Personalities need not apply

Current Newspaper, 12/19/05

In pubradio, for better or worse, listeners tune to a program or network

March 23, 2004 – “a day that will live in infamy” for Bob Edwards. It was the day the veteran morning anchor was ousted from his job as the sole host of NPR’s biggest show, Morning Edition. More than 50,000 letters and emails later, Edwards now has his own show on the satellite network XM and even a weekend repackage distributed by PRI, and the public radio’s listeners and the network have moved on.

Perhaps NPR always knew it would end up this way. Because, March 23rd wasn’t about Bob Edwards. It was about the gradual expunging of individual personality as an essential ingredient on public radio.

As the Chicago Tribune noted a month later, “Edwards was as much a star as anybody in public radio, fronting a program that more or less doubled Howard Stern’s weekly audience.” But, said the newspaper article, “he wasn’t Katie Couric, the kind of star whose personality was the essence of the show.”

The Tribune got it right. And the bosses at NPR and elsewhere in public radio were probably thrilled. The truth is that public radio has long eschewed the idea of major personalities on public radio. The managers never wanted to pay for stars. And given public radio’s educational roots, its rank-and-file is actually offended by the idea of a few superstars just as some college faculty members are irritated by superstar professors. NPR had made its “branding” decision. The brand, NPR News, would be supreme in the future, not any individual host.

Think about it. Can you name the three current hosts of All Things Considered? Robert Siegel and … those two ladies. Even if you can name them (Michele Norris and Melissa Block), gender differences aside, can you tell them apart? Don’t they all have that “NPR sound” – professional, erudite, policy-wonkish, a twinge elitist?

And, what about Bob Edwards’ old Morning Edition? It has two hosts now, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne. They’re both excellent, but what about their personalities? Well, both seem amicable and pleasant – I wouldn’t call them “personality challenges.” But they don’t seem to display much on-air personality. Indeed, NPR seems so leery of personality, so worried perhaps that personality will undermine journalistic credibility, that the two co-hosts never talk to each other! Instead, they alternate reading introductions and doing interviews. Very journalistic. Very professional. Very cool.

The cult of anti-personality isn’t limited to NPR. Elsewhere in public radio, there are a handful of stars like Garrison Keillor and Terry Gross. The trouble is, for the public radio corporate suits at least, there’s no succession plan – the shows die when the hosts do (or in rare instances, when they leave). Companies don’t like it when their principal assets are at risk. On the other hand, look at the very successful public radio business show, Marketplace, that I created. Over the past 16 years, host Jim Angle was replaced by David Brancaccio, who was succeeded by David Brown, who was recently followed by Kai Ryssdal. All were talented, all had that “Marketplace attitude” and sound, but all turned out to be replaceable. That makes Marketplace a good strong asset as far as management is concerned.

So, what’s the point? Simply this. The changes in the “fronting” of major public radio programs is not an accident. It is a rational self-protective strategy by the broadcast management – whether they recognize it or not! – to maintain control and to keep costs down.

The strategy is not limited to public radio. Look at the commercial TV networks, all of which have lost their nightly news anchors this year. They seem to be experimenting with blow-dried, deep-jawed nonentities with limited journalism experience. Even MTV replaced several of its most prominent veejays when they got too big for their britches.

There is another approach to displaying personality, one adopted for the new program Weekend America. We are trying to build a natural and conversational relationship between the two hosts as a defining characteristic of the show. We call the program “host-centric,” and pretty much everything that happens in the program is intended to play off the host team. The Weekend America hosts are encouraged to display their personality.

Audiences still respond to personalities, and big ones like Oprah and Martha Stewart can generate huge profits as well as huge problems in commercial media. But today, many producers – especially in public radio – are tending to create an institutional or program personality or brand to replace individual stardom. All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace and even This American Life prove that production companies do create a show personality that supercedes individual personality. The executives, producers and writers create a shared personality, acquired and embodied by the hosts.

That’s not to say there’s no individualism. The hosts contribute their curiosities and insights, but they do so within the program’s personality and style. Don’t underestimate the talent of these hosts – they must merge their on-air personalities with the intended program personality. But instead of building a show around a host like Keillor, the show and the anchors together create an entity with characteristics that listeners appreciate. Ira Glass not only started This American Life – he also created a style and a repertory company. The difference is that now, if the talent moves on, the show remains.

It’s not clear whether this new kind of personality is a net gain or loss for audiences. To be sure, there’s no replacement for entertainingly complex human personalities as distinctive as Keillor’s, but those are few and far between.

You could try to pin the decline in network news audiences on the loss of individual personality on the air, but there are many other factors in play. One thing’s for sure. Gone are the days when “Uncle Walter” Cronkite told a nation – long familiar with his personality and credibility – that America should get its troops out of Vietnam.

Today’s “personalities” are mostly just faces or voices who front the news. When they change, the news continues. Ted Turner would be happy. The CNN-ification of the news wins. News broadcasting has become a continuously flowing stream, no one person’s program.

It is a better solution than the one predicted years ago by TV anchor Chuck Scarborough in a novel, in which the network founding dealing with its anchor so contentious that it murdered him after inventing a machine that could simulate an anchor!

Maybe someday we will hear much more personality in anchors whose on-air personalities haven’t yet fully matured. But I suspect that in the future, listeners’ and viewers’ passion for one brand of news over another won’t be quite as powerful as the loyalty we once gave to individual anchors. Unless we’re driven to seek our news with a political spin, as on Fox, or with comedy, as with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, we may have to look beyond the anchor desk in our search for individual heroes.

Jim Russell, head of new program development for American Public Media in Los Angeles, is the creator of Marketplace and Weekend America and a former award-winning executive producer of NPR’s All Things Considered.

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