the-air” radio? Or are the NAB and its membership looking to make the move that many radio observers are saying over-the-air radio must make to survive? Will there be a return to local?
The start of the new Congressional session leaves the Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act in limbo;22 whether H.R. 4026 will be re-introduced and passed is yet to be seen. Also questionable is whether passage of the bill would actually move radio back to Main Street.
One of the most anticipated launches of the past year was the first commercial liberal talk-radio network, Air America. The climate seemed right for such a venture, with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and the talk show host Bill Maher demonstrating the popularity of political content that makes no apologies for leaning to the left.
The question continues to be whether it will work: Are so-called liberal sensibilities suited to the take-no-prisoners, pump-up-the-volume, complaint-oriented style that characterizes conservative talk radio? If not, can a different style be forged that would appeal to large numbers of liberals?
Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media Affairs, put it this way in an interview with The Boston Globe almost four months after the launch: “Air America is still figuring out how to be bombastic and entertaining and approachable all at once, which is the key to right-wing radio… To a certain degree, they’re still locked into the language of the classroom.”23
On the other hand, perhaps the runaway success of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and the attention drawn by books like “Bushwacked,” “Bush World” and Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” indicate a growing desire among liberal audiences for their own brand of unapologetically biased and even angry voices.
Air America made its debut on March 31, 2004 with various technical difficulties slowing down the fledgling network’s broadcasts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and portions of southern California as well as on XM Satellite Radio.
And problems did not stop with the technical. The launch of Air America would also make news for a series of administrative and financial difficulties. Less than two weeks after the launch, it was pulled from the air at KLBA (Los Angeles) and WNTD (Chicago). Both stations were owned by Multicultural Radio Broadcasting and, according to an article in the April 14, 2004 Boston Herald, Arthur Liu, head of Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, yanked the network off of his stations in Los Angeles and Chicago yesterday, claiming 2-week-old Air America bounced a check and owes him more than $1 million.”24 (A New York Times article the following day, April 15, said Air America insisted it had stopped payment on the check to Multicultural Radio on the ground that Multicultural had violated their agreement by leasing airtime on KBLA to another programmer for the months of February and March. How this lease agreement interfered with the operations of Air America, which was not scheduled to start broadcasting until March 31st, is not quite clear.)
The Herald article also pointed to cash-flow problems reporting that a “general manager for a radio station in central New England who asked not to be named contacted Air America three weeks [before the MLBI incident] and proposed putting the entire network on a talk station that would reach the Boston market. The response: …’We’ve spent all our affiliation money.’ “25
Most accounts of the network’s start-up focused on its difficulties. A Washington Post article in September portrayed the network’s New York studios as a scene of struggle – “threadbare, with lousy air-conditioning and irascible equipment. ‘[It was] like a halfway decent college radio station,’ ” one frustrated tech was quoted as saying about the first day. Randi Rhodes, on seeing her studio for the first time, was said to have complained that “it was inadequate in half a dozen ways – no high-speed Internet hookup for research, no TV, no phone. No phone for a talk show host…”26 Rhodes’s producer had to rig up a computer keyboard to allow the host to take calls.
Roughly five weeks after the first broadcast, the staff learned that Air America was unable to meet its payroll. Its chairman and co-founder, Evan Cohen, and vice-chairman, Rex Sorenson, were asked by the board to leave an organization that had already lost co-founder and CEO Mark Walsh. Air America’s bank account stood somewhere around $6 million, far less than the publicized $20 million or $30 million the board had been led to believe existed.
By June, however, the company had reorganized its structure under the corporate banner Piquant LLC. It found a new funding stream, about which little has been made public. The Boston Globe reported on July 21 that Air America had altered its original programming plan – converting stations to all-Air America stations — and was allowing stations to pick and choose shows from its roster for individual broadcast.27
It seemed that in spite of a difficult start, Air America might have found some footing. As of late September 2004, the network had expanded to 19 AM stations and onto the Sirius Radio satellite network. By early October, the number had risen to 36 affiliate stations, and Air America was being broadcast on both XM and Sirius Satellite Radio and streaming over its own Web homepage. In early December, the network announced that both Al Franken and Randi Rhodes had signed new contracts, after much speculation that Franken would leave following the Presidential elections.
