Public Radio Journalism

Seema Shrikhande. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

American public radio journalism consists of the news and public affairs programs that can be heard on noncommercial radio stations and includes a variety of formats, from news magazines to public affairs programs to listener call-in programs. At a time when commercial radio’s news content is declining (generally limited to brief newscasts), public radio offers listeners a wide range of news, analysis, and discussion. Public radio journalism offers greater variety and depth than is typically provided on commercial stations, covering not only breaking news but also science and the arts.

The main producers of such programming are National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI), American Public Media (APM), and Pacifica Broadcasting. Programs are also produced by several local public radio stations and independent radio producers and are distributed by NPR, PRI, or APM.


NPR, which came into existence as a result of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, started broadcasting in 1971 and is a major producer of news programming on public radio. APM is the second largest producer of public radio programs which include news, culture, and music. APM is the name under which Minnesota Public Radio produces and distributes programs nationally. Public Radio International, which began as American Public Radio, was founded in 1983 as a way to distribute programs from public radio stations around the country and diversify offerings on public radio stations. In 1994 its name was changed to Public Radio International (PRI) to reflect its mission of bringing, as it says on its website, “global perspectives to the public airwaves.” Through partnerships with public radio stations, independent producers, and the BBC World Service in the United Kingdom, in 2008 it offered over 400 programs per week that were broadcast and streamed online by affiliate stations around the country.

Pacifica Broadcasting was founded in San Francisco in 1949 by Lewis Kimball Hill, a pacifist who saw community radio as a place to begin a dialogue about the betterment of society. The Pacifica Network consists of five radio stations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C., as well as many independent public radio stations that are affiliates. Its goal was to give voice to those without power and to become a place for progressive viewpoints that questioned the status quo with regard to political discourse, art, and culture on radio. Today it is seen as a place on the radio for a unique point of view that fills a gap in mainstream media coverage and offers alternative analysis and interpretation.

News Programming

News magazines are an especially important part of public radio journalism. NPR’s flagship news magazines are the late weekday afternoon All Things Considered and the similar but earlier Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. All Things Considered (ATC) was created in 1971 as a news program designed to be distinctly different from what commercial radio had to offer and that embodied the NPR mission of celebrating the variety of human experience. The format has evolved over the years and become more structured. ATC starts off with headlines on the hour followed by longer stories with in-depth reporting. This long form journalism is characteristic of public radio as is its ability to explain complex issues, take unusual angles on news stories, and offer news with a global reach that makes for greater breadth of coverage.

Recognizing that it needed a news program during morning drive time, NPR added Morning Edition in 1979. Introduced eight years after ATC, Morning Edition was far more a product of audience research than had been the case with ATC, with information about audience listening behavior shaping the structure of the program. The program was designed without a clear beginning, middle, or end, an approach that allowed listeners to tune in and out of it depending on their morning routines. The segments were shorter than on ATC, with frequent opportunities for member stations to broadcast the local weather, news, and other announcements. In 2008 Morning Edition enjoyed the second-largest audience on American radio after Rush Limbaugh.

Weekend Edition (Saturday), hosted by Scott Simon, went on the air in 1985 and was followed by a Sunday version a year later. The program distinguished itself from the weekday newsmagazines with narrative features that combined natural sound with storytelling and commentary on the week’s events that extended to sports and entertainment.

In 2003 Day to Day, a news magazine hosted by longtime NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, was launched as a way of meeting stations’ and audiences’ requests for news programming in the middle of the day. It airs from NPR’s studios in California, known as NPR West, and is produced in partnership with online magazine Slate, whose writers serve as commentators and also produce pieces for the show. As compared to the older morning and evening news magazines, Day to Day offers shorter segments and a more conversational tone while trying to provide a different angle on the day’s news than that presented on All Things Considered or Morning Edition. It is also likely to cover lighter news stories such as the launch of a television show featuring a celebrity and how rejection works on social networking sites like Facebook. By using more pieces from independent producers, the program seeks to have a more personal tone and a different sound than established NPR news magazines.

