Here’s The Thing About Audio And News And NPR One, To The Degree That I Know Anything

We’re doing a neat thing with Pop Culture Happy Hour (the podcast I host) for the month of April, where it’s being made available a day early on NPR One, which is NPR’s app that they call “like Pandora for public radio” because that’s as close as you can get without acknowledging or claiming the not-that-humble truth, which is that it is and has the potential to be something that has never really existed, at least in this way. Now: What I am currently writing, nobody asked me to write, nobody at work knows I’m writing, nobody at work talked to me about. I didn’t ask for permission to write it, let alone get an instruction to write it. But as you know if you follow radio/audio world at all, it has been a … tumultuous? … month for public chatter about NPR and the future and digital and radio and blah blah blah, so we’re going to jam some of that in here, too. 

First, the background: When you fire up NPR One, you get a combination of: (1) newscasts (the top-of-the-hour and other-times-of-the-hour roundups of current news that exist both nationally – they make them downstairs from my desk – and locally on member stations; (2) stories from NPR news magazines like All Things Considered and Morning Edition; (3) local news stories like, in my case, the stories that come out of WAMU (yours would vary); (4) local projects I would classify as “other cool things” – more on that in a sec; (5) NPR podcasts like mine or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or All Songs Considered; (6) other people’s podcasts, like ones created at stations but also some created in other podcast networks – you can get Another Round from Buzzfeed or The Allusionist from Radiotopia or Judge John Hodgman from Maximum Fun or whatever. (NPR One is actually where I first heard The Allusionist.) It has a skip button, and you can skip as much as you want. It knows which member station is yours (it guesses based on your location, but you can change it if you’re nostalgic for your hometown or whatever, or if there’s another member station you prefer for news or other reasons). 

Like Pandora or other similar apps, it gradually learns what you’re interested in from what you skip and what you mark “interesting,” and it shifts what it serves you, although the algorithm is built so that you don’t stop getting world news (or whatever) entirely just because you sometimes aren’t in the mood. It has a share function so you can tweet or otherwise nudge other people to a story if you like it. It also gives you the opportunity to donate to your station – it actually puts a button on the screen that will take you right there. There are sometimes promos (I know because I record them for our show) where as the promo is running, the screen has a button you can hit to hear the show. It’s pretty cool.

I personally have sort of dabbled off and on with NPR One, to be perfectly candid. I’ve liked it but not gotten fully into the habit, and I haven’t listened to it a lot recently, though I knew they’d been really ramping up the content and particularly trying to make more robust the local/national mix. Because we’re doing this experiment, I really felt like I should sit with it for a while, and because I was on a four-hour road trip one day, I decided to put it on in the car and let it run for a while and see what the current state of things is. 

Even as somebody who’s a pretty big booster of cool-ass audio projects, I have to admit was surprised by how great it was. That is not a company-person opinion; that is my real opinion. I basically let it run with little if any skipping for four hours, and nobody was watching. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been happy. 

Some of what I heard: Ask Me Another with Wyatt Cenac, Ari Shapiro talking to an expert on health trends, Audie Cornish doing a really interesting interview with a singer out of South By Southwest, a delightful and interesting episode of the NPR Politics Podcast with NPR’s politics reporters updating me on campaign news, an interview about the Egypt Air hijacking putting it in the context of the “skyjacking” period of the ‘60s and early ‘70s; a Planet Money about tipping; an arts story from Neda Ulaby about YA novels dealing with consent in the context of sex between characters, a segment related to a project out of WAMU in Washington called Anacostia Unmapped that’s part of a larger project called Localore (one of my favorite pieces of radio I’ve heard in a while), local news about minimum wage legislation in Maryland and D.C., local news about the construction of the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, and a couple of newscasts. It was a really fun, really diverting listen, but I also felt like I got my news, my local stuff, my thoughtful reflections, my culture. I got on-demand listening and storytelling and podcasts without giving up news and local content. It was more my speed than I would have gotten from a single radio station, I think, but it was also more my speed than what I would have gotten from just a series of podcasts. 

So a thing that’s weird about radio and podcasting is that people who basically agree with each other – in my opinion – spend a lot of time arguing about radio versus podcasts, as if it’s a superhero movie that will have one winner. Quite honestly, if you’re talking strictly about literal delivery mechanisms, I’m pretty agnostic about whether or not that’s true. On the one hand, are some people replacing some or all of their radio listening with digital listening? Of course, obviously. On the other hand, particularly if you have any sensitivity at all to digital divides, the continuing existence of people who were raised with radio and aren’t looking to become smartphone users (or whatever), or other considerations we might call Not Everybody In The World Is You And Your Friends, you know that just as a ton of people still watch television on television and only dopes say nobody watches television on a television anymore, a ton of people still listen to the radio, and at the very least, they will be doing that for a while. If you’re arguing that delivery-wise, digital fully has replaced radio, you’re at the very least super early unless you’re talking about very particular slices of the population. At the same time, would I stake my entire future on where terrestrial radio will be in 20 years? I would not. 

But I don’t actually think these are delivery-mechanism arguments; that’s not what’s so emotional about them. I will tell you: I love podcasts, but I almost went up on stage and took the head off of a podcast network guy I once heard smugly asserting that podcasting was fully prepared to fully replace what public radio had been doing for so long. That is not true, at least right now, at all, unless by “what public radio had been doing” you mean “putting things in your ears that are worth listening to” – in which case you could say the same thing about audiobooks, honestly.  