December was also when the network announced that Rob Glaser, the chairman and CEO of the Internet media company RealNetworks, would become the chairman of the Air America board. The group had also secured $13 million in financing and signed on Geico and American Express as advertisers. It was on the air in 40 markets and that count was still growing.
Publicity about the network focused almost entirely on Franken and his fellow host Janeane Garafalo, even though neither had a history of hosting live radio. But talk radio is a medium that revolves around personalities. Early Arbitron ratings of Air America’s signature show, The O’Franken Factor (now The Al Franken Show), showed the popular political commentator outpacing the ratings of Bill O’Reilly in markets where the two went head to head.28 The Al Franken Show has even made the jump to cable television, following the lead of radio hosts like Howard Stern and Don Imus, with a show on the Sundance Channel.
Soon after the network’s launch, Air America demonstrated that it was capable of assuming the classic talk-radio pose. On Friday, April 2, 2004, Randi Rhodes engaged in an aggressive verbal confrontation with the longshot presidential candidate Ralph Nader. While Nader continuously disparaged Rhodes’s interviewing techniques, Rhodes likened the candidate to a great pair of shoes. She told him that she liked him but couldn’t afford him. The loud exchange ended when Nader hung up on the host.
It may not have been the cool irony of Jon Stewart, but it may have approached the kind of heated exchange that makes some talk radio so popular. And if liberals are angry, they now have people willing to do some yelling.
NPR’s Bob Edwards
While some voices were being added to radio’s traditional over-the-airwaves, one of the medium’s best-known voices was removed; 2004 will be remembered in part as the year Bob Edwards left NPR.
The decision by National Public Radio to replace Edwards as Morning Edition anchor was one of the year’s more peculiar media stories. Edwards’s distinctive voice had been the trademark of Morning Edition since its start in 1979. The host was not, NPR kept insisting in the furor surrounding its decision, fired from Morning Edition. NPR executives announced that as of April 30, 2004, they would be reassigning Edwards to a position of senior correspondent, a vague title that NPR had previously given to such former host personalities as Linda Wertheimer, Juan Willams and Susan Stamberg.
The decision to remove Edwards – in the middle of many affiliates’ spring pledge drive periods – inspired, according to published reports, some 35,000 complaints to NPR, a statement on the floor of the Senate, several newspaper editorials and the launch of SaveBobEdwards.com. Edward Chapman, founder of the Web site, also spoke of organizing boycotts of NPR underwriters and pushing for the removal of government funding of NPR.
An article on Minnesota Public Radio’s Web site quoted Mike Jungmann of the Minnesota network’s listener services describing viewer reaction as “very strong” and adding, “Most of the calls we’ve received have been ‘How could you? How dare you?’ and we encourage them to contact National Public Radio.”29 Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe wrote that one woman who wrote to NPR “actually compared the bad news of Edwards’ departure to her simultaneous diagnosis of a possible cancer and asked herself: ‘Which is worse?’ “30
Talk of withholding member contributions and boycotting fundraising activities reached a significant enough stage that Edwards himself placed a letter on the NPR Web site asking listeners to continue supporting NPR and its member stations. On the Minnesota Public Radio Web site on April 1, Bob Collins quoted Edwards as saying that NPR “is one of the best news organizations in all of journalism and it has to continue to grow and thrive and prosper. I’ve been part of building this up for over 30 years and to have it come tumbling down over me is distressing.”31
But as vocal as Edwards was in his effort to help, the network was mostly quiet. The reasons behind NPR’s decision have been publicly vague. Privately, insiders at the network say the silence stems in part from a desire to avoid criticizing Edwards for fear that it would make the situation worse. There was apparently a feeling that he had become intransigent about attempts at innovation on the program. USA Today’s Peter Johnson noted that the change came “amid a reassessment of programming at NPR, where executives are discussing how to use a $200 million bequest…from Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.”32
The question then becomes why NPR would feel the need to reassess programming, in spite of the money from the Kroc estate, when it is one of the few major media institutions in the country that has seen steady audience growth. Morning Edition at the time of Edwards’s removal was the nation’s number one morning show, with almost 13 million listeners. Edwards suggested on WNYC’s On the Media, “Maybe they feel that even though we’ve doubled the audience in the last 10 years, it could have been tripled, quadrupled?”33
