An excerpt from
The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production
As the twenty-first century was approaching, NPR and other news organizations were forced to evolve at a pace that would have been inconceivable just ten years earlier (much less in 1971, when NPR was created). The tremendous expansion of the Internet, plus the sophistication of search engines and the rise of Web-based “content aggregators,” allowed people to get the latest news on their computer from across the globe as easily as from their local radio station or newspaper. The invention and proliferation of portable MP3 players—originally designed as devices for holding music—unexpectedly gave rise to the podcast, which let anyone with a computer and microphone syndicate his or her own programming. Web logs rapidly multiplied from merely personal diaries (although there are still plenty of those) to include insider reports on everything from an intern’s life at a large corporation to a Baghdad citizen’s view of the war in Iraq. The ubiquity of broadband and wireless connections, of digital cameras and cell phones, made it possible for people with no previous journalism experience to find themselves contributing to or even breaking a big story.
Today, a radio journalist often carries a digital camera and even a video camera, as well as a MiniDisc or flash recorder and a notepad. Reporters may be asked not only to take photographs, but also to record extra audio for the Web, to write a sidebar to be posted online or to take part in a podcast. As a result, a radio reporter who may be working without a producer for the piece slated for Morning Edition or Day to Day often collaborates with an online producer for the Web version of his story. Radio journalists who have spent decades learning how to “report with their ears” are now thinking about the best graphs, documents, photographs, video, or Web links to flesh out their reports. For many, these new responsibilities are also liberating: reporters working on Web stories don’t need to worry about squeezing their reports into predefined time slots. The Web is vast, and expandable; bits and bytes are cheap.
But while the Internet has given previously ephemeral radio stories new—and seemingly perpetual—life, it has also presented some unexpected challenges. Public radio journalists now face editorial, production, and ethical questions that were never relevant when they were concerned only with audio. Among them: Does a host’s byline on the Web suggest he or she has written the story, when the radio version may actually have been a “tape and copy” written by a staff producer and only presented by the host? Does providing a Web link to an organization imply an endorsement of that group? Since a podcast may be downloaded days after it is available, and listened to days after that, how does an editor ensure that a given podcast remains accurate? Can a slideshow on the Web have a music soundtrack, even if we would never consider putting music behind the voice tracks of a reporter’s on-air piece?
NPR and its member stations are only beginning to answer these sorts of questions. But already it’s clear that digital media turn some of the axioms of conventional radio production and transmission on their heads. People now can listen to pieces and interviews completely divorced from the shows on which they were broadcast. They can go backwards in time—by hitting the replay button on their audio player. A program clock doesn’t govern the length of a story when it appears only on the Web or in a podcast. News reports often include pictures, and lots of other visual elements. We frequently have headlines on the Web, as well as story summaries and extended text. And spelling does matter.
The Web-Radio Relationship
Do an online search for an important news story, and you’ll find variations of it on hundreds of Web sites representing all sorts of organizations—from the Rutland Herald in Vermont to Al Jazeera (produced in Qatar) to the Washington Post. News is everywhere on the Internet. So it’s fair to ask how a radio network or individual station can distinguish itself from all the other online news sources.
For one thing, it can use the Web was as a vault for storing audio. That was one of the first ways public radio took advantage of the Internet; the earliest NPR stories online date back to 1996. “It’s still the single most important thing that we do,” says Jeffrey Katz, who was a print reporter for twenty years before he came to NPR, first as a radio editor and then to work for NPR.org. Today, a listener who hears an All Things Considered story on a new treatment for a rare disease can find the audio of the piece online, even if he doesn’t know the name of the reporter, the show that broadcast the story, or the date it aired. If he can’t recall the name of the disease, he can try searching by the reporter’s name or by the program title. “It’s sort of like the old days of the library, when you could look for a book by the subject, or the author, or title,” Katz says. “It’s the same way [on the Web]: you can get it by topic, you can get it by the reporter, the show, the day—it’s all there.”
The Internet can also be a way to distribute radio-style reports that are not actually broadcast. Doug Mitchell has coordinated workshops at universities and conventions where students and young journalists experience what’s involved in reporting and producing for public radio; a similar project for NPR interns is called “Intern Edition.” In both cases, participants learn how to shape story ideas, find sources, record interviews, write a script, and read it aloud. The finished pieces then go on the Web. Originally, Mitchell says, the Web helped market the training programs. “It was sort of guerilla grass-roots marketing. Let’s put it up on the Web, and the participants can tell their friends, and they can say, …I want to do that, too!’” Today, radio producers and editors who listen to “Intern Edition” online frequently hear something that’s airworthy—and invariably one or two of those stories end up on the network news magazines, or get broadcast by member stations.
