When I think of NPR, I think of the car radio on as I sit in the backseat while my neighbor’s mom drives us to school – a sentiment shared by many of the NYU MS in Publishing students who recently attended an industry visit to NPR’s New York office. Our host, Will Lee, Chief Operating Officer, had invited us to gather around a conference table and share what comes to mind when we hear the name NPR. It quickly became apparent that today’s NPR is very different from what we listened to during all those trips to school.
With an audience of 48 million weekly listeners and readers of NPR’s vast range of platforms, and 1,000 stations broadcasting nationally, the brand itself encompasses radio, smart speakers, npr.org, social media, live events, NPR apps and podcasts. In fact, we had the privilege of diving deep into the world of podcasting with Lee, as well as with Yolanda Sangweni-Lark, Vice President of Programming & New Content Development; Louisa Conklin, Change Management at NPR; and Lauren Gonzalez, Senior Manager of Programming. NPR currently has over 45 podcasts ranging from politics to music to society & culture to entertainment & comedy. Some are produced daily, some weekly, and others as special limited series designed to tell one in-depth story.
NPR's Chief Operating Office and Center for Publishing Advisory Board Member, Will Lee, discussing NPR podcasts
The NPR team discussed with us everything from how long it takes to know you’re interested in media content before changing the channel (2 minutes for some; a whole episode for others) to seeing Secret Service agents in the office in preparation for Michelle Obama’s upcoming visit to the bureau. It was very clear that the team loved the world of podcasts and sharing their enthusiasm. In fact, Lee reminisced about how important radio was to his childhood.
“My paternal grandfather was the head of the Korean Broadcasting Corporation in Korea before the Korean War,” Lee said. “My dad was a big radio fan. And he bought me – none of you will know what this is – a shortwave radio for my eighth birthday, so I could get the BBC World Service, because we thought it would improve my English.”
Sangweni-Lark, who oversees a portfolio of podcasts including Code Switch, Throughline, and It’s Been a Minute, also believes in the power of storytelling through radio.
“I'm from South Africa. And to this day, radio is still king in many parts of the world. I know, we have all digital stuff, but I think radio is still the way to reach a lot of people,” she said.
According to NPR's most recent media kit, radio is still king, with 19 million monthly NPR podcast listeners being surpassed by 24 million weekly NPR radio listeners.
However, podcasts are becoming, in a way, the new radio. With Spotify and Youtube and other on-demand ways to listen to your favorite shows, it’s quickly becoming the preferred way of listening among NPR’s audience. 10.7 million listeners are tuning in monthly to on-demand NPR downloads on smart speakers.
Publishing students listening to NPR's podcast team
Every podcast begins as an idea. It often starts with Gonzalez, who filters through the pitches that come into NPR and asks a few main questions: Why? Why this show? Why now? Why NPR? With countless ideas coming across her desk every day, it’s not always an easy decision.
“I think NPR is always going to be a place where we are seeking to create and foster a better-informed public. We're always going to be in service of cultural expression within this country,” Gonzalez said.
It takes a village to run the operation that NPR hosts in their New York office, which makes people like Conklin, a vital member of the change management team, invaluable. While her focus is clearly on the radio to podcast shift (among many other things), she sees the parallel to publishing.
“In something like publishing, moving from a legacy platform like a printed book to a new platform such as audio and digital, that’s one kind of change.” Conklin said. “You have to think about how many players are impacted by that.”
At the heart of podcasting, the ethics, the standards, and the commitment to public interest that NPR is known for prevails. This is best understood by the quote from the late NPR reporter Margot Adler, which is prominently displayed in the NPR New York office:
“I have found that the issues of who’s in the government are not very interesting compared to, you know, real characters, people who live their lives here, lessons that are learned. I think we’ve learned more from characters and people and stories than we have from officials.”
During our visit to NPR, we had a strong sense of the team’s commitment to real people facing important issues of our times. It was a great way to learn how the old NPR of our school days had evolved and expanded. Some of us listened to a podcast on the way home!!
Lauren McLemore is a first-year MS in Publishing student. Within publishing, she is passionate about partnering with talented storytellers, and she hopes to build her career in publicity & events after graduating. She remains inspired by everyday people, contemporary fiction, art museums, the Modern Love column, and the Sunday crossword.