NPR leadership spoke a great deal about plans to refresh all of the network’s programming. Statements in various news articles and by various people indicated that the shift at Morning Edition to two hosts, one doing the show from NPR’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and the other anchoring from NPR West in Los Angeles, reflected the network’s push to be a news outlet better able to react to breaking news and do more reports from the field.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were often mentioned as evidence that NPR was unable and unprepared to deal with a news event of national proportions in a climate where broadcast outlets like CNN and others are able to go immediately to live feeds. According to the New York Times, NPR was replaying a taped broadcast at the time of the attacks and did not break in with special programming until 10:00 a.m., more than an hour after the attacks began.34
NPR, however, disputes this timeline. According to NPR’s internal account, the station covered the first plane attack in the newscast at 9:01. Then at 9:22, it broke into its regular programming with a live two-way discussion with a reporter from their New York City member station. That live reporting lasted until 9:49. Regular programming then resumed until 10:00 when the station began its “special” coverage. NPR producer Melissa Gray, who was directing Morning Edition that day, suggested in correspondence with the Project that some of the misunderstanding came from the designation “special coverage.” “We did not officially call our earlier coverage from 9:22 to 9:49 ‘special,’” says Gray, “but it was there.” (Later, NPR would win a Silver Baton and a Peabody for the quality of that programming and another Silver Baton for its reporting on the war in Afghanistan.)
Whatever the case, in March 2004 the network created a new position, managing editor of national news (for which it hired a former editor and senior vice president of The Baltimore Sun, William K. Marimow) and increased the visibility of NPR West by increasing the number of programs being hosted or co-hosted from the Los Angeles studio. In addition to housing one of the co-host chairs for Morning Edition, NPR West was home to the midday news show Day to Day and to the magazine-style Tavis Smiley Show.
But in November of 2004 Smiley, whose program launched in January 2002, announced his resignation from NPR. In his resignation letter, Smiley noted that his show, which ran on 87 stations, “attracted more than 900,000 listeners, 29% of whom are black. That’s almost triple the network’s overall black demographic.”35
Smiley said publicly that his decision to leave NPR was not financially motivated, but a conflict of expectations. In the November letter, Smiley wrote that “NPR’s own research has confirmed that NPR has simply failed to meaningfully reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans who would benefit from public radio, but simply don’t know it exists or what it offers.”36 Smiley was dissatisfied with the amount of money being spent to promote his show, according to some published accounts.
NPR was reportedly caught off-guard by Smiley’s decision to leave. An AP article by Lynn Elber on January 10, 2005, quoted David Umansky, an NPR spokesman, as saying the network was “eager to renew his show and remains intent on expanding its minority audience.”37
Roughly a week after Smiley’s departure, NPR announced its hiring of Ed Gordon for News and Notes With Ed Gordon, a daily public-affairs program aimed at the African-American community and set to start in late January. Continuing what might be turning into a trend in NPR programming, Gordon, a contributing correspondent to CBS News’s 60 Minutes, will be based in New York and joined by a still-unnamed West Coast co-host.
Even with the increased West Coast visibility and new programming, NPR listeners might still find it difficult to detect any audible changes in NPR – either in the kind of stories and reporting the network is doing or in the smooth, even tone (occasionally parodied) of its anchors, hosts and announcers.
It may be too early in NPR’s proposed evolution for changes to be noticed. Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEX-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, was quoted in an October 19, 2004 article by Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune as saying that “It’s way too early to talk about either ratings or fundraising impact,” but adding that “there’s no longer the rush of outrage the station felt during the spring pledge drive” after the Edwards departure was announced.38
And it may be that NPR continues to benefit from its commitment to long-form journalism and its particular brand of entertainment programming. NPR offers listeners the kind of lengthy news stories truly not widely available in any other broadcast format. Even the upstart satellite radio has recognized that fact. XM’s public station, XM Public Radio, is built from programming from terrestrial public radio stations: Minnesota Public Radio, Boston’s WBUR and Public Radio International. The station’s schedule includes popular public radio shows like This American Life, Whad’Ya Know? and The Leonard Lopate Show.