Today, digital media can extend and support radio programming, and at the same time offer users material they won’t find on the Web site of even a top-tier newspaper. For editors, producers, and reporters who are moving beyond radio, there are a few key ideas to keep in mind:
Use the Web as a place for audio that doesn’t get on the air because program time is so limited. Recorded interviews with newsmakers—which usually have to be cut to between three and eight minutes to fit in program segments—may be posted online at much greater length. A reporter may even decide to do a story exclusively for the Web, using material that was left over from the original reporting. For example, when Ellen Weiss was heading NPR’s national desk, she edited a series of reports on solitary confinement in the U.S. “We ended up doing a radio profile of a prisoner who had been in solitary confinement for eighteen years,” she recalls. “We originally thought we were going to broadcast it with a story about a guard who had also worked in solitary confinement. But his side of the story just didn’t work that well on the air, and they didn’t seem to work together.” So the reporter, Laura Sullivan, wrote and voiced a piece that “aired” only online.
Use digital media to extend and enhance the broadcast version of the story—“to be a service arm of radio,” as Katz puts it. When you conceive of a Web build-out of a story, remember that it can take many forms. On one typical day, the lead All Things Considered story on the U.S. response to a North Korean nuclear test was represented online by a few paragraphs of text and links to related stories that ran the same day on other shows. On that same program, there was a piece about special interest groups urging judicial candidates to answer written questions about where they stood on controversial issues; the Web page for that story included an adaptation of the radio script, plus downloadable versions of questionnaires from three different states. A broadcast story on “graduated licensing” of teenage drivers—imposing driving curfews, limiting the number of allowable passengers, or banning cell phone use until they have gotten some experience—appeared on the Web with text, a photo, a chart from the National Highway Transportation Board, and nine links to related stories about teen drivers dating back six years. And a host’s interview with an author showed up on the Web with a long excerpt from the book, as well as a sidebar on one of the book’s subjects. All of the Web pages included icons that took users to the audio for the radio stories, in case they missed the original items, wanted to hear them again, or came to the Web pages without tuning in first to All Things Considered.
Organize Web projects thematically, as “special reports.” “Rather than thinking of a one-to-one relationship between a story that airs and a Web page that goes with it, we’re thinking more of the overall coverage,” says Maria Godoy, who in her role as a Web producer has worked primarily with radio journalists covering national news. She ticks off some examples: A special site devoted to election coverage, featuring contested House and Senate seats around the country; one on the history and powers of the National Security Agency and the issue of warrantless wiretaps (which was big news in 2006); another on whether the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation, with excerpts from and links to various historical documents. Laura Sullivan’s three radio pieces on solitary confinement spawned a special online report on the subject, Godoy says. “Sometimes when there’s a special issue of a magazine, the first page will be a letter from the editor. Well, that was concept we had of how we could tie all these stories together. We gave people an overview about what prompted Laura to do this series, and what the conditions were in prisons—an overview of issues that only emerged slowly in the stories, that were told through prison visits.” The text and audio of the Sullivan radio reports were only part of the Web coverage. “We also did a Q&A with the U.S. director of Human Rights Watch about concerns human rights advocates have about the practice. And we had something from a prisons expert at the Cato Institute about why the U.S. still needs to preserve [solitary confinement]—even if it’s changed, why it’s of value to law enforcement. And we had a history of solitary confinement—a timeline—because it might surprise people to know that it started as a Quaker practice in the 1820s.”
Start the Web-radio collaboration as early as possible. A Web build-out like the one on solitary confinement takes time to develop—there are facts to be uncovered, guests to book, and interviews to edit, just as there would be on any radio program. Ensuring the Web story’s success requires close and early cooperation between an online producer and the reporter and editor from the radio side—in the same way a good field producer works alongside a correspondent or host.
That similarity isn’t accidental. Jeffrey Katz says he and other people who work in digital news media “think of ourselves pretty much as a show—that we’re not there as an audio repository only, we’re not just there only as a service arm.” An online show might center on an issue, like the tension between national security and civil liberties, or it might focus on a breaking story. During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, for instance, Mary Louise Kelly briefly moved from her usual position as an intelligence reporter to the Web side of NPR. “Mary Louise did a particularly good job of pulling together what was in the news, what was on the wires, what was going to happen next, and most particularly, what was on our air,” Katz says. “And because it was such a big story, we were able to connect four different audio pieces at the very top [from reporters in the Middle East and in Washington].” Kelly updated the site that same day—and again the following day. “For someone who values NPR’s expertise on a big story, this was an incredible resource,” Katz says.
As a radio producer or reporter, think about the aspects of your story that are best suited to digital media. If you are covering a high-profile trial, you may be able to file a dispatch describing the mood in the courtroom, or the security procedure; if you’re on the road with a congressman, you might want to write about all the different foods the politician had to eat in his weeklong campaign swing. The great advantage of digital media is that you can cover a story in whatever depth is appropriate; there’s no such thing as a fixed segment length, as there is on the radio, and no “budget” for news stories, as there is at a newspaper. “The single most frustrating thing I faced as a print reporter was the news hole,” Katz says. “I remember various times, when the cost of newsprint went up or advertising revenue went down, that suddenly instead of having twenty inches on a daily story and thirty on Sunday, now it was fifteen inches daily and twenty-five on Sunday. Well, it’s never an issue on the Web. The news hole is what we make it.”
