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How NPR Shattered The Old Model Of Broadcast Journalism

May 3, 2021

Monday, May 3, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of NPR's first on-air original broadcast. In the last half century, NPR and Member stations have been essential, trusted sources for local events and cultural programming featuring music, local history, education and the arts. To mark this milestone, we're reflecting on — and renewing — our commitment to serve an audience that reflects America and to Hear Every Voice.


In the 50 years that All Things Considered has been on the air, the ground under journalism has shifted.

In 1971, the three major television networks' evening news shaped the nation's perception of what was important in the world. With no social media, no internet and an abiding trust in media, NPR entered a rather restricted information landscape. All Things Considered did not try to compete directly; instead, to find its place, the program took a shot at a different style of storytelling.

According to former host Robert Siegel, when NPR and All Things Considered were conceived, it was during a time when American journalism was rapidly changing:

This was the period when CBS News, in 1968, [where] instead of just having a show where reporters would look at the camera and tell you what the truth was, what happened today — they created 60 Minutes, this interesting magazine show. The New York Times, in 1970, created an op-ed page — which was considered very risky — in which you could actually read the opinions that were not those of The New York Times or its columnists. All Things Considered and NPR in the early 70s are part of that.

However, they were a very quiet part of that. At the time, NPR didn't have the resources to hire many reporters. It relied on the contributions of member stations around the country, who would furnish feature stories. If a major issue arose, it would be handled by talking to a reporter from a newspaper or finding an academic who could espouse their views on the topic.

All Things Considered and the network at large took a few decades to attract the money and talent to compete with other major media outlets. Eventually, they did. With what we now consider as the network's flagship shows, NPR came to define a thorough brand of journalism and a widely emulated broadcast sound.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Imagine you get a chance to work at a startup - in this case, a new news organization. No one's ever heard of it.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: We didn't have any chairs. That was one of the things that was disconcerting.

CORNISH: And it has no real staff yet. And the office is, let's say, a work in progress.

WERTHEIMER: We had no chairs. We all - we had meetings sitting on the floor.

CORNISH: Linda Wertheimer - she's one of our founding mothers and former host of this program. But in 1970, she was being hired to direct ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I hate that job. It was the worst job I ever had.

CORNISH: Now, Linda had worked for the BBC and other places. And like many journalists at that time, she had a certain understanding of how things should sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARD R MURROW: I am Edward R. Murrow. For a little while, I would like to review with you the great conflict of our time.

CORNISH: CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow was the gold standard. Linda Wertheimer grew up admiring him. But in 1970, she sat down with a man named Bill Siemering, one of the early NPR bosses who created ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: And he was just kind of lounging and back in his chair and talking about how he wanted it to be different from everything else. And he didn't like the idea of radio voices. And I said, but Edward R. Murrow. He said, not Edward R. Murrow. We're not doing Edward R. Murrow. And I'm thinking, what are we doing? (Laughter) And I really didn't understand it.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Before the late '60s, this was really unusual.

CORNISH: Robert Siegel, also former host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and one-time chief of the newsroom.

SIEGEL: People were accustomed to the news being proclaimed by the voice of God or on television with the face thrown in and in the utmost seriousness and self-importance and authority. And the late 1960s were full of questioning of authority and of questioning the old ways of doing things.

CORNISH: Early NPR wanted to get away from super serious news that pretended to have all the answers, which is why on the first day of the show, in between all the coverage of anti-war protests, listeners also heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALLEN GINSBERG: But you...

LOUIS GINSBERG: Still, it's bad to take LSD...

A GINSBERG: I'm only...

L GINSBERG: That's dangerous.

A GINSBERG: You're making so many generalizations.

CORNISH: A barely edited conversation between poet Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, also a poet, about the pros and cons of mind-altering drugs

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A GINSBERG: Om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum - body, speech, mind, diamond.

L GINSBERG: To hippies (ph), one (unintelligible).

CORNISH: Brooke Gladstone, former NPR editor and now host of "On The Media," says in the '70s and '80s, while NPR grew modestly, it wasn't thought of as a primary source of news.

BROOKE GLADSTONE, BYLINE: Even when I started covering NPR for a public broadcasting newsletter called Current in 1982, it was very far-fetched thinking that NPR would ever evolve to actually being a primary source of news for millions of people.

CORNISH: But in the decade that followed, that's exactly what happened. And NPR's growth coincided with the rise of opinion journalism, with talk radio from the likes of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, with the lightning-fast cable news cycle, with the growing pressure to compete.

SIEGEL: And I remember the day of the disaster in Waco, Texas, with the Branch Davidians, when all that CNN had to go on was a shot from a distance of a building on fire, no information about what had happened yet.

CORNISH: Robert Siegel says that day in 1993, journalist and NPR's newsroom felt pressured to cover what was happening at the siege of a religious compound in Texas even though what was happening was completely unclear.

SIEGEL: We started hearing CNN was on the air with it, shouldn't we get on the air with it? But cable news stations that did that increased the pressure on us.

CORNISH: The company grew exponentially in the mid to late '90s in order to meet that challenge and focus more and more on hard news. But as that happened, one longtime producer wanted to follow the voices in the newsroom who thought the network should stay weird.

IRA GLASS, BYLINE: Like, I really saw my time at NPR as a time to experiment and just invent stuff and make stuff and was encouraged to do that.

CORNISH: Ira Glass - he had worked at NPR since 1978, did a lot of work that harkened back to the more experimental days of the network for this program, in fact.

