Unique Morning Show On NPR Thrives As Others Slip

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This article appeared in the New York Times and talks about how the NPR Radio Show "Morning Edition" is produced, and what makes it unique from other radio programs. 

By Brian Steltler

Fifteen minutes before “Morning Edition” is beamed to radios across the country, Renee Montagne is ready to record her one-minute introduction. To cue her, the director points his index finger. “Good morning. It was the president’s turn to court Latino voters…”

And she’s off. Here in the soundproof studio, though, “Good night” seems like the more appropriate greeting. It is only 1:45 a.m.

NPR’s “Morning Edition” has one of the most peculiar formats of any morning show on radio or television: it’s split between the East Coast, with the co-host Steve Inskeep in Washington, and the West, with Ms. Montagne. The director cues Ms. Montagne through a videoconferencing system, and the co-hosts routinely add what they call “splits” to their scripts, so that they share the responsibility for introductions and interviews. “We are functionally sitting next to one another,” Ms. Montagne said, yet by staying on separate coasts, they are reflecting the audience’s geographic diversity.


The format is working for “Morning Edition,” the highest-rated news program on radio, which is holding onto its audience at a time when declines are the norm across the fractionalized media landscape. The program is adapting to the Web by letting listeners download episodes to music players and by taking photographers and videographers along on reporting trips.

“We want to replicate ‘Morning Edition’ in all the other spheres that our audience is likely to reach us,” said Madhulika Sikka, the program’s executive producer, who was promoted last week to oversee all of the NPR news division’s reporters and editors and help set its news agenda. The public radio organization will start a search for a replacement producer soon.

All this might surprise people who still associate “Morning Edition” with Bob Edwards, who hosted the program since its inception in 1979 and was pushed out by NPR in 2004, months shy of his 25th anniversary. The decision was widely criticized, and some claimed that the program would fail without him. But it has actually thrived, thanks in part to the co-host arrangement, which split up some of the work and freed Ms. Montagne and Mr. Inskeep to occasionally take the show on the road.

“We wanted people who were reporters — by their very essence, reporters. That’s what Steve and Renee brought,” said Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior vice president for news. “There were definitely some bumpy moments,” she said, referring to Mr. Edwards’s departure, “but the ambition was clear and the fact that we hit it is very gratifying.”

Of Ms. Sikka’s promotion to be one of her deputies, Ms. Smith said, “The rigor and vigor that she brought to ‘Morning Edition,’ I want. I want that.”

Last fall, Ms. Montagne reported from Afghanistan on the 10th anniversary of the war there. This summer, Mr. Inskeep reported from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the “Revolutionary Road” as NPR called it, to assess the effects of the Arab Spring in the region. He and Ms. Montagne have also taken “Morning Edition” to battleground states for an election-year series called “First and Main,” named for the intersections where they seek out voters for in-depth interviews. The resulting sound bites sometimes play for two and three minutes at a time.

“That’s something you can do on the radio,” Mr. Inskeep said, “that would be hard to do on another medium.”

Cumulatively, “Morning Edition” reaches about 12.5 million people for at least a few minutes a week, the same number that Mr. Edwards reached in his last full quarter on the program. (“This very old medium has a very modern-day niche: you can listen while multitasking,” Mr. Inskeep said.) Each day, the audience is 6.6 million, a number that compares favorably to the two biggest morning shows on television, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.” Each of those shows averages four million to five million viewers a day.

But radio ratings come from Arbitron and TV ratings come from Nielsen, so the data sets are not equivalent. Furthermore, the two-hour “Morning Edition” starts earlier — 5 a.m. Eastern — than the TV morning shows and is updated as warranted until noon, so stations can broadcast it later. On big breaking news days, they stay live for up to seven hours. Thus the nocturnal nature of the West Coast staff. Ms. Montagne arrives to work each morning at midnight Pacific time, heads home after sunrise and falls asleep around 3 p.m. “Sometimes you think ‘What a nice day’ as you close the curtains,” she said with a laugh.

On a recent Friday morning at NPR’s West Coast studio, she spent the two hours before airtime checking facts and revising her scripts. Thinking about listeners who would be waking up to the program, she softened a scripted reference to a drug kingpin who burned off his fingerprints with acid. “It just gives this terrible image,” she said.

Mornings, Ms. Montagne said, come down to tone — “a sense of where people are in their emotional life.” For that reason the oft-repeated words after stories, “You’re listening to ‘Morning Edition from NPR News,’ ” are always read live, never recorded, “because you want to get the tone right,” she said. The tone after a crime piece differs from that after a stock market preview.

“Morning Edition” indirectly benefits from the money that NPR receives from the federal government, a subsidy that Mitt Romney criticized during a presidential debate this month. But its budget comes from the fees that stations pay for programming, and those stations rely in large part on donations from individuals and groups. The program, along with its afternoon counterpart, “All Things Considered,” is a vital tool for station fund-raising; Mr. Inskeep and Ms. Montagne frequently record fund-raising pitches after the day’s broadcast.

Earlier this year, with an eye toward succession, NPR named David Greene the primary substitute host for “Morning Edition.” Mr. Greene, like the current hosts, has an enviable reporting résumé: a former newspaper reporter, he covered the White House for NPR and then spent two years as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow. Grooming him “is a smart and mature thing to do,” Ms. Montagne said, though neither host has plans to leave the program.

At 4 a.m. Pacific, the first edition of the program wrapped up. The co-hosts conferred through a special red telephone in their studios, then Ms. Montagne rerecorded the start of one story to correct the pronunciation of a name. Joking about the time zone difference, Ms. Montagne said of her colleagues in Washington, “My show is over before theirs begins.”