Make sure listeners know what they’ll find online. Someone who’s just heard a five-minute report on the air isn’t likely to go to his computer if you only say, “For more on this story, go to our Web site.” So let listeners know what they’ll find: “To find out whether your hometown is one of the hot real estate markets” or “We’ve put pictures of Marisa and the other orphans mentioned in this report” or “To see whether the congressional race in your district is considered a toss-up” And if you’re posting an extended version of an interview, don’t just say that it’s “longer,” but give people an idea of what they might hear online: “You can find out what the Defense Secretary thinks about the military budget, and hear his position on reinstituting the draft”
The Manifold Media of the Web
It is hard to imagine any radio network or station mounting a Web site that didn’t make good use of its audio. Public radio’s long experience at recording and mixing sound is what differentiates it from other news organizations. But for a number of reasons, simply linking to the audio version of a report or interview doesn’t serve most Web users very well. “People who are looking at the Internet on the job often can’t listen to audio at their workplace,” says Maria Thomas, who joined NPR in 2001 to head its digital media operation. They may fear that the sound will disturb the person working in the next cubicle or the corporate IT department may not allow them to download any audio players. Even if they can listen at their computer, Web users may not have the patience to do so. On the Internet, people tend to “graze,” Jeffrey Katz says. “You’re often looking for something particular, and you want to get right to it. Users don’t necessarily want to commit to hear a seven-minute or twenty-minute segment.”
Fortunately, there are ways to adapt radio news reports for various digital media to make them more appealing to online users.
Find new ways to use recorded audio. Look for what Katz describes as “easier entry points” into the sound. For instance, the NPR Web page designed after Coretta Scott King died in 2006 not only featured a twelve-minute interview recorded several years earlier; it also incorporated a sidebar, “In Her Words.” Users could sample a number of short audio clips, captioned, “King speaking at Memphis rally in April 1968, after her husband’s death,” “On why she married Martin Luther King Jr.,” and “Civil rights struggle was a …commitment,’ not a …sacrifice.’” These sorts of short sound bites are often just what users are looking for online. “To me that’s a much more rewarding way to spend time on the Web than making a big commitment to listen to a long piece that may or may not give you what you want to hear,” Katz says.
Provide text versions of the radio scripts—and make sure they are adapted for the Web. Because some users come to NPR’s Web site through search engines or via a news aggregator, they’re not expecting to listen to a story—they want to read it. At NPR.org, some of the online adaptations are only a few paragraphs long; others run 700 or 800 words. In general, more text is better. “When I go to the Web, I love being able to read the text of the story,” says Ellen Weiss, who has spent her whole career on the radio side of the business. “There’s a huge difference between being able to read a story in two minutes and listen to it for eight.”
When you put the text of a radio story on the Web, you have to do a lot more than just transcribe the actualities, according to NPR Web editor Todd Holzman. “The best radio scripts are tailored to the voice and delivery of the individual correspondent,” he points out. “Key points may be carried by inflection. Phrases are conversational and not always as precise as we might want for text.” The Web text can be more precise and less redundant than the radio script. “Since a reader can stop and return to an earlier paragraph, or pause and reflect, there is less need to reemphasize key points, such as people’s full names.” Holzman says writing for the Web isn’t even the same as writing for a newspaper, because people scan the Web more than they do printed text. “We shoot for shorter paragraphs and more opportunities to break away cleanly with a sense of the story. Long introductory paragraphs do not work, for the most part.” That sort of concision can be a particular challenge for public radio, which often deals with serious issues in great depth. “We’re dealing with some tough concepts at NPR,” Jeffrey Katz says, “whether it’s things happening in the Middle East, or immigration, or whatever. But I think we still have to give people information in digestible chunks.”
Identify sidebars clearly. “When we have one big story and little sidebars, I want those sidebars, those inserts to tell you right from the get-go how this piece, this sidebar, differs from what else is on that page,” Katz says. “In a couple of well-chosen paragraphs, you give them that summary, and then …Click here to read more.’”
In September 2007, when General Motors reached a tentative contract with the UAW after the union staged a one-day strike, the reporter’s Morning Edition report was only the starting point of the NPR Web version of the story. The online account included one sidebar on the details of the agreement (“At a Glance: GM’s Deal with the UAW”), another on its possible ramifications for other automakers (“GM Labor Deal May Change U.S. Auto Industry”), and a third, titled “In Depth: The Man Leading the UAW,” about union leader Ron Gettelfinger. That item included links to a Gettelfinger profile and a Q&A about why the negotiations were considered among the most important in the history of General Motors.
The ability to write strong, accurate, and catchy headlines—a skill few radio reporters and editors needed to acquire in the past—plays a crucial role in directing Web users to particular stories or sidebars. Here again, the Web reveals itself as a unique medium that calls for its own style of writing. “One of the things Web technology both permits and encourages is multiple use of the same information in multiple displays,” Todd Holzman observes. A headline written for an item on new dental treatments, for instance, may not only show up on the Morning Edition Web page for the day on which the piece was broadcast, but also in a special online report on health care technology, as part of another Web special on medical spin-offs from the space program, on yet another page about new applications for plastics, and so on. “A newspaper headline that is just perfect for a given page—in context with photos and text, perhaps a sub-headline—might not permit multiple uses elsewhere on a Web site or in syndication on partner sites.” In other words, Holzman says, “a good Web headline is a multipurpose headline that tells the story in a functional way. And it’s probably not too clever by half, although it can still have personality.”
