The Transformation of NPR: Long Defined by Its Radio Programming, National Public Radio Is Reinventing Itself as a Multiplatform Force

By Dorroh, Jennifer | American Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of NPR: Long Defined by Its Radio Programming, National Public Radio Is Reinventing Itself as a Multiplatform Force


Dorroh, Jennifer, American Journalism Review


When the National Public Radio program "Tell Me More" aired from the UNITY: Journalists of Color conference in Chicago in July, host Michel Martin interviewed a veteran community organizer who works on the city's South Side.

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From a studio, the organizer told the host and listeners about his life's work and how youth violence plagues some South Side communities. But "Tell Me More" Associate Producer and bloger Lee R. Hill wanted to do more than tell listeners the story; he wanted to show them the neighborhoods that organizers sought to empower.

So he and fellow producer Jasmine Garsd hit the streets. There, they profiled a nurse whose 15-year-old nephew had been gunned down at her home the previous day. They interviewed the community organizers struggling to prevent retribution killings.

But Hill and Garsd's story couldn't be heard on "Tell Me More." In fact, they didn't produce a radio piece at all. Instead, they created an audio slide show (www.npr.org/programs/tmm/2008/07/south_chicago/index.html) that appeared only on NPR's Web site, NPR.org.

Six months ago, Hill says, he wouldn't have even considered approaching the story this way. "I think I would have thought about the story visually, but I would not have incorporated it into my work. Nor would I have thought that I would have had the license to do that here," he says.

That changed in the spring, when NPR put Hill through an intense, seven-week training course in multimedia journalism that encouraged him to expand his repertoire of reporting and storytelling skills.

Before, "If we could put a picture up that captured something the host mentioned, or something the guest mentioned, that was the extent of it," Hill says. "Now we can show you something online that we may not be able to tell you about on the radio. Not just about the movers and the shakers, but also the moved and the shaken, the people who may not be able to come to a studio or may not be suitable for radio."

"Pictures," he says, "can sometimes say what we can't say."

The course also schooled Hill's training group in social media, a concept new to many NPR programs, but not to "Tell Me More." When the show launched in December 2006, NPR piloted it online before offering it to even a single member station.

"We would put interviews on the air that were roughly cut, that were not completely tweaked for NPR, and just kind of throw them out to the audience and into the blogosphere and ask them to chime in," Hill says.

"We want to bring listeners into the mix in unprecedented ways, to go beyond the typical Friday letters segment," he says. "We want to engage listeners into actually being part of the editorial and production process."

Hill's shift, and NPR's, are dramatic at a news outlet whose raison d'etre has been radio storytelling, and for an organization structured to deliver its signature style of audio reporting to member stations across the country. (NPR Programming's audience is about 25.7 million in a typical week.)

This year and next, NPR is tackling an ambitious and comprehensive plan to transform itself into a multimedia force: The organization is asking all of its journalists to rethink their storytelling and audience interaction the way Hill has. Most news organizations are at least paying lip service to this multiplatform goal, but NPR is putting its money (and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's) where its mouth is: The foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to train its 450 editorial employees in digital storytelling skills and to pay for substitutes to fill in for them while they learn, NPR is putting an additional $1 million into the training.

What's more, NPR News has nearly doubled its digital staffers to 30 in the past year. The hires include two videographers. …

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