December 1, 2023

NPR to End ‘Talk of the Nation’

BOSTON — NPR is ending the 21-year-old call-in radio show “Talk of the Nation” and encouraging local stations to replace it with an expanded version of “Here and Now,” an afternoon newscast that is produced here.

The plan, announced Friday, is the product of discussions that began more than two years ago between NPR and some of its biggest member stations. The stations wanted a magazine-style news show at the middle of the day, something along the lines of “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” the two bookends of most stations’ weekday schedules.

“Here and Now” fits that description. The program, produced by Boston University’s WBUR, started locally in 1997 and began to expand nationally in 2001. Until now, it has been distributed by a rival programmer, Public Radio International, but in the summer it will start to be distributed by NPR instead.

NPR will partner with WBUR to turn the one-hour “Here and Now” into a two-hour show, with contributions from NPR News staff and other local stations. A co-host, Jeremy Hobson, will join the current host of the program, Robin Young.

The partnership marks the first time that NPR, a national supplier of newscasts and shows, has linked arms with a station in this way. “Together, we’re addressing both what the audience is looking for and what member stations have been looking for,” said Kinsey Wilson, the chief content officer for NPR.

He declined to comment on the specifics of the financial arrangement, but said, “We’re confident that by partnering together we can make this both an editorial and a financial success.”

The longer version of “Here and Now” will start July 1, immediately after “Talk of the Nation” bows out. “Talk” is a radio fixture from 2 to 4 p.m. Eastern time, broadcast by 407 stations and reaching 3.53 million listeners a week, according to NPR. (That total counts all the people who hear the program at any point during the week.) It mixes long-form interviews with calls and e-mails from listeners.

Neal Conan, an NPR reporter and anchor since 1977 and the host of “Talk” since 2001, will “step away from the rigors of daily journalism,” NPR said in a statement.

“They set the standard in many ways for high-quality call-in talk,” Mr. Wilson said about “Talk of the Nation.”

The Friday version of “Talk of the Nation” — “Science Friday with Ira Flatow” — will continue to be distributed by NPR, the organization said.

Mr. Wilson said the decision to end “Talk” came out of the discussions with WBUR about a partnership.

Local stations continue to produce their own call-in shows, he said, and some are carried nationally, like “On Point,” which is also produced by WBUR. But the change announced Friday is a move away from opinion and toward straightforward storytelling.

Among local stations, there has been a “hunger for a stronger news presence in the middle of the day,” said Charlie Kravetz, the general manager of WBUR, who helped organize a meeting of station directors about midday news back in 2010.

“Here and Now” is broadcast by 182 stations now, but many of them are small; of the 25 biggest radio markets in the country, only eight currently carry it. Partly for that reason, it reaches about 1.35 million listeners a week, far fewer than “Talk of the Nation.” A spokeswoman for NPR noted that its audience has grown about 11 percent from a year earlier.

NPR will begin to pitch “Here and Now” to stations on Friday morning. While “I’m sure we won’t convince everyone,” Mr. Wilson said, “our goal is to convince a large number of stations that carry ‘Talk of the Nation’ to carry ‘Here and Now.’”

The arrangement strengthens NPR’s ability to react to breaking news situations. The two-hour program will be produced between 12 and 2 p.m. Eastern, and then updated as needed until 4 p.m. for stations that choose to carry it later in the afternoon. This way, “Here and Now” can be a bridge from “Morning Edition,” which starts at 5 a.m. in some markets but is updated until noon, to “All Things Considered,” which starts at 4 p.m.

“This will essentially provide us the ability to go live, if we need to, from 5 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night,” Mr. Wilson said.

NPR produced a midday news magazine called “Day to Day” in the mid 2000s, but it was canceled in 2009. While that news magazine was one hour long and produced out of whole cloth by NPR, the expanded “Here and Now” will be two hours long and an extension of what WBUR is already doing.

Mr. Kravetz said, “A central part of our plan is to tap into a lot of the public radio stations across the country that are doing wonderful journalism that never gets heard outside of their markets.”

For the three months that “Talk” is still on, NPR and WBUR will hire new staff members for the expansion. Mr. Hobson, currently the host of public radio’s “Marketplace Morning Report,” distributed by American Public Media, will come on board and Meghna Chakrabarti, a local host in Boston, will be the backup host.

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PBS Ponders Weekend ‘NewsHour’

The plan, for a half-hour program on Saturdays and Sundays, would give PBS a weekend news presence that it has lacked and has been criticized for not having.

The proposed expansion, which is not expected to be decided on before the end of March, is being considered at a crucial time for the show. Although costs could be cut or new money found, MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, the producer of the weekday show, is facing a shortfall of as much as $7 million this fiscal year from what had been a planned $28 million budget, said the employees, who are familiar with the plans but were not authorized to speak publicly.

The program has one corporate underwriter, BNSF Railway. It is unclear whether a weekend expansion would help the weekday program.

The $3 million from PBS to help produce the weekend programs would not go to MacNeil-Lehrer Productions — which receives a large production fee from PBS — but to WNET, the New York public television company.

A Friday night public affairs program produced by WNET, “Need to Know,” is facing cancellation in June when its current PBS contract expires. Production fees for that show, plus money WNET has raised from donors, would support the weekend “NewsHour,” under the proposal.

WNET declined to comment, as did “NewsHour” officials.

“PBS is constantly looking for new programming that would be beneficial to the American public and our member stations,” Michael D. Jones, chief operating officer of PBS, said in a statement. “We aren’t announcing any new programming at this time, but details will be provided if or when an announcement is made.”

