Behind the Curtain at NPR
May 26, 2007 3:27 PM   Subscribe

This week, WNYC's On The Media reran a report from November 14, 2003 entitled "Pulling Back the Curtain." Here's the transcript of the report or you can listen here. Reporter John Solomon relates what it was like to join NPR and suddenly realize how much the "behind-the-scenes manufacturing process" gives NPR its polished product. Whether you are surprised by any of this or not, it is refreshing to hear a news outlet (which I could not live without) examine itself.
posted by loosemouth (24 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is interesting, even if it doesn't come as a shock. On the radio no one can see your ellipses.
posted by tepidmonkey at 3:56 PM on May 26, 2007

Direct link to the mp3.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 4:37 PM on May 26, 2007

That was interesting, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 4:55 PM on May 26, 2007

Jeez, now we know how Nice Polite Republicans get to sound that way.

I used to love NPR, when I was more innocent.
posted by spitbull at 5:10 PM on May 26, 2007

What is perhaps most amusing is when they presented examples of actual dialogue unedited, or at the end there where the reporter was purposefully flubbing his closing - it sounded fake. Like they were pretending to sound bad for the benefit of the camera.

I listen to NPR every morning getting ready for work. I do this predominantly because 1) it's the only station in the area that doesn't make me want to vomit my breakfast, and 2) I use it like an auditory clock. I have a clock, but I'm not always where the clock is. Perhaps I should just get more clocks, but why? I got NPR.

I can tell from the kinda story playing, or where the station ID breaks are, about what time in the hour it is, so I know without looking at a clock how much time I have left before I need to be on the road. Of course, when I'm on the road I'm listening to CDs I made of podcasts or music, cuz there's a clock on the dashboard. I don't need NPR in the car, and by then it's switched from the morning edition show to Diane Rehm's talking heads thing, which I only find mildly amusing on Fridays when they don't focus on the same topic for an hour.

My point is, I don't care how polished it is, or how accurate, or even if it's propaganda for a particular political view.

I use it to help me start my day. I don't think most people care day to day just how much brainwashing the media may or may not be doing to us. We just like having the noise in the background, or we don't mind the billboards because we tell ourselves we don't pay attention to them, and convince ourselves they really aren't destroying the landscape. We don't care about the landscape. We don't care one way or the other about what media and advertising and entertainment are doing to us day to day, unless of course it's our job, or we discover it is somehow affecting our pocketbook, or our lifestyle, or something that we DO care about.

NPRs self-editing is so far down on the list of things to be concerned about. What really amazes me though, is how they're always able to start the newsbrief at about five after the hour, and how by the bottom of the hour they're playing the sponsorship carts, then the financial news kicks in at ten till the top of the hour - it's like clockwork. That suits me fine.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:24 PM on May 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I've done a bit of sound editing and could always tell that NPR had higher production values than a local radio station. Even some of the better produced live radio shows, namely Howard Stern, are on a scale below NPR. Even recorded spoken word (namely The Teaching Company lectures) are sometimes below NPR standards. To me the ambient effects and the near total lack of normal conversational sputters are a total give away, but I can see how it can be easily overlooked.

The most interesting point is that radio is seen as more raw than its television counterpart. I believe a lot of this has to do with television having too many slick graphic tools and overeager graphics artists, especially on the nightly news. The Onion parodies this well, with the sweeping CGI Congress image before a newscast, as does the Daily Show, with its giant head of Brian Williams. Of course the Wolf Blitzer "War Room" is a practical caricature of itself. I hope the move to HD for newscasts will produce some needed advances. Namely I'd like to see a wider shot and a cityscape in the background. It looks somewhat cluttered on standard definition, but the added detail will almost be necessary at a better resolution. Also no more special effects. Give me a nice wood table, a long shot of the reporter and next to him a plasma screen that shows a simple rendering of the country/location. I don't need a crappy patchwork Google maps zoom-in dammit.

Of course Charlie Rose's womb-like interview space is something of a nirvana for me.
posted by geoff. at 5:32 PM on May 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think we all miss Huntley and Brinkley, geoff..
posted by Floydd at 5:56 PM on May 26, 2007

Like they were pretending to sound bad for the benefit of the camera.

They use cameras for radio? Who knew.

I keed, I keed ;).
posted by ericb at 6:13 PM on May 26, 2007

I listen to NPR all the time, and I've been aware that they edited pretty heavily for a long time. It doesn't bother me in the least; they're just removing the conversational warts that we don't really need to hear. They're leaving out the 'time to think noises' and just giving us the results of the thinking.

It's important to note that they have gotten zero complaints from their interviewees. They're not changing meaning, they're just distilling the spoken words down to the absolute essence of what was said.

Now, I could change my mind if they started getting annoyed people claiming "But... that's wrong! They edited me until it sounded like I meant something else!" With the WWW and all, we'd find out about any such chicanery pronto. But I don't think that's likely to happen.