Adopt a consistent style. Web text has to be stylistically consistent—unlike a radio script, whose appearance doesn’t matter as long as it makes sense to the reporter, editor, and studio engineer. A script may have idiosyncratic punctuation, pronouncers, and production instructions, such as “***Hit ambi cold (donkey braying) and bring sheep bleats under next trak***.” The reporter may put all of her actualities in uppercase to distinguish them from her voice tracks. There may be misspellings, or abbreviations that only the reader and her editor understand (e.g., “wh” for “the White House”). And one person’s style may differ completely from another’s. None of this is acceptable on the Web, where text needs to have a consistent look and style.
To make that possible, NPR Digital Media hired its first copyeditor in 2006, and has developed an online style guide for its Web site to augment the Associated Press Stylebook, and to reflect decisions made by editors and management. It deals with many technical issues, but also with spelling (“Airstrike—one word”); capitalization (“Cabinet/cabinet—Capitalize references to a specific body of advisers heading executive departments for a president, king, governor, etc.”); titles for NPR journalists (“Write around formalized NPR titles. Example: David Kestenbaum, a science correspondent”); and many other issues that never cropped up before about 2000.
Make sure photographs help tell the story. Most public radio reporters now expect to be taking photographs when they’re out on a story. Of course, not every radio journalist is a good photographer, and a successful Web site doesn’t post photographs that are dull, poorly composed, or out of focus. “If it’s a bad picture, we’re not going to run it,” Maria Godoy says. “If it were a bad piece of audio, you wouldn’t put it on the air. So you don’t want to use just any snapshots.” Radio reporters should get at least basic training in photojournalism if their pictures are going to be used online.
Use graphs, Q&As, and primers. A photograph may not be the appropriate illustration for a given story. Godoy gives the example of a reporter’s profile of David Swensen, a Yale money manager who reaped an average 16 percent annual return over twenty-one years—better than any portfolio manager at any other university. When the reporter asked her what she might want to accompany the Web version of his story, Godoy immediately asked for a Q&A listing some tips for average investors. “That’s what listeners are going to want,” Godoy says. “If he hadn’t asked me, he might just have taken some pictures. But you don’t care what the guy looks like—you want to know how he’s going to help you make money!”
Q&As and primers are hallmarks of public radio Web sites; they fill in the spaces in a news story by adding details on related subjects, and by answering questions that might occur to users. The main NPR Web page on bird flu, for instance, not only lists more than fifteen broadcast stories—the number grows as more pieces air—and includes links to outside sites, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization; it also features a Q&A by two science editors, written specifically for the Web, on the potential for a flu pandemic and the status of influenza treatments and vaccines. Other Q&As on the same page were transcribed from broadcast interviews, in which experts fielded questions sent in by listeners. That “Ask the expert” format also works well on the Web; after Morning Edition broadcast a report on treatments for back pain, NPR.org took in questions from listeners and produced three online Q&As—on pain management and the back, physical therapy and back pain, and back surgery. These and other items were all part of a Web special called “Ah, My Aching Back!”
Take advantage of “hyperlinks”—links in a document to information that’s either within that document or in another document. One part “Ah, My Aching Back!,” for example, is an interactive feature called “Where the Back Fails,” where a user can examine a detailed picture of the lower spine. Three sections are labeled “Spinal Stenosis,” “Degenerating Spinal Joints,” and “Ruptured Disc.” Click on a label, and it brings up another screen with an illustration and additional text. Try that on the radio!
Combine audio with other media. Some of the most effective Web presentations combine pictures or video and audio—taking advantage of public radio’s experience in radio recording and production, and the Web staff’s knowledge of what makes a forceful visual presentation. In September 2006, for instance, NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro filed a Morning Edition report on Michoacan, the Mexican state where tens of thousands of people live off the drug trade, and where hundreds died in a single year in drug-related violence. For a narrated slideshow that accompanied her story on the Web, NPR hired a professional photographer, and Garcia-Navarro provided the voice tracks and ambient sound. “Can the New York Times and the Washington Post do narrated slide shows? Absolutely,” says Jeffrey Katz. “But what do we have? We have better audio than anyone else. The same sort of radio skills that we value so much on the air are just as valuable on the Web.”
Even better: combine audio with pictures and text. The special Web site “Katrina: One Year Later,” launched in the fall of 2006, illustrates how a broadcaster can exploit all of the different strengths of the Web. The site included photos and links to NPR stories broadcast around the anniversary of the hurricane. There were entries from the blog Noah Adams kept when he was in New Orleans. (“My final visit today was to the Fair Grounds Race Course in the Gentilly neighborhood. The …sad Fair Grounds,’ is the way I’ve come to think about the place, flooded, with plywood replacing big sheets of grandstand glass.”) Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, who did a lot of reporting from New Orleans in the previous year, narrated an audio slide show—again mixing ambience with the voice tracks, and relying on a professional’s photographs. There were other features designed specifically for the Web, among them an interactive map of the city’s levees; a feature “Tracking the Diaspora,” looking at where the evacuees were living after a year; and a sidebar called “Envisioning the Future,” with essays by five historians, writers, and area residents imagining what New Orleans will be like fifty years from now.
