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Rerunning the news

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

For longtime NPR listeners, the relatively recent practice of re-airing some stories on the daily magazine shows seems like a breach in an unspoken contract.

All Things Considered, NPR's flagship, first aired in 1971. Morning Edition has been on the air since 1979. When these radio shows debuted, with their high production values and wide-ranging topics, they were often compared to nightly news shows.

That consistently high quality over the decades has created an implicit promise of a fresh and expertly edited window into the world today. When listeners notice that a story has been recycled, some feel as if NPR has changed the terms. We've heard objections from listeners about this practice since it began.

After a recent increase in these audience letters, we decided to take a closer look at the practice and make some recommendations.

We also spotlight a somber Valentine's Day essay about love in Ukraine, and an investigation of the Paycheck Protection Program.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

An encore on "Encores"

We routinely receive questions about old stories reappearing on news magazine shows. (The NPR term is "Encore.") We addressed an audience critique a year ago, but recently we saw more questions about this practice.

Kate Donaho wrote on Jan. 31: I am a constant listener to both Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It is boring and frustrating to have so many recycled "Encore" stories on the air. Today's ATC included 4 — three of which I had heard before. I have been noticing this more and more. And are you sharing stories across Morning Edition and ATC as well? ...

Lisa Miotto wrote on Jan. 31: I'm curious about why there are so many "Encore" stories on the air these days. I'm disappointed about this. If I need to hear a story again, I can just find it in the archives. I would much rather hear new stories throughout the programs. I wonder if you could explain why this is happening and when it will end.

Sarah Gannaway wrote on Jan. 23: I'm curious about "Encore" articles, specifically what I perceive as an increase in their frequency of use. I'm a long time listener (and donor) to NPR and to my local station, and listening to NPR is a daily activity for me. ... Am I imagining the increase in the broadcast of "Encore" articles? Why the recent need to put things on repeat to fill time? Or is this (hopefully) a blip of the schedule and we'll soon return to fully new content each day?

Phillip Wilke, general manager of North State Public Radio in Chico, California, wrote on Sept. 12, 2022: This is an encore message about ... repeats. When there are deadly wildfires and killer heatwaves in the west. ... When Jackson, Miss. residents can't drink their water. ... When the DOJ issued 40 new J6 subpoenas ... when there is polio in the water in suburban NYC ... then you decided to run two — not one but two — repeat stories on the same ATC broadcast. ...

NPR reruns some of its stories for two reasons. First, it wants to get more people to hear the best stories. Also, rerunning stories frees staff resources to produce more great stories.

Here's how it works: members of the NPR staff flag certain stories as candidates for a second airing. Some stories center on a big newsmaker, like an interview with Michelle Obama, where audience interest is high. Other stories might have a second wave of relevance because of a new development, like an old interview with an artist who is later nominated for an award. And some stories are deemed worthy of a repeat run because the audience on the NPR One app responds particularly well, listening all the way through and even sharing it with friends.

As producers assemble the lineup for live broadcasts, they look for reruns that they know will be both relevant and pleasing to NPR audience members, who mostly listen to live shows in 15-minute increments and therefore likely missed the story the first time it aired. However, NPR leaders know that this practice annoys core NPR audience members who listen a lot and did likely hear the rerun in its original broadcast.

Eric Marrapodi, vice president for news programming, told me that "in a perfect world" there would be no more than two "Encore" stories in a single show.

"But we live in a fallen world, and sometimes you have to make exceptions to hard rules like that," he said.

NPR takes additional steps to minimize the annoyance. Many times, an "Encore" story will run in the last quarter-hour of a show, when stations are most likely to broadcast their own local stories. That's a particularly good spot, Marrapodi said, if the story is less than four minutes long. Because of this, listeners of local public radio stations that don't break in (usually smaller markets with less staff) will hear more reruns.

But some second-runs do show up earlier in the hour, and sometimes on the same show where they originally aired, if a show host is the voice in the story. An example of this is an Ailsa Chang interview with musician Anaïs Mitchell, which first ran in 2022 after her new album came out and reran on Jan. 31 after she was nominated for a Grammy.

When a story is reported by anyone other than a host, producers try to rerun it on a different show, where there is less audience overlap.

"Building a show is more art than science," Marrapodi told me. "Ultimately we want to create an experience that serves the audience well, and give our journalists the tools to do that. Encores are one of the tools in the tool kit."

Use of "Encores" began two years ago, Marrapodi said, and recently, NPR has been using more of them.

NPR tracks the use of "Encore" stories and there was, indeed, an increase in January. But the practice is strategic, Marrapodi said. Producers strive to ensure that the listeners' needs are front and center when choosing the stories for a show. "We're working to make sure they're the right fit to reach the widest audience," he said.

Currently, some NPR teams are short-staffed because of a hiring freeze, but Marrapodi told me he did not believe this was driving the use of reruns.

Although NPR has identified those two specific reasons for rerunning stories — to get them more exposure and allow staff to do more stories — it would benefit from a couple of additional policies around this practice to make sure that the primary motivation is to serve the audience's needs:

  • Tighten the limit for "Encore" stories. Four repeats in a single show is a lot. If it's not feasible to limit the number of repeats in one show, maybe limiting the total number of "Encores" per week is more doable.
  • When running an "Encore," explain on the air that they are a regular feature, and why they exist.
  • Create even more ways for audience members to find the best stories. Many news websites have sections where the most popular stories are listed. NPR doesn't currently do this. But if leaders are sincere about getting more listeners to the best stories, publishing a running list of the most popular stories, by category or show or week, would drive even more people to the greatest hits.
  • Marrapodi said NPR will continue to run "Encore" stories on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered. Data that NPR collects suggest that most listeners won't have heard a story that runs a second time.

    "If they do, it's probably because they are one of our ... super users, somebody who is listening all the way through" to a program, he said. "We need more of those people ... but I need grace from those folks who are super listeners to understand the strategy behind Encores is so we can make even more great journalism and put it in even more great places."

    Since "Encores" are relatively new for NPR, and since some of the audience is still struggling to understand the value, it's incumbent on NPR to both limit their number and to explain more about why certain stories are getting a second airing. — Kelly McBride

    SPOTLIGHT ON

    The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

    Love in a time of war

    NPR's Picture Show published a photo storyfrom Natalie Keyssar on Valentine's Day about Ukrainians who have found or continued love despite the ongoing war. The narrative writing and intimate photos share several love stories. Some couples were brought together by the war, while other individuals have been torn apart by various circumstances since their partners went to the front lines. The piece is compelling and well-timed for the love-themed holiday. — Emily Barske

    Investigating the evolution of PPP loans

    Early in the pandemic, the government launched the Paycheck Protection Program and handed out loans to businesses. The program was designed to help small businesses, yet plenty of money went to large companies, companies that were thriving and companies owned by wealthy celebrities. NPR published an investigationof the program last month. "Government officials acknowledge that the program was rife with fraud and did not weed out undeserving applicants," the story says. An NPR analysis of data from the Small Business Administration found that 92% of loans issued through the Paycheck Protection Program have been granted full or partial forgiveness. NPR investigations correspondent Sacha Pfeiffer worked with Austin Fast, an assistant producer in data investigations, to examine the program. The robust investigation included interviews with bankers, economists, business owners and government officials under the administrations of former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden. Up First's two-way between Pfeiffer and Rachel Martin breaks down the program and its effects. — Amaris Castillo

    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Chair,
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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