Why? Very simply, NPR is incredibly ethical, with a standard of excellence unmatched in probably any other media. I'm hoping very much that the Bushies can't break it too badly in their remaining time in office.
posted by Malor at 6:35 PM on May 26, 2007

They use curtains in radio?
posted by longsleeves at 6:57 PM on May 26, 2007

I never thought of making sausage out of journalists. Now I just have to catch some.
posted by stavrogin at 7:27 PM on May 26, 2007

Years and years and years ago, Negativland was profiled on NPR. I think it was on the heels of the David Brom controversy after "Escape from Noise" came out.

At one point in the interview (according to my vague recollection), Mark Hosler remarks that the process of editing will change, the messages of the interviewees, inadvertently or otherwise. He challenges NPR to provide the interview tapes (this was still the analog era), NPR delivers, and Negativland returns a minute or two of very silly, nonsequitur edits which NPR tacks onto the end of the segment.
posted by ardgedee at 7:55 PM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Hour of Slack regularly plays these edits of NPR which are called "PR News." Can't find a link. I think it's Norel Pref or Phineas Marco or one of those guys who makes them. They take the news programs and cut them up so that they say all kindsa funny weird stuff. Funny.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:21 PM on May 26, 2007

The very process of recording a thing changes a thing, never mind editing it. If one does want to go down that route than I'd have to say that NPR's house style can't help but posit a world - a better world - where people are smarter and we're solving all the problems around us. Of course no one has complained - everyone is made to sound polished, slick and smooth - until every 'piece' becomes an advertisement for itself.

On another note, I'm from the States but haven't lived there for 10 years - I go back once a year and because I see the U.S. in 'snapshots/stages', (not like a frog boiling in water if you get me), I see changes pretty sharply - and NPR seems to been dumbed wayyyy down as of late.
posted by jettloe at 12:57 AM on May 27, 2007

I love NPR, it has good information and good production values. Having worked with sound editing I very much appreciate the editing they do. Production value is just as important as content. I don't care how relivant/acurate your message/information is, if it sounds like crap I'm notgoing to listen.
posted by MrBobaFett at 5:34 AM on May 27, 2007

Mistakes in editing occur often enough to let you know what's being done- usually it's a repeated phrase.

It is show-biz, after all, and their product is a brand. That brand used to reflect "reality-based" reporting, and often it still does, but there have been signs of change.

Some of the questions in interviews are now obviously dubbed in after the answer has been formulated. Is this to make the question clear or to alter it to fit the answer that the interviewee chooses to provide?

As reality is created by the news narrative, I'm disturbed to find NPR increasingly following the lead of biased sources. The "cool, rational world" of NPR seems a very good package for propaganda designed to get us worried about the dangers of Iran. And it goes without saying that the daily dose of news from Israel has long been suspicious- not necessarily due to bias in the reporting, but because of the intensity of the focus.
posted by Liv Pooleside at 5:43 AM on May 27, 2007

there was a piece a few years back where they lent their stammer auto-removermatic software to a teenager with a huge stuttering problem. They had him call to order a pizza without it to record him being hung up on. Then they ran him (realtime) through the software so he could order and then confront the guy who just hung up on him... pretty interesting stuff.
posted by trinarian at 5:47 AM on May 27, 2007

The piece trinarian is talking about is this episode of This American Life. And here's a related AskMe question.
posted by emmastory at 5:50 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I must add that "pulling back the curtain" by revealing common production techniques is a joke.

There are curtains behind that curtain which will not get pulled aside...
posted by Liv Pooleside at 5:51 AM on May 27, 2007

This story makes me wonder why Terry Gross stutters throughout her interviews. Why don't they edit that out?
posted by snowjoe at 7:56 AM on May 27, 2007

I must add that "pulling back the curtain" by revealing common production techniques is a joke.

I agree, this is weaksauce. A highly produced NPR show that pulls the curtain back on other highly produced NPR shows, wow, what a shocker. and ntroducing the phrase "incredibly ethical" to describe an entertainment channel - doesn't even seem like the right words are being used.

But the again it's hard to be upset when it's Sunday morning and the birds are chirping.
posted by phaedon at 10:40 AM on May 27, 2007

I'm also a huge fan of the looseness of am sports talk.
posted by phaedon at 10:41 AM on May 27, 2007

> A highly produced NPR show that pulls the curtain back on other highly produced NPR shows, wow, what a shocker.

You didn't bother following the links. The examples of before-and-after edits are taken from the show's own files.

"On the Media" frequently holds its parent corporation up for criticism, and there are past stories about the questionable ties between NPR donors and news coverage, and the political affiliations of NPR executives.
posted by ardgedee at 4:31 PM on May 27, 2007

A Language Log post (by MeFi's own myl) that makes it sound considerably less benign than On the Media does. His conclusion:
In the case of print journalism, the better publications have well-defined standards, even if they're routinely violated in practice. There are similar words in (for example) the NPR News Code of Ethics... I can't cite many examples of radio photoshopping that violate these standards, because I rarely have access to the raw materials from which the finished products were created. But standard audio production techniques -- the same ones involved in editing out stammers and flubs, or splicing pre-recorded reports into an apparently live feed -- make it as easy to do this sort of thing in radio as it is in print. And if you think that that radio journalists haven't given in to the temptation from time to time, then you have a higher opinion of human nature than I do.
posted by languagehat at 12:30 PM on May 31, 2007

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