“Reimagine” the radio story. For Web producers, Maria Godoy says, the goal is not just adapting what’s on the air, but “reimagining how to tell a radio story on the Web.” For the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, NPR produced a series of radio profiles of people whose lives were somehow transformed by 9/11. Each feature was available online on its own page—but NPR.org found a way to knit all of the stories together. “What we did for the Web,” Godoy explains, “was to send out a professional photographer to take pictures of these people—mostly in New York but in other parts of the country, too—and then I worked with each of the reporters to get just one twenty-second sound bite that captured their story.” She then created a multimedia slideshow by combining the actualities culled from the radio pieces with the pictures taken by the photographer. She added music and captions (“Mohommed Razvi ran a small family-business empire in BrooklynHe gave it all up to become a community activist”) to create something that borrowed from the radio stories, but was really born on the Web.
One of the digital innovations that coincided with the start of the twenty-first century was on-demand audio, or podcasting. Public radio already had the infrastructure for recording and digitizing its programming; it was a relatively small step to make it possible for users to “subscribe” to individual shows, so that programs could be downloaded automatically at regular intervals.
It took only a few months for NPR to become either directly or peripherally involved in the production and distribution of all sorts of syndicated audio. Users can now sign up for weekly feeds of shows broadcast by NPR or its member stations. (They can also subscribe to All Songs Considered, the first NPR program designed as an Internet, as opposed to radio, broadcast.) Other podcasts consist of stories that have been broadcast on the air, but never in the same sequence in which they are heard on the podcast. NPR introduced a thirty-minute podcast consisting of the most emailed stories of the day, culled from various programs; it also created podcasts on movies, books, technology, business, and many other subjects, each one a compilation of previously broadcast pieces or interviews. Several NPR staff members put together original podcasts. In 2005, reporter Mike Pesca began a five-minute podcast on gambling; in the run-up to the 2006 elections, Washington editor Ron Elving and political correspondent Ken Rudin collaborated on the weekly podcast It’s All Politics. NPR also started distributing podcasts—like Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything and Love and Radio—created by independent producers.
Today the podcasting landscape is varied, vast, and growing; it may be unrecognizable in a decade. But people involved in podcasting say there are a few things that any public broadcaster should keep in mind as it expands into this and other digital media.
Stick to your core values. Eric Nuzum—who helped to launch and expand NPR’s podcasts—says the diverse programs and features offered as podcasts share the same values that are at the core of the public radio’s news magazines and entertainment programming. Among them: “the authenticity of what we do; that we’re trying to find the …why’ of things; that the personalities of those involved are secondary to the personalities of those we’re trying to illuminate—it’s not about us, it’s about them; and that people’s ideas have value—that people can disagree, but they do so in a way that’s not dismissive.”
Don’t compromise on audio quality. The sound of these podcasts also tells listeners that there’s a connection with public radio. They are professionally recorded; the hosts seem comfortable behind a mic; often the podcasts include interviews or actualities. That production quality should never neglected, says Stacey Bond, a twenty-year radio veteran who now teaches people to produce “content” on air and online for public radio stations. “Ever since we had the first recording—’Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ recorded on a piece of tinfoil—we’ve been evolving the craft of audio. Why abandon all of that now just because the delivery system is different?” Bond says some people may be willing to put up with garage-quality recording if they’re particularly interested in the topic, “but I think as more and more people start listening to audio content via podcast, the tolerance for poor-quality programming is going to erode.”
Don’t forget what radio has taught us about keeping listeners’ interest. Bond also teaches would-be podcasters not to assume that they have the full attention of their listeners. “Just as with radio, they might be getting their children ready for school, or getting in their car, or making some bacon, or walking in and out of their room getting dressed,” she says. “They may be listening on earbuds or on their computer, but they’re doing other things while they’re listening.” So she trains podcasters to write for the ear, to start with a billboard, and to make sure their stories have a beginning, middle, and end—to “take the listener on a little journey.”
Find your own voice. If all this sounds like the prescription for producing any radio story, it is—with a few differences. One is tone. When NPR editor Beth Donovan pitched the idea for the podcast It’s All Politics, she knew she didn’t want it to sound “like something you would hear on NPR.” Her favorite podcasts always sounded casual and spontaneous—”two guys sitting around shooting the breeze about, say fly-fishing, or whatever they liked”—and she wanted to capture that same informality in a feature about politics. Her goal was to make it sound like the listener had just dropped by the office and was hearing these two political junkies chat together.
The result was a feature whose subject matter could be heard on many NPR broadcasts, but whose style and pacing were decidedly zippier. In a typical podcast, Ken Rudin and Ron Elving interrupt one another, they digress to mention political trivia, they sometimes make puns or self-deprecating comments—even as they examine and discuss the biggest political stories of the week. In this podcast, for example, they riff on a sex scandal involving a member of Congress:
ELVING: Welcome to this week’s episode of It’s All Politics from NPR News. I’m Ron Elving.