Although its original mission saw NPR being more of an alternative news source to commercial media with a focus on analysis and commentary rather than breaking news, over the years its role has evolved to being a primary news source. This means that there is a greater emphasis on covering all major news events and being on the spot when news breaks. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, for the first time the network reported round-the-clock for a record 90 hours (nearly four days). It has demonstrated a commitment to pursuing stories even after initial commercial media attention has waned. It was one of only two news organizations to continue covering the effects of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Since 2000, NPR has expanded its overseas bureaus in order to cover breaking news around the world at a time when most news organizations were closing their overseas bureaus because of declining revenues. An endowment from the Kroc family in 2003 helped NPR with its expansion program.

Other public radio entities also provide news programming. In 1996, Public Radio International (PRI) launched its news and public affairs program, The World, designed to compete directly with All Things Considered. PRI’s first venture into program production, The World was co-produced by the BBC World Service and public radio station WGBH in Boston. As its name suggests, the program has an international focus and features a mix of news, interviews, and music from around the globe.

Pacifica Radio produces a daily 30-minute newscast, Free Speech Pacific News, to which public radio stations can subscribe. Democracy Now is Pacifica’s daily one-hour current events program. The newscasts cover stories that rarely achieve attention on commercial radio and even on other public radio stations and are in keeping with its mission of promoting peace and social justice. During the war in Iraq, for example, it regularly carried stories that provided a voice to antiwar groups.

Finding New Audiences

Since 2001 both NPR and PRI have sought to attract younger audiences and have developed news programs that they believe will appeal to this demographic. In 2007 NPR launched the Bryant Park Project, a news magazine described on its website as having “the tone and sensibility the next generation of public radio listeners demand.” This morning news program connected with its audience through audio, video, text, and photos and sought to foster audience interaction through blogs, e-mails, and call-outs to listeners. With a target demographic of listeners aged 25 to 44, the program covered major news but had a more conversational tone and was almost completely live with producers sometimes getting behind the microphone to talk to the shows’ hosts. The show tried to balance hard news with lighter content with segments like the “Ramble” that covered quirky stories such as Japan’s development of a robot girlfriend for lonely men while “The Most” features the most emailed stories on Yahoo! and Google. While the Bryant Park Project succeeded in attracting a younger audience and in demonstrating that radio can develop an ongoing relationship with its listeners by using online media, its challenge was getting carriage on member stations especially since it aired at the same time as Morning Edition. In July 2008, nine months after it was launched, NPR cancelled the program.

In April 2008, PRI launched a new morning drive time news program, The Takeaway, co-produced with New York City’s public radio station WNYC. The BBC, The New York Times station WQXR, and Boston’s WGBH, serve as editorial collaborators. Although the desire for a younger audience demographic is not explicit, the conversational tone and personality-driven approach speaks to this aim. On its website, PRI states that the goal was to create a program that “sounds the way people really communicate with each other: conversational, unscripted, and sometimes opinionated.” Like NPR’s new program, The Takeaway uses its website to create a more interactive public radio experience.

Apart from attracting younger audiences, NPR has also consciously sought to broaden its audience profile beyond the traditional educated, white, suburban, college-educated listeners. NPR’s first attempt to reach out to minority audiences came with the Tavis Smiley Show, produced in collaboration with the African American Public Radio Consortium (a nationwide group of public radio stations that serve primarily African American audiences), which aired between 2002 and 2004. It departed from public radio’s signature sound (carefully produced pieces presented by reporters in measured, neutral inflections) and touched on politics, music, comedy, and more. The show targeted African American audiences because it dealt with issues of concern to them, but it also appealed to a more general audience interested in hearing about issues relating to the African American experience. Host Smiley reiterated in an interview that “public radio needs to sound more like America” and invited a lineup of diverse guests and addressed topics overlooked by other media outlets including public radio. Though Smiley did not renew his contract with NPR at the end of two years, in 2005 the Tavis Smiley Show returned to public radio on PRI with a similar format as a weekly program.

