3 Lessons From NPR’s Decision to Cut “Tell Me More”

NPRNational Public Radio’s “Tell Me More” radio program will be cut Aug. 1 due to budget constraints, and 28 positions will be eliminated in the process, according to the New York TimesElizabeth Jensen. The show, focused on issues most relevant to minority listeners, has been on the air for seven years, and NPR was forced to cut it in overcoming a $6 million budget shortage.

It’s always sad to highlight layoffs in our industry — trust me, I do not enjoy it and acknowledge that it could easily be me (eight of the 28 positions aren’t currently filled, if that’s any consolation to the bad news at all). But we shouldn’t let a news organization’s failure come and go without taking the time to learn from its mistakes. Based on what I know about “Tell Me More” and how NPR is handling the aftermath of the program’s cut, here are a few lessons I feel can be learned from “Tell Me More”‘s plight:

1. Know your audience.

It really can’t be said enough. Unfortunately, NPR simply didn’t have enough listeners interested in the contents of “Tell Me More.” Only reaching one million people, the show was vastly underperforming compared to other NPR properties. Was it because the media company ignored its own audience demographics, though? The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher looked at internal NPR demographics as well as figures from Pew Research Center to determine that NPR may have been reaching past the scope of its actual audience.

“…Blacks, the primary audience for “Tell Me More,” are about one in 20 NPR listeners — about the same as for Hispanics. Almost nine out of every 10 NPR listeners is white. So you tell me: what sense did it ever make to create a daily talk show oriented exclusively around race?” Dreher asked.

2. Always repurpose for digital.

Of course, radio syndication is NPR’s bread and butter. Nothing wrong with that, and it won’t likely change. But the company has to be smart about multi-platform engagement. The NPR blog Code Switch is more sustainable because it exists outside of the radio — its web and social media presence gives it life off the air. That will be NPR’s key to success in the future: creating digital properties that appeal to audience segments and can help contribute to radio content but also function on their own.

3. Failing doesn’t equal giving up.

A seven-year run is respectable, indeed. In this era of constant change and emerging technologies, I feel it’s almost imperative to expect failure while hoping for the best. NPR went all in with its goal to diversify its content and audience, and eventually it had to go back to the drawing board. They’ll still remain