Cater to your audience. From the start, It’s All Politics differed from most of the political discussions on the radio news magazines because it presumed that its audience was already interested in the subject. That allowed the hosts to bring up fine points of a story that might be edited out of a two-way on Morning Edition or Day to Day:
RUDIN: There is an interesting sidebar—what happens to his seat in Florida—
It’s All Politics—or any other podcast on a specialized topic—is really a “narrowcast.” The hosts can discuss things a more general radio audience might not be interested in—arcana on a century-old special election, for instance. “Part of the idea for the podcast was to give political junkies that nugget, that one fresh fact that’s the smartest thing they hear that day,” says Beth Donovan. If you’re producing a podcast for that sort of select audience, you don’t need to provide the same degree of background information and context that would usually be added to a radio piece. “We do try to identify people and not be too oblique,” Donovan says, “but we assume people are following the story and they do want the inside baseball.” Stacey Bond, the podcast instructor, describes it as “niche marketing”—”It’s a much narrower audience, but it’s a more concentrated kind of audience.”
Remember that you, not a program clock, determine the proper length of a podcast. If you’re a radio journalist who’s just getting into podcasting, you’ll be relieved to find the time slot is flexible; you’re not confined by a segment, as you are on the air. “In radio, it’s a crisis if you’re five seconds long! And sometimes finding those five seconds is horrible,” Beth Donovan says. “We don’t have to do that on the podcast.” But don’t allow the length to fluctuate so much that users don’t know what they’re subscribing to, Stacey Bond warns. “The length can be whatever the content requires, but I don’t think there should be a lot of variation. If you create an expectation in your listeners that a show is going to be approximately twenty minutes long, it would be weird to have a huge format breaker of a seventy-five-minute-long show.”
Be sensitive to matters of taste. Podcasts can take on subjects and use language that would be taboo on the air. The Federal Communications Commission regulates radio broadcasts, and restricts those deemed obscene or profane. But in the online world, the syndicator, not a government agency, is responsible for policing what goes out in a podcast. “Our unwritten policy for podcasting is if it couldn’t appear on the radio—the language, the subject matter—it should get an …explicit’ tag on it when it’s listed online,” Eric Nuzum says. “There’s an implied understanding by the listener of what it means to be NPR, even though it isn’t written down anywhere.” Nuzum doesn’t mind podcasters using the sort of language you might hear on the street—the occasional four-letter word or crude expression—as long as it’s there as an integral part of the story and not merely for its shock value. “The decision about whether you would have profanity or vulgar subjects included is justified by whether I learn something about the world, or I understand things at a deeper level,” he says.
Public radio producers involved in podcasting say they provide an inexpensive way to supplement the conventional broadcasts, and to establish connections with listeners who are passionate about certain subjects. There may be other pay-offs as well. “We’re developing talent,” says Nuzum, describing one podcast hosted by two recent college graduates. “I give them notes every time they do an episode, we have a lot of conversations—so they’re kind of getting an education.” In that respect, experimenting with podcasts now can be an investment in the future. “These guys could be great public radio producers some day—and the kind of producers we’re going to need at that time, who see the world a little differently, but have an incredible amount of skill and have built up an editorial sense and know how to tell a story,” Nuzum says. “We’re teaching them how to be good at radio, according to the values we all share.”
Editorial Issues Online
For the most part, journalists working in digital media confront and resolve the same sorts of editorial questions journalists have always grappled with—verifying allegations, fact checking, avoiding bias. But there are a few issues that arise on the Web that don’t usually surface in radio broadcasts.
Take quotes, for instance. On the one hand, a radio journalist literally records what people say; his obligation is to make sure that an interview or actuality is never edited in such a way that it distorts the speaker’s meaning. On the other hand, newspaper reporters often just take notes as they interview sources, and then reconstruct the quotes as accurately as they can (or limit the quotes to words or phrases that they know were uttered); the journalists are responsible for ensuring that an interviewee feels he or she has been quoted accurately, even if some of the words differ from what was actually said. But many stories appear on NPR.org both as the original audio and as text adaptations of radio scripts. That means listeners can easily determine whether any written quotes are actually paraphrases, rather than transcriptions of what was broadcast. (In fact, listeners can also obtain transcripts for a fee.) For that reason, online quotes excerpted from the radio stories have to be absolutely accurate, says Jeffrey Katz. “We shouldn’t have to explain why a quote was different in one place than in another.”
Similarly, visitors to the Web can often compare an interview they heard on the air with an extended online version. They can decide for themselves whether a producer took unwarranted liberties when he or she was cutting the interview for broadcast—by grafting together the beginning of one sentence with the end of another, for instance, or by moving the answer to one question up so it appears to be the response to another. As someone who has worked on both the radio and digital sides of NPR, Katz thinks having a longer online version of an interview may help to keep radio producers honest. “As a radio editor, I got pretty creative about ways I could get producers to edit interviews. And I have to tell you, in those cases where I knew we were going to put an extended version on the Web, I thought about it more,” he says. He believes letting listeners see how the editorial process works—”opening the curtain a little bit”—is a positive development. “I think allowing some sunshine on how we do things is good. But we better make sure we have our act together when we show people that.”