Listeners learned in late July of 2004 that they would be able to continue spending part of their mornings with Edwards. The former Morning Edition host announced that he would be leaving his senior correspondent position to start a new morning radio program on XM Satellite Radio. (The Bob Edwards Show, to the disappointment of some of his fans, is not a Morning Edition-styled news show but an all-interview program.)
Starting on October 4, 2004, his new one-hour program was broadcast opposite Morning Edition. Has this created a bitter rivalry?
Well, maybe in the same low-key tone of a public radio announcer: Edwards spent part of his debut broadcast encouraging listeners to listen to Morning Edition first and join his show afterward.
Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) started in 1967 as a college radio station out of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Today, MPR has won, according to its Web site, “800 journalism awards – including the Peabody Award and the Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Gold Baton Award, in 2001.”39
The reach of Minnesota Public Radio has gone far beyond its primary region of Minnesota and parts of Michigan, Iowa, Idaho, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin (with some Canadian listenership). MPR created a national production and distribution umbrella – American Public Media. – that carries some 20 national programs and specials and whose programming reaches some 13 million listeners weekly. That would be an audience increase of more than 8 million listeners since Spring 1998.40
By its own figures, MPR “serves a regional population of five million people, and with more than 83,000 members, it has the highest percentage of listener membership of any community-based public radio network in the United States. With 690,000 listeners each week (an increase of some 44% since 1998), it has the largest audience of any regional public radio network.”41
MPR is perhaps best known for the very popular A Prairie Home Companion, now distributed by its American Public Media entity.
Marketplace, MPR’s daily business show, has “the largest weekly audience of any business program on radio or television,” according to its 2003 Annual Report.42 The show, along with the nine-minute Marketplace Morning Report (aired during NPR’s Morning Edition) attracts some 7.9 million weekly listeners and is carried on more than 340 stations nationwide. By July 1, 2005, Marketplace will start being distributed by American Public Media rather than MPR.
In addition, American Public Media’s news and information offerings include the radio magazine show Weekend America and the innovative Speaking of Faith. Billed as “a weekly national conversation about belief, meaning ethics and ideas,”43 Speaking of Faith takes topics that are considered to be narrow in their appeal and turns them into interesting, often engaging radio.
It was with that concept in mind, creating the kind of “driveway moment” radio that public radio has always reached for, that Minnesota Public Radio began experimenting with what it has called “public insight journalism.” Using its online site, it asked the public questions regarding current events, examined the feedback and used the results to create stories the staff felt would be more topical and relevant to their audiences. The network was also one of the organizers of the first national public radio collaboration, “Understanding America after 9/11,” which brought together 270 stations and networks “to create a nationwide conversation through documentaries, special reports and global call-in programs.”44
1. FCC guidelines can be found at: http://www.fcc.gov/eb/broadcast/opi.html.
2. Bram Teitelman, “Radio Reacts To Indecency Flak,” Billboard, March 13, 2004.
3. Wayne Friedman, “Let’s Talk About Sex, FCC,” MediaPost TV Watch, September 24, 2004.
4. Wayne Friedman, “Let’s Talk About Sex, FCC,” MediaPost TV Watch, September 24, 2004.
5. Wayne Friedman, “Let’s Talk About Sex, FCC,” MediaPost TV Watch, September 24, 2004.
6. Marilyn Geewax, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “CBS tab for Super blunder: $550,000,” September 23, 2004.
7. By December 2004, Fox, CBS and NBC had all submitted appeals regarding the FCC’s rulings.
8. “Clear Channel Sets ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy on Indecency,” Associated Press, Feb. 25, 2004.
9. Jeremy Egner, “What the #%@? is off-limits now?” Current, April 26, 2004.
10. George Lerner, “Stern lambastes Bush, FCC,” CNN.com, June 30, 2004. Online: http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/06/30/stern.bush/
11. Jody Rosen, “Peril in the Air for Bush: Howard Stern,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2004
12. Jonathan E. Kaplan, “Howard Stern says he can deliver swing voters to Kerry,” The Hill, June 15, 2004.
13. Sandra Ward, “Losing the Signal,” Barron’s, August 30, 2004.
14. Krysten Crawford, “Howard Stern Jumps to Satellite,” CNN/Money, Oct. 6, 2004.
15. Kevin Diaz, “Satellite Radio: Ad-free for a fee; ‘What it’s about is control,’ subscribers say,” The Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 8, 2004.