NPR continued to go after minority audiences and added two programs, News and Notes in 2005 and Tell Me More in 2007, both in collaboration with the African American Public Radio Consortium. News and Notes, hosted by Farai Chideya, is an hour-long daily program produced at NPR West and is described on its website as exploring “issues and people from an African American perspective.” Chideya was chosen to replace original host Ed Gordon largely because she had experience with both digital and traditional media and knew how to unify the two. The program uses experts to provide regular segments but also relies on its audience (on both radio and the Internet) to, as the program’s website explains, help “identify issues, spot trends, share discoveries, offer personal essays, participate in shaping the program, and engage in a dialogue with newsmakers.”

Tell Me More, hosted by Michel Martin, is another hour-long program, this one originating from NPR’s studios in Washington, D.C. While it reaches out to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and others who have been under-represented on NPR, the program also hopes to appeal to white listeners who would be interested in issues that concern these groups. Host Martin said in an interview that the program should not be limited to minority audiences because American society is made up of so many interconnected groups. During the program planning process, Martin started up a blog to give listeners an insight into how decisions about what goes on the air are made and to help increase audience involvement with the program. She continued the blog after the program went on the air.

Like commercial radio, public radio presents discussion shows that feature listener calls. But the similarity ends there. The nationally distributed call-in program Talk of the Nation demonstrates that such offerings can be educational and informative and a forum for discussion rather than the often contentious ranting of commercial radio’s largely right-wing hosts. Talk of the Nation created a space for listeners to interact with experts who represent a diversity of opinions on a chosen subject. The program made its debut during the first Gulf War (1991) as a way to host a nationwide conversation about the war. But its popularity led to it being continued with a broad range of topics ranging from politics and public service to education and healthcare.

Marketplace, a 30-minute business program, is an example of how public radio has taken what many see as a dry and boring topic and put its unique stamp on it. To begin with, the program originates in Los Angeles, away from the East Coast business centers. And rather than focusing on the “numbers” (that is, the performance of stock indices), it looks at the world through the lens of business, economics, and finance. This approach results in stories that go beyond the typical business narrative to ones that are often quirky and off the beaten path and that thus appeal to a wider audience. Sample features on the program in 2008 included stories about how Congress was trying to put the brakes on gas prices; how Gucci was making a shift to cheaper, down-market goods; the challenges facing gay bars; and CBS’s plans to expand its outdoor advertising in South America.

Public radio also shows that news can be the source of comedy and humor. Weekly quiz shows NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me hosted by Peter Sagal and PRI’s Whad’ya Know hosted by Michael Feldman mix humor and information and are performed before live audiences, giving them an opportunity to interact with the hosts.

Coverage of the Arts

While the arts are covered regularly in segments on public radio news magazines, there are also programs like NPR’s Fresh Air and PRI’s Studio 360 that are entirely devoted to this subject. Fresh Air, produced by public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia, has been available nationally since 1985. Host Terry Gross’s interviews with writers, musicians, artists, journalists, and politicians are distinguished by the amount of preparation and research that goes into each of them in order to give listeners unusual insights into their personalities and a sense of who the subjects are as individuals.

Studio 360 was made available nationally to public radio audiences starting in 2001. Hosted by Kurt Andersen, the show is produced by New York’s WNYC and distributed by PRI. It combines artist interviews with features that allow reporters to speak in the first person and draw on personal experiences to examine concepts in high and low culture. Each program is built around a chosen theme; themes have ranged from girl culture to loneliness, to youth, to locations of popular television series. In 2006 PRI launched another program in the arts category, Fair Game. The hour-long production was hosted by Faith Salie, an actor, comic, and Rhodes scholar, and was geared toward twenty- and thirty-somethings. The program’s interviews were interspersed with comedic bits and musical interludes. By using humor to explore issues and people in popular culture and politics, it took an approach that was more likely to appeal to fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. However, it faced the same challenge that NPR’s Bryant Park Project did, that of finding carriage on stations, and was cancelled in May 2008, 17 months after it went on the air.