The use of stock photographs on the Web also can raise issues that are unfamiliar to radio journalists. There’s generally no problem illustrating, say, a profile of a Maine lobsterman with a picture of the man in his boat. But how do you add a photo to a story on obesity? Or Alzheimer’s? Or alcoholism? NPR.org’s online style guide cautions Web producers not to use photos of an identifiable person—someone you would recognize by the picture if he or she were already known to you—and associate it with a situation “where it may not apply factually.” It gives this example: “A middle-aged woman is not necessarily a middle-aged woman with a drinking problem just because she’s holding a glass of wine. If it’s a silhouette of a person who is not identifiable and she’s holding a glass of wine, that’s acceptable.”
Web links can also be problematic. Users may hold Web producers responsible not only for the content they originate, but also for the sites they link to. So “link responsibly”; make sure you know something about the site you’re sending users to. If it’s blatantly commercial, obscene, or filled with unsubstantiated rumors, it reflects badly on you and your radio service.
Podcasts have their own set of editorial problems, especially since NPR syndicates some podcasts that it does not originate. Independent podcast producers may not feel the same editorial and ethical pressures that public radio has been confronting for three decades. But you should apply the same standards you would use on the air. For example, Eric Nuzum says he faced an issue that has also come up in radio programs—distinguishing a re-creation from an actuality. “Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything occasionally uses fiction,” he says. “So the question was how do we identify that as fiction—that this is something that’s made up?” Nuzum says he decided they couldn’t deceive podcast listeners any more than they would a radio audience, but they were careful not to be so ham-handed about labeling the fiction that it spoiled the story. A slightly different situation arose with the podcast Brini Maxwell’s Hints for Gracious Living, which Nuzum describes as “a guy playing a character who’s a woman from the 1950s, who gives household advice.” The issue in that case was whether to identify the actor behind the character. “When we first started, we just said it was Brini Maxwell’s Hints for Gracious Living. Then we realized this doesn’t really follow people’s expectations of us. We needed to identify it as …Ben Sander as Brini Maxwell.’”
It can be harder to remove factual errors from a podcast than it is to correct mistakes on the air. On the radio, a misstatement can be corrected—immediately, when it’s caught in time, later in the program or in a subsequent program if it’s not. The first feed of a news magazine is updated as events change, and updated a second or third time, if necessary. (Only the most up-to-date feed goes into the online archives.) Podcasts also need to be accurate, even if that accuracy has to be achieved with the digital equivalent of a razor blade. “We never let a mistake go out in the podcast—ever,” says editor Beth Donovan. “No matter what I have to cut out, we just don’t do that.” It may be even more difficult to spot and correct mistakes in podcasts from independent producers, since you may not have any way to determine if they are accurate. “If there is a mistake that gets by us, we can do a …reburn,’ and replace the podcast with a new one,” Eric Nuzum says. “If someone has already downloaded it, they’ll see it twice. If someone has not downloaded it yet, they only get the new one and they never knew the old one was even there.”
Remember: online errors persist in a way that is unknown in live broadcasting. On the radio, Jeffrey Katz says, “if you make a big mistake, you might hear from listeners for a couple days; if it’s small, someone would have to listen carefully even to hear that somebody misspoke. And usually, it’s a little problem that day, or the next day.” But he says editorial lapses on the Web seem to live on forever. “They’re like little time-release mini-bombs that explode without fail every day!” Someone listening on the Web to a year-old interview or feature may complain about a grammatical mistake, or a host’s failure to follow up a question, or a guest’s referring to “Senator Jones” as “Congressman Jones.” As Katz puts it, “Radio may be ephemeral; our audio isn’t.” And a Web page that was complete and accurate when it was originally put up may be out-of-date by the time a user finds his way to it, Katz says. “On the radio, no one would think of saying …You need to update that story you did three years ago, because so-and-so has since died.’ But we get these all the time!” Katz’s staff fixes grammatical errors whenever they learn of them, and always removes outdated links, but he draws the line at updating every page in perpetuity. Just make sure every Web page has the proper dateline so users know when it first appeared.
Some of digital media’s best-known creations—from the World Wide Web itself, to podcasts, to blogs—have come on the scene with little warning, grown rapidly, and evolved in unexpected ways. Anticipating online trends appears to be a risky and self-defeating undertaking. But there may be no choice: with public radio listenership starting to plateau, future audience growth may have to come via digital media. For both commercial and public news broadcasters, the pace of change is only likely to quicken. Digital Media chief Maria Thomas says managing that change successfully will require people to change their view of broadcasters generally and of NPR specifically—from a company that creates one product (radio programs) and has one distribution channel (radio stations) to a “multi-product, multi-channel company.” A digital “product” might be a Web site, a podcast, or a blog; a “channel” could be anything from a computer screen to a cell phone.
Thomas foresees that news stories will increasingly be presented to online users a little at a time. “Today on the radio side, there’s a lot of thinking around shaping the story, and molding the story, and choosing the bits and pieces of the story that are thought to be relevant to the listener,” she says. “It’s a very different mind-set to operate on a platform that’s highly dynamic, where the expectation of the audience is that the story will change.” She says people who get much of their news from the Web “understand that when an event happens, there might be just one line on a Web site, and then in an hour there might be five paragraphs, and in two hours two pages.”
