NPR’s edgy new format ignores ‘core audience’ (Third in a three-part series)

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By Kelly McBride, Public Editor | National Public Radio | Commentary

WASHINGTON, DC – In 2013, National Public Radio conceived ‘Code Swich’ – a news product specifically for “people of color.” This article appeared on the network’s website in December 2020.

The County Compass offers this NPR commentary for our readers with no critique or endorsement.

A startup within a legacy

Managing a startup enterprise within a well-established culture is dicey.

NPR journalists are either assigned to the news division or the programming division. The magazine shows and the news desks are part of the newsroom. Podcasts like It’s Been a Minute and How I Built This come out of the programming division. But some podcasts, including Code Switch and Planet Money, have a foot in both environments.

“I don’t see all that much of a difference,” said Code Switch Executive Producer Steve Drummond. “We’re all part of NPR and putting out great programs with the standards and quality that NPR does.”

The biggest difference is whether the focus is on a daily news report or a different priority. For instance, after George Floyd was killed, the team put together a 22-minute conversation titled, “A Decade Of Watching Black People Die.

“We’re at the point where the very words people use to plead for their lives can be repurposed as shorthand for completely separate tragedies,” states Code Switch co-host Gene Demby.

Marisol Meraji is Demby’s co-host counterpart. “Part of our job here at Code Switch is to contextualize and make sense of news like this,” explains Meraji. But it’s hard to come up with something new to say.”

They assemble some comprehensive resources, including data bases and a reading of a 2015 Jamil Smith essay “What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do For You?” What follows is a discussion with that author about how little difference it makes that Black people are dying on video that is distributed on social media.

The Web story that accompanied the podcast ends with a haunting litany of the ordinary things that Black people were doing right before they were killed, like walking in their neighborhood, playing in a park or eating ice cream. The tone of the exchange is borderline despair, which, of course, is exactly what many people of color felt in the week after Floyd’s death.

Some episodes are about asking tough questions. Some episodes are about reporting out difficult stories. A staff favorite, A Strange And Bitter Crop, took Meraji months to think about, but only a few days to mix. They vary in length and the amount of production, but all of them are scripted and highly edited. Podcast producers often talk about high-touch (lots of editing and production) and low-touch (let the tape roll and edit out the silly stuff).

On that spectrum, Code Switch is closer to high-touch.

The team members are as diverse as their content, spanning in age from Gen Z to Baby Boomer. The diversity of their experience is part of their secret when it comes to identifying topics. Meraji points to an episode from last summer on Karens as an example.

“We have these amazing conversations that are cross-generational where [Code Switch staff member Karen Grigsby Bates can say] ‘You think that “Karen” thing is new, that’s been going on since I was a kid, we called her “Miss Ann.” And I can say, ‘In the 1990s we called her Becky,’ ” Meraji said. “These kinds of conversations can only happen when you have a diverse group of people in a room together.”

Marketing muscle matters

Just about a year ago, NPR officially decided to put serious marketing resources behind Code Switch and several other podcasts. It wasn’t the first time Code Switch had worked with marketing professionals. It required a fresh approach.

NPR’s best vehicles for marketing new NPR products are established NPR products. “The larger structural problems with NPR, like the whiteness at NPR, is a real problem for us,” Demby said. “If something like close to 90 percent of the listeners at All Things Considered and Morning Edition are white people who are like 55 years old or older, that’s not who we’re going after.

“And so Shereen was pushing for a long time, like ‘Yo, we need to put some muscle and some money behind marketing this content that will land with people and they don’t even know we exist because they don’t rock with public radio.’ “

That finally happened and a four-week marketing campaign launched in March 2020, just as the pandemic closed in. The first week, the audience numbers were down, as people holed up in their homes. But every week after that, they grew steadily.

And then George Floyd was killed, and momentarily Code Switch was one of the top podcast downloads in the country. In July, it released an episode titled, “Why Now White People?”

Applying the lessons

NPR’s Code Switch experience offers solid lessons to any news organization that is trying to break out beyond its core audience. Although local television news stations or newspaper websites often have massive digital footprints, they rarely convert younger viewers to their legacy offerings. NPR made an investment in Code Switch as the original grant ran out, and the expenses of the program were added to the newsroom budget.

That investment paid off its dividends in 2020.

Kelly McBride is NPR’s Public Editor. She also serves as Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute

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