He said the “NewsHour” “continues to fund-raise and reduce costs,” and noted that its broadcast and online audiences had grown in recent months.

Several executives at public television stations said they would welcome a weekend program as described to them.

“WTTW is very pleased with the prospect,” Daniel Schmidt, president and chief executive of the Chicago station WTTW, said by e-mail. “The ‘NewsHour’ is a strong brand and it can only be strengthened with a seven-day presence,” he said. He added that the station would particularly welcome the proposal to integrate local news into the program, something the weekday program does not accommodate.

A weekend “NewsHour” could also please some critics like the PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who, in his Jan. 13, 2011, column, wrote that the lack of weekend news “has always seemed to me like an abdication of duty that also has the side effect of sending regular PBS viewers to other networks.”

Hari Sreenivasan, a correspondent for the program and its director of digital partnerships, has been proposed as the anchor of a weekend program, as has Jeff Greenfield, an occasional anchor of “Need to Know.”

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Advertising: PBS Plans Promotional Breaks Within Programs

But those leisurely stretches of break-free programs could be going away.

PBS officials told member stations at its recent annual meeting in Orlando that beginning this fall, the Wednesday science series “Nature” and “Nova” would contain corporate and foundation sponsor spots, promotional messages and branding within four breaks inside the shows, instead of at the very beginning and end.

The longest period of uninterrupted programming, according to a plan shown to the programmers, would be just under 15 minutes, compared with the current 50 minutes or more. Based on what PBS learns in the fall, the new format would continue to be introduced night by night through the year, officials said.

Even before the plan became public last week, it was being intensely debated among PBS station executives and program producers. While many support testing the new model, others are worried about how viewers and the financial supporters will react, and if PBS can recover should they react badly.

The great unknowns are whether PBS viewers will welcome receiving programming in shorter bites, or rebel against a move they see as more commercial, and if foundation supporters will see the change as an abdication of mission.

“One of the biggest things they have to sell is that they are noncommercial,” said David D. Oxenford, a partner with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, who represents some public broadcasters.

“My first reaction is that in any kind of marketing opportunity, if you give up something that is desirable and differentiates you from your competition, it’s too bad, and that’s what this is,” said Alberto Ibargüen, a former PBS board chairman and president and chief executive of the Knight Foundation, which finances some public broadcasting initiatives. But, he added, “the people of PBS would not do this lightly.”

The change is meant to address a serious problem. Currently, the messages that a PBS station broadcasts are packed into a block at the end of each show, which, for hourlong programs, sometimes stretches to nearly eight minutes. Not surprisingly, viewers routinely flee.

“It’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits,” John F. Wilson, the chief programming executive for PBS, told attendees to the annual meeting, while exhibiting a Nielsen ratings chart showing a steep cliff where the audience disappeared between shows. (PBS executives declined to quantify the falloff depicted.)

Such an exodus makes it harder for PBS to build up an audience for the show that follows, Mr. Wilson said.

Under the new plan, there would be no break between shows, a transition known as a “hot switch” used by many cable networks. To accomplish this, the sponsor messages, PBS “Be more” branding spots, and show promotions would run inside programs, in short pods of under two minutes.

Mr. Wilson, in an interview, said viewers would never be more than one minute and 40 seconds away from actual program content. And, he noted, PBS shows would still be “the longest hour in television in terms of content,” with as much as 54 minutes of programming, compared with about 40 minutes for commercial networks.

All shows may not end up being candidates for breaks. “I’d look really carefully at a ‘Masterpiece’ drama, at how we’d do that or how often we’d do that,” he said. But many producers, who now have the luxury of structuring their shows without worrying about where the breaks will come, are likely to have to adapt. PBS is meeting with some concerned producers this week.

Jon Abbott, the president and chief executive of WGBH in Boston, which produces “Nova,” “Masterpiece” and “Frontline,” among others, called it a “missed opportunity” if viewers don’t see the work. He added, however, that “we have a lot of people who care about the work and care about our way of presenting work; that trust, the values that people place in public media are things that we are very attentive to and respectful of.”

The plan is “a fundamental change” likely to elicit viewer complaints, John Boland, the president and chief executive of KQED in San Francisco, said via e-mail. However, in the end, he wrote, “this is not a test of what people say but rather what they do. Do they spend more time or less time watching PBS stations with embedded breaks and a hot switch? There is ample evidence that this strategy has worked for commercial TV, and there is ample evidence that our viewers may be concerned about change but won’t desert us if we provide a reasonable explanation and continue to provide quality programming that simply is not available anywhere else (and certainly not available without interruption).”

PBS told station executives that they should check with their lawyers to make sure that they weren’t violating Federal Communications Commission policy governing noncommercial stations, but Mr. Wilson said he was confident the new policy wa legal. F.C.C. guidelines, he said, allow stations to acknowledge sponsors at “natural breaks,” and shows like “Nova” and “Antiques Roadshow” can be divided into chapters, just as noncommercial NPR programs already do.

“It’s not like this is untested, uncharted territory in some respect,” he said.

Mr. Oxenford said that under F.C.C. rules, announcements and acknowledgements may not interrupt regular programming. But sponsor messages are allowed at the beginning and end of shows, between identifiable segments of longer programs, or during station breaks, “such that the flow of programming is not unduly interrupted.”

Programs like “Antiques Roadshow,” which PBS said was scheduled to move to the new model starting in January, might indeed have identifiable breaks, “between looking at Grandma’s sofa and the 1850s flintlock someone had in their basement,” he said.

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