In the realm of culture, public radio also has programs that are built around a single subject. Speaking of Faith is an hour-long program that explores spirituality and faith in contemporary life. It is produced and distributed by APM and has been available nationally since 2001. In an interview in 2004 host Krista Tippett said her goal is “to trace the line between theology and human experience,” through conversations that explore how individuals struggle to resolve the moral and ethical questions in their religion. The program has tackled subjects ranging from science and Hinduism, to the ethics of eating, to the religion of Rumi. Guests on the program have included Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, and evangelical leaders Rick and Kay Warren.

The Splendid Table, an hour-long weekly program produced and distributed by APM, explores the place of food in American life. While recipes are a part of its appeal, the discussions about food provide a means to examine culinary traditions in the United States and other cultures. Host Lynne Rossetto Kasper invites luminaries from the world of cooking to share their perspective and memories about food and cooking. During 2008 the program’s Locavore Nation segment looked at the efforts of 15 individuals to obtain, prepare, and eat a meal based primarily on locally grown organic ingredients.

On the Media, another weekly hour-long show produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR, examines the culture of the media. A large part of its focus is on how news is made and how journalism is practiced by news organizations, including public radio. Co-host Brooke Gladstone said in an interview that the goal of the program was to explore advertising, television, movie trends, and look at “where media and culture collide, where media holds up the mirror to culture” in order to “show how the media sausage is made.” In 2008 the show’s segments included an examination of media coverage of the Pope’s visit to Washington and New York, the implications of choosing a safe Internet technology, the past and present of the Olympic brand, and a conflict of interest at ESPN.

Public radio journalism encompasses subjects rarely addressed on commercial radio, including science and the environment. NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday is a weekly science talk presentation broadcast live that focuses on science topics that are in the news. Host Ira Flatow is joined by experts for a discussion on topics that cover science, technology, health, and the environment. Listeners have an opportunity to call in with questions. Flatow says his goal is to make issues in science accessible to his listeners.

PRI’s weekly show Living on Earth reviews how culture, economics, and technology shape the world around us. Host Steve Curwood invites experts to explore a broad range of topics such as the world food crisis, the move toward green boardrooms, allergic reactions to climate change, and the implication of a 2008 court ruling for the Environmental Protection Agency. For Curwood the challenge is finding a mix of stories so that it does not always focus on bad news.

Rather than develop a stand-alone science program, APM has established a website on sustain-ability that showcases stories from its lineup of programs. These examine how the needs of the present can be met without compromising the ability of future generations to also meet their needs. In addition to content produced exclusively for the website, there are also links to blogs, multimedia, and interactive features that users can access to examine the impact of their own behavior on the planet.

Everyday Stories

Public radio has broadened its definition of journalism to make room for individual narratives that find a place in radio documentaries and on news magazines like ATC and Morning Edition. The public radio program that is credited with making the personal narrative hip was Ira Glass’s This American Life, which features the stories of real people told in their own voices. Each show is built around a single theme—such as what happens when you go from being a private person to a public face or the uneasy interactions between humans and institutions—and is explored through narratives of different individuals in compelling, dramatic, and often comic situations that are often also emotionally moving.

The idea that “people” stories can be interesting is the basis for David Isay’s Story Corps project launched in 2003 and Jay Allison’s This I Believe. Story Corps gives ordinary people an opportunity to record their stories. The first booth where stories could be recorded was set up in New York City’s Grand Central Station in October 2003; in 2005 two Airstream trailers—traveling recording studios called “MobileBooths”—were launched to record stories told by people across the country. A small portion of these stories are edited down and then featured on public radio programs like Morning Edition. According to Isay, the idea that people matter and that they won’t be overlooked drives the project. This I Believe invites people—some famous, but many not famous—to share the core values and beliefs that guide their lives with the hope that listeners develop respect for values that are different from their own. While the well known are invited to participate in the program, the rest volunteer themselves using the guidelines on the program website to write their essays. These first-person three-minute audio essays are carried on both ATC and Weekend Edition.