GLASS: Whenever people would write about ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, they would mention this story as, like, an example of, like, the quirky kind of thing that they would do in this show. Basically, I interviewed people about song lyrics that they thought that they had right, but they had wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My friend Susan was convinced for the longest time that Mick Jagger did a song - she was thinking of the song "Beast Of Burden." She thought the lyrics were never leave your pizza burning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAST OF BURDEN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I'll never be your beast of burden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Of course, like everyone else in the country, I thought was (singing) there's a bathroom on the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MOON RISING")

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL: (Singing) There's a bad moon on the rise.

CORNISH: Small goofy story, sure, but hearing it underscores a question a lot of people in journalism were asking and still are - should the news be intimate, human, personal or should the news be hard-nosed and fast-paced, covering the world's biggest stories?

It's almost like NPR had a right brain and a left brain, and you picked one side of the brain (laughter).

GLASS: I guess. Like, I loved covering the news. So, like, I got to play both sides.

CORNISH: Glass left NPR after the network rejected his idea for a show that would become "This American Life." And plenty has been written and said about that show's influence on audio journalism and podcasting. But more recently, that program has also had to evolve.

GLASS: In the early years of our show for a long time, "This American Life" was just way too white and way too narrow in the group that was on the air.

CORNISH: But is that something you actually felt or was that something sort of brought to your attention at a certain point?

GLASS: No, it's something I always knew. Like, but, you know, honestly, like, we were making a show with a tiny staff, and there were very few people at that point who were trained to do this particular kind of journalism. And I think it just wasn't a priority, you know, just in, like, the worst way that a person can say that.

CORNISH: Was it hard making it a priority in the end?

GLASS: I mean, certain things about it were not. Like, hiring good people and bringing people in and training people was not, whereas staff - where we have a whole set of race equity filters that we put stories through during the editorial process trying to deal frankly with each other and talk these things through. And there are certain episodes and certain stories that we do that really take a long time to talk through. It's dealing with delicate questions that people have strong feelings about, and it feels very personal when we all talk about it, too.

CORNISH: It's the nature of the medium.

GLASS: It adds a layer of editorial process to many, many things. And so it also slows things down. You know, that's one of the things about organizations that don't do a good job with race equity is that everything has to be fast, fast, fast. And fortunately, because we're a weekly show, we can afford to slow things down.

CORNISH: All kinds of news organizations are in the middle of this very reckoning right now - a reckoning about who tells stories and how, who's considered objective and what does that mean anyway, and what kind of work is necessary to change.

MICHELE NORRIS: That has been challenging for legacy media, for old-school media to figure that out.

CORNISH: Former ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Michele Norris - she's now a columnist at The Washington Post. And she points out that in the last 15 years, there have been new questions about who tells stories, especially when those stories are about race.

NORRIS: There are all these social media platforms that allow you to express not just your reportage, but also your personality, your full self. Some reporters do that. There has been discomfort in some newsrooms. Can you express yourself fully and cover Black Lives Matter? Or can you do that and cover politics and do that in a way that is fair and impartial? I will be honest that I face some of that, as many other Black reporters did covering an ascendant Black candidate. And yet, white reporters cover white politicians all the time, and there are not questions about objectivity.

CORNISH: There was a time where I feel like as a young journalist of color, as you were coming up, you were sort of led to believe that you shouldn't be, quote unquote, "pigeonholed" in stories about race and that you had to do this kind of dance around the things you might be interested in or not because of how it would be perceived. How do you think that changed as you were coming up?

NORRIS: I will admit that for a time as a journalist, I did not want to cover the race beat. As a person of color, I always covered matters of race perhaps more than my white colleagues did. We are expected to step up every February and serve up stories about our people and our culture. There was an expectation that I would bring both contacts and context to those kinds of stories. But if I look back at - you know, on the time that I was there - and this is not unique to NPR, but I think mirrors what happened in American - in journalism as a whole - to the extent that we were covering race, we were often actually covering racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: This is Morning Edition. I'm Bob Edwards.

NORRIS: So there was a riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: A white police officer charged in the fatal shooting of a Black teenager - the incident set off riots in the town.

NORRIS: There was someone who was a first person to occupy a position.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Virginia's next governor, L. Douglas Wilder, is sworn in tomorrow. He's the first African American ever elected governor.

NORRIS: There was someone who died, and we were remembering them because they stood chest to the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And now we want to take a moment to remember the legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height.

NORRIS: It was usually some event that caused us to stand at attention and focus on an issue as opposed to covering race as a factor of everyday life. And I think that's one of the big changes that I'm starting to see in American journalism now, that we're actually looking at race as not just the hurricane that bears down upon us, but rather this kind of wind that's blowing, you know, over our shoulders all the time.

CORNISH: Remembering old values, cultivating new ones - to Brooke Gladstone, that is the key to the next 50 years of American journalism, not just at NPR.

GLADSTONE: This is a time when we need to look at systems, and it's a time when we need to explore our own values and use them to help us decide what to cover. You know, some stories are more important than others. Nothing has taught us that more than the Trump administration, which was brilliant in filling the air with shiny objects and having us all running around like dogs and squirrels. We had to wise up to the fact that we didn't not (ph) need to follow up every single lie. We had to pick those ones that mattered, which means we have to admit to ourselves that we have values and principles. Do you know what I mean?

CORNISH: How do you then think about going forward?

GLADSTONE: We have to lay out the stakes in every single story. We have to explain why this particular story matters. And then we have to give the listener purchase on that story, something with which they can identify before you plunge in. It was Walter Lippmann who said the world is far too complicated for us to understand in its entirety. We have to simplify it in order to live in it. We have to understand that that to an extent is our job, make the world comprehensible, present an accurate picture of what matters most.

CORNISH: Brooke Gladstone. And so with all that's happening these days, we're marking this milestone 50 years of NPR, with the goal of reflecting on and renewing our commitment to hear every voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.