In its current form, podcasting – at least what most people mean when they talk about podcasting, which is projects that have reasonably big audiences – is brilliant and fascinating and fun and wise and informative and mind-opening and weird and smart and funny and innovative, but it’s still very limited in two of the most important areas that public radio exists to cover: one is local stuff, and the other is … you know, the news

So right now, when longtime radio people hear “radio doesn’t matter anymore,” I think they sometimes hear “news doesn’t matter.” And when they hear “I don’t need my local terrestrial radio station,” they hear “I don’t need to know what’s happening in my city.” Because if you actually implemented your shift in listening in entirely that way – if you replaced public radio listening with popular and highly regarded podcasts as they stand right now – you would gain lots of interesting content. And you would, candidly, make gains in coverage of some kinds of issues and, if you chose correctly, in the availability of a variety of voices. There would be an upside. But as it stands right now, you would probably not get a lot of news from your city (unless your city is New York, LA, Chicago or Boston), and you would not get a lot of news in general. 

What you would get is a lot of what I’m going to call “features.” And this is where this entire conversation collides with another old argument, which is snobbery about features as compared to other kinds of stories. But what listening to public radio has always done is mix lots of different kinds of stories, right? You do get the bullet-point updates on the news of the day, and you do get stuff that’s driven by that news of the day, but then you also get other stories that pause and explore things in somewhat more detail. 

This is very tricky, because there’s a tendency to treat the idea of features like you’re saying the work is … soft, or less “important.” I don’t happen to think that at all, not only because that can mean longform stuff like the Harper High episodes of This American Life, but because even with less heavy content, you still get knowledge and background and things that are meaningful to your life and that educate you – I think of a recent Reply All that was about Verizon FIOS installations, which sounded like almost literally the most boring topic for a podcast that’s ever been conceived, but actually turned out to be a totally riveting examination of a bunch of things about how large companies work that are really important to consumers. “Feature” and “fluff” are not the same thing at all; there are wonderful, crucial pieces of longer-form, higher-touch, longer-prep-time journalism that are just as important to your development as a functioning human and citizen as what you’re going to get from day-of reporting. (And there’s plenty to address about day-of reporting, though that’s not my area of expertise.)

I also kind of need to know from day to day what’s happening in the world; that still matters to me. I think it makes people more interesting, if nothing else, and more able to engage about and be smart about more things. And right now, podcasting isn’t great at that, and public radio can be. It’s very common for podcast stories to take weeks at the least to be made; that’s part of why they’re so awesome. It’s also common for them to be esoteric in wonderful, extraordinary, unexpected ways. 

I … I still also need, despite how much I adore panel shows and comedy shows and storytelling shows, somebody to tell me what happened today and this week. I think that’s an objective good. I think not having that in your life at all would be … not good. And sure, there are other places to get news besides audio world, but there are other places to get features besides audio world, too. If we posit that we care about good audio and we ever cared about public radio (and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here/still be here), then letting news and local stuff drop out as a side effect of changes in the delivery mechanism is a problem the lamenting of which has nothing – NOTHING – to do with Luddites or fear of change. That’s not to say there aren’t also Luddites and fear of change, but sometimes the person you’re assuming is weirdly attached to terrestrial radio is in fact not-at-all-weirdly attached to news and telling you about your local government, and they’d be perfectly happy if you listened to that on the internet instead of on the radio, but they’re not thrilled about people not listening to it at all, or about people assuming everything has to be, for lack of a better word, fun. As a friend who works in news and is fun (believe me) once told me (I am paraphrasing only a little), “It’s … the news; I can’t promise it’s always going to be entertaining with tons of personality.” 

What’s exciting about the promise of NPR One to me is that for those people whose listening is moving to digital, it helps decouple this issue of whether you listen to news from this issue of whether you listen to the radio. That’s not to say it’s the only thing that ever could and I don’t think it’s the only thing that ever will, but it’s … a really, really nice effort, I think, and I say that as much as a consumer as anything else. 

This, of course, is totally separate from the work that public radio still has to do in the areas of coverage and voices and tone and whatever else. Those are completely different issues, they’re totally valid, and it’s on everybody in the system to earn the loyalty and the trust of the audience, no matter how they want to get stuff. But it’s an important step, to me, to start to find ways you can have podcasts and you can have on-demand audio and you can have fun and you can have John Hodgman and chat shows and game shows AND you can have the stories of your own city’s neighborhoods AND you can have what happened today in a straight-newscast format and what happened today in a magazine-show format, and you don’t have to go in every case to a different app to make that happen. This is one button, like the radio. It gives a mix, like the radio, and you trust some editorial judgment in creating that mix, like the radio. 

What’s more, what’s in that mix is being tweaked to a degree to meet your interests in something like the middle where you are still nudged to listen to a variety of things no matter what you skip or mark, but you don’t have to wait through every single thing that’s not your speed or every single thing you just don’t feel like in that moment. (There are days I cannot listen to stories about war, and LOTS of days I cannot listen to stories about the campaign, and there are times when I have already heard three or four things about a book or a movie and I can’t listen to more.)

It is increasingly my position that people who care about this stuff just do not have time or energy to spare to argue about things that aren’t hard, because too many things are hard. Content is hard, persuading people to pay for quality is hard, hearing enough voices is hard, changing habits that aren’t productive is hard, earning trust is hard, challenging assumptions is hard, adapting is hard, being brave about change is hard, protecting your standards is hard. Deciding between news and storytelling, deciding between making radio and making digital audio, and deciding between national and local are things that, I think, do not have to be hard.