A less heard and perhaps less clearly identified format that has a place on public radio is the documentary. American Radioworks (ARW) produces documentaries that are carried on a variety of public radio programs. Radio documentaries are characterized by “a depth of research or proximity to the subject,” according to Stephen Smith, managing editor and correspondent for ARW, and are a way of exploring larger social themes through a character-rich study that unfolds like a photoessay or a film documentary.

Changing Technology

The Internet has significantly impacted public radio journalism in two areas–-program content and distribution. Thanks to the Internet, public radio journalism has become more interactive by allowing listeners to provide immediate feedback to the programs but also to shape what is covered. Readers are invited to send in story ideas or to share their experiences about a given topic.

The Public Insight Journalism initiative on Minnesota Public radio involves listeners by including them in the newsgathering process. People are invited to share their insights, experiences, and expertise to create a database from which reporters draw. The Internet also makes it possible for editors to create and manage a database of over 20,000 volunteers who are contacted by e-mail when the need arises.

In the Internet age, public radio programs can reach a much wider audience. Listeners are no longer solely dependent on their local public radio station to carry a given program but can listen to any program streamed over the Internet or downloaded as a podcast. Local stations are using the Internet to broaden their offerings with multiple program streams. Programs that don’t make it onto the air are available on the station’s website for digital access. As high definition radio receivers gain in popularity, they will have the potential to carry multiple streams of programming from public radio stations. Satellite radio is another avenue for disseminating programs from public radio. Both NPR and PRI have a presence on Sirius XM satellite radio.

The Internet has also made it possible for independent program producers to distribute their programs directly to stations, bypassing national gatekeepers like NPR and PRI. The Public Radio Exchange was launched in 2003 as a way to distribute public radio programs using the Internet. A central database of programs in MP3 format which are uploaded onto its website is made available to programmers who sift through this material to find a piece that works for their station.


Financial support for public radio journalism comes from many sources and varies for different public radio entities. NPR receives funding from Congress by way of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), from corporate underwriters, from member stations (whose fees for programs are based on their audience size), and from foundations. PRI’s main source of funding is station fees, corporate underwriting of program series, and support from foundations; it also solicits support from listeners. Apart from station fees and funding from foundations, APM has developed a model of private funding with its investment in the catalog company Greenspring (which ended in the late 1990s) and in the social networking site Gather. com. Pacifica Radio relies primarily on support from its listeners and is the only public radio entity that does not accept corporate underwriting.

As funding from the CPB has declined, corporate underwriting and support from foundations has become particularly important for both NPR and PRI. Dependence on these sources of funding has raised questions about the influence of these entities on the journalism practiced by public radio and the limits such funding might place on investigative reporting on public radio. There is also concern that foundations can buy coverage in their area of interest. Slate magazine’s collaboration with NPR’s Day to Day is the first time a public radio news program has joined with a commercial media entity and has led to questions about conflicts of interest regarding coverage of Microsoft (which owns Slate) and the possibility of truly independent journalism. In 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts warned that public radio has an obligation that goes beyond maximizing audiences because such a focus leads to journalism that is less likely to take risks and be creative.


As the amount of news on commercial radio has declined, especially with the increase in media consolidation after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, public radio has filled this void. Public radio defines journalism in a broader sense, going beyond hard news to include the arts and other contemporary issues like the environment. This breadth of coverage makes it similar to newspaper journalism. The number of awards earned by public radio programs attests to the exceptional quality of public radio journalism. Public radio journalism is a mix of traditional radio formats and newer ventures that recognize the reality of the current media landscape. The question facing public radio is whether to grow by reaching out to new audiences or by improving service to its core audience with more hours of programming.