Talk of The Nation Signs Off

July 1, 2013
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Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio’s (NPR) daily call-in program, broadcast its final show on Thursday, June 27th. Talk of the Nation (TOTN) has been a part of NPR’s programming bundle since 1992, and has been anchored by current host Neal Conan since 2002. NPR is replacing TOTN with an expanded two-hour version of the previously one-hour afternoon news magazine program Here and Now. Here and Now is produced by Boston public radio station WBUR and previously distributed by rival network Public Radio International (PRI). Apparently the TOTN Friday program, Science Fridays with Ira Flatow will be produced as a stand alone program and still distributed every Friday (flew!).

The Talk of the Nation studio last Thursday, June 27th. Photo by Kainaz Amaria, NPR multimedia staff.

The Talk of the Nation studio last Thursday, June 27th. Photo by Kainaz Amaria, NPR multimedia staff.

This change in programming at NPR is significant for several reasons. First, while NPR executives deny that cancelling TOTN is related to last year’s $7M budget deficit, replacing it by distributing a program made by a large local member station like WBUR relieves them of both the costs and risks associated with in-house production. Second, in collaborating with Boston’s local public radio station WBUR to expand and distribute Here and Now, NPR seems to be taking a page out of the PRI playbook–which reminds us that public radio’s institutional structures in the US are more complex than many realize. I wonder how many people understand the decentralized structure of public radio, wherein the very term NPR has become generic for all public radio, while in fact there are two competing public radio networks, NPR and PRI. These networks operate similarly to national commercial TV networks in that programming is sent to a network of local member stations (public radio lingo for affiliates).  However, other than the obvious difference of a non-profit production culture, public radio operates differently from national networks in that all programming decisions happen on the local level, and NPR member stations can also buy programming a la carte from PRI.  And unless you are streaming content directly from NPR or downloading a PRI podcast (like This American Life, Markeplace, or Prairie Home Companion) you are probably listening to NPR and PRI content via your local public radio station, where it is scheduled alongside local programming as well. This is Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) where I live in Madison, however, I was just talking with other parents at my daughter’s school PTA meeting who continue to call WPR “NPR” even after I correct them. FYI, this type of behavior will not endear you to other people on the PTA, although if it were me, I would want to know I was wrong.

But back to Talk of the Nation. While denying that this change is a result of budget cuts, programming executives attempt to explain that member stations were hungry “for a stronger news presence in the middle of the day,” something almost exactly like Morning Edition  and All Things Considered  to bridge the gap between our morning and evening straight forward news magazines.  In a way, this brings NPR’s bundle more in line with their no-nonsense (aka no fun) brand of “hard” news. If you listen to TOTN, you know that Neal Conan covers breaking news by selecting callers who are speaking on emergent issues. However, using a terms like  “strong” or “hard” news to explain programming shifts works to masculinizes the objective, straightforward reporting style of shows like Morning Edition that seem to just let us hear world events by playing back actuality recordings coupled with terse journalistic verbal accounts. And feminize TOTN implicitly through contrast. Indeed, you might consider Neal Conan’s daily call-in program more feminine in its format that gives voice to the unwashed masses, what Stuart Hall called the true “other.” TOTN gave a voice to the average listener, not only reporting on current events, but through caller participation, engaging in contemporary issues in a more personal, intimate, and individualistic manner. And if you listen to TOTN, which is mainly formatted as long form interviews with political and cultural figure or journalists with calls and emails from listeners, callers are often emotive when they call in to discuss political issues, definitely more so than NPR’s trained emotionless robot lackeys, ahem, I mean reporters. Certainly, we must also admit that Talk of the Nation is at least somewhat responsible for the prominence of NPR distributed programs like On Point , Tom Ashbrook’s live roundtable discussion program, and the Diane Rehm Show, another  call-in show whose slogan is “One of her guests is always you.” This is in addition to the countless call-in programs your local public radio probably produces. And listeners responded to hearing untrained voices call-in to debate contemporary politics.

Indeed, TOTN ends in the midst of huge popularity, as it was broadcast by 407 stations and reached 3.53 M listeners every day. To put this in perspective, this is more than the 2.7 M viewers who tuned into Mad Men‘s season six finale last week.  There are 907 comments on the NPR page that posted their announcement cancelling TOTN, they range from outcry in support of a favorite program, to conspiracy theories about why NPR canceled the show, to fannish interpretations of Neal Conan as some sort of super human journalist, and more. I won’t get into the trollish badinage. Suffice it to say, TOTN is a cultural landmark that many listeners engaged with.

And they participated quite literally when they called or emailed in with questions or thoughts about the issues of the day that Neal was discussing with his guest(s). I feel that the call-in aspect of TOTN is the most significant loss from this show. And in removing TOTN, NPR removes a venue that allowed the “voiceless” that public radio is meant to serve and give access (albeit highly filtered access) to a public forum on the air. I, for one, am not sure I agree with Neal Conan, when he recently told listeners on the NPR program Tell Me More “Don’t Panic. Radio is gonna be fine” in reference to the demise of his own show. As NPR culls programs like Car Talk and Talk of the Nation from its line-up in order to distribute more news magazine programs to compliment its “hard hitting” brand, it begs the question of where the line between brand and public service exists.



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2 Responses to “ Talk of The Nation Signs Off ”

  1. Jason Loviglio on July 1, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Great piece Nora!
    I always liked/wondered about Neal Conan’s strange habit of saying “Bye-bye” to callers when he was finished with them. It seemed so oddly warm and informal, almost childish. The injunction to be “hard” and “masculine” and “newsy” seems to have constrained women on public radio more than men.

    Also, it’s funny to read about this move away from the call-in format as I pore over recent audience research commissioned by NPR which suggests that younger listeners crave “a more conversational tone” from public radio.

  2. Eleanor Patterson on July 4, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    Thank Jason! I definitely agree that the men on public radio have more latitude to be both masculine and feminine in their address. And you bring up this point that younger listeners want a more informal tone from their NPR programming. I feel like TOTN is being cancelled in spite of its high listenership, which clearly shows that Neil Conan’s informal style does resonant with listeners. I feel like attempts to frame replacing Talk of the Nation with Here and Now as giving member stations and audiences “what they want” is a clear attempt to manage and elide NPR’s attempts at cutting production costs and streamlining their hard news brand.