16. From the NAB website.
17. Scott Woolley, “Broadcast Bullies,” Forbes, Sept. 6, 2004.
18. Scott Woolley, “Broadcast Bullies,” Forbes, Sept. 6, 2004.
19. H.R. 4026, Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act, introduced March 24, 2004, 108th Congress, 2nd Session.
20. Bill summary from THOMAS, the Library of Congress Online Information Center: “HR 4026, Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act of 2004 – Directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revise its regulations to provide that digital audio radio satellite service (DARSS): (1) licensees shall not provide services that are locally differentiated or that result in programming being delivered to consumers in one geographic market that is different from programming delivered in any other geographic market; and (2) repeaters shall be restricted to simultaneously retransmitting the programming transmitted by satellite directly to DARSS subscribers’ receivers.
“Requires the FCC to complete a rulemaking proceeding to determine whether DARSS licensees should be permitted to provide locally oriented services on nationally distributed channels, taking into account, among other things, the ability of such licensees to afford listeners the same emergency and other information as is afforded listeners of local broadcast stations.”
21. Arbitron ranked 293 markets in fall 2004.
22. Bills die automatically when a new Congress begins.
23. Joanna Weiss, “Left-Leaning Northampton, Stern, On the Same Wavelength,” Boston Globe, July 21, 2004.
24. Dean Johnson, “Left for debt: liberal yakker seeing red,” Boston Herald, April 14, 2004.
25. Some of Air America’s affiliate stations have irony attached. In seeking to become the radio voice of liberal America, the network took over several ethnic radio stations. In New York, it pre-empted the African American and Caribbean station WLIB. That sparked demonstrations and protests. The initial stations in Chicago and Los Angeles (which later dropped Air America) had previously been formatted to be Spanish-language stations.
26. Paula Span, “Radio Waves,” Washington Post, September 12, 2004
27. Joanna Weiss, “Left-Leaning Northampton, Stern, On the Same Wavelength,” Boston Globe, July 21, 2004.
28. Tim Cuprisin, “Inside Radio & TV,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 21, 2004.
29. Bob Collins, “Public radio listeners asking, ‘What about Bob?’,” Minnesota Public Radio News, April 1, 2004. Online: http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/04/01_collinsb_edwards/
30. Ellen Goodman, “Morning Edition’s wake-up call,” The Boston Globe, April 2, 2004.
31. Bob Collins, “Public radio listeners asking, ‘What about Bob?’,” Minnesota Public Radio News, April 1, 2004. Online: http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/04/01_collinsb_edwards/
32. Peter Johnson, “Edwards ousted as ‘Morning Edition’ host,” USA Today, March 23, 2004.
33. Bob Collins, “Public radio listeners asking, ‘What about Bob?’,” Minnesota Public Radio News, April 1, 2004. Online: http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/04/01_collinsb_edwards/.
34. Lynette Clemetson, “NPR Stations Had Pushed For Change,” New York Times, March 30, 2004
35. Mike Thomas, “NPR host Smiley: Network lacked commitment; Why he’s quitting public radio’s most successful African-American show,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 12, 2004.
37. Lynn Elber, “Smiley’s brave new face,” Associated Press, January 10, 2005.
38. Steve Johnson, “Post-breakup, NPR and Edwards are doing fine,” Chicago Tribune, October 19, 2004.
39. Minnesota Public Radio website. http://minnesota.publicradio.org/
40. Audience numbers provided by Minnesota Public Radio based on data from Arbitron.
41. Membership numbers provided by Minnesota Public Radio’s Membership Department.
42. Minnesota Public Radio, Annual Report 2003.
43. Mike Thomas, “NPR host Smiley: Network lacked commitment; Why he’s quitting public radio’s most successful African-American show,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 12, 2004.
44. Minnesota Public Radio, Annual Report 2003.
45. Based on information from the Web site “How Stuff Works.”