Posting pieces of a story as they are reported and verified requires more than simply a commitment of energy, especially if people have spent their careers in radio alone. People’s jobs need to change; the table of organization has to be rearranged, Thomas says. For example, when a broadcaster puts out more stories as text, it needs a copy desk; as more people get their daily news via search engines, news aggregators, and news syndicators, radio programmers have to hire people with the knowledge of how to “optimize content” for those channels—to make their stories more prominent when people are looking for news on a specific topic.
As people get a growing share of their news by computer, wireless email devices, and cell phones, Thomas predicts that news stories will have to be “disaggregated”—taken out of their original context. This happened first in some podcasts, where items plucked from different programs were rearranged according to a common subject. In the future, the radio connection may be far more tenuous. A story filed for a particular radio newscast or news magazine may simultaneously show up—in text form—on a user’s computer or cell phone, bundled together with items from other news organizations. That separation from any specific program—and even from the radio altogether—forces changes in the way stories are written, Thomas says. “Every story has to be complete unto itself.” And each story needs to be “packaged” in a number of different ways, for the different channels through which it’s distributed. Just as a radio pieces need to fit into the program “clock”—with its well-defined segments, cut-aways, promos, and station breaks—digital news has to be packaged appropriately, Thomas says. “Packaging in the digital media world is more dynamic, because there are more products and there are more possible packages. You can have the best content in the world, and if it’s not searchable, not easily discoverable, not packaged in a way that’s easily consumed, I don’t think we’re going to keep the audience—at least, not the new audience.” What might a digital news package look like? If it is a story destined for a cell phone, it may be just 160 characters long—about the length of the first sentence in this paragraph. If it’s a daily podcast designed for high school or college teachers to use in a classroom, it might consist of a half-hour of topical news reports.
Maria Thomas also foresees a growing role for users as sources of news, as well as consumers of it. In recent years, many radio programs have encouraged listener involvement by soliciting their questions for experts to answer, by getting them to recount first-person experiences in commentaries or on talk shows, and even by appealing to them to send in audio they had recorded on their own. NPR.org likewise interacts with people through program blogs. Minnesota Public Radio has gone much further with its Public Insight Journalism project, and has enlisted thousands of people as potential sources. MPR’s Web site emphasizes, “We want to get to know you better so we can ask you about issues and events that you have experienced directly,” and includes an online form where people can note their specific areas of interest and expertise. Members of MPR’s Public Insight Network contributed to stories on how Minnesotans were faring financially, whether they were making adjustments to their lifestyles to try to reduce global warming, and many others. MPR also welcomes story ideas from the general population, with the qualification that “in some cases, your idea may be a good one, but the newsroom may have other priorities.”
Maria Thomas thinks that listeners and users may be setting those priorities more and more in the future, and that media companies should be “thinking about how to engage the users first to inform the content.” She gives the example of the BBC’s coverage of the terrorist attack on the London subway system on July 7, 2005. “They got twenty thousand emails in a few hours, and many photos from people who were in the Tube, taking photos on their cell phones or their digital cameras.” New technology makes it possible for any news organization to have thousands of potential citizen reporters in the field at any moment. If an earthquake were to strike a U.S. city, a hundred accounts from around the metropolitan area—with text messages and photos sent directly to NPR or its local member station—could present a detailed picture of the event before the usual wire services had even had time to run a story. “This is one of the really big ideas that’s going to transform media significantly in the next five or ten years,” Thomas predicts.
Such scenarios may send chills down the spines of seasoned radio reporters and editors. Will they have to spend much of their time in the future sifting through and trying to confirm unsubstantiated reports from thousands of individual citizens? Could a determined group of people foist a fake news report—replete with bogus photos and text messages “confirming” one another’s “facts”—onto an established newspaper or broadcaster? Will reporters in the future have to file three or four different versions of each story—and if so, when will they have any time to report? If a story is going to be put on the Web a little at a time as it is reported, who will decide when it is finished? If all news stories are “disaggregated”—if users can order up only the stories they want—who will ensure people get the news they need?
Perhaps these worries will prove to be unfounded. After all, broadcasting is hardly obsolete. “I think the different media have a great opportunity to play together,” Maria Thomas says. Indeed, Web editor Todd Holzman envisions the different media converging in a way that may breathe new life into radio, even as “broadcast” news moves into new channels. “The computer Web screen, per se, is not the future of digital media,” Holzman says. “The portable device is the future of digital media—at least in the short term—and there is nothing more portable than good audio content. It’s really the only content that is useful to people who also want to be doing something else with their time.” The public radio enthusiast of the future may be able to read or listen to the latest news on a cellphone/MP3 player/email reader; the journalistic skills needed to produce accurate, engaging, informative, and inspiring radio programs today will stand people in good stead in the rest of the twenty-first century. “It’s not so much about leaving the world of radio to work in the Web. It’s finding a way for the world of digital media to extend radio to a larger, younger audience,” Holzman says. “There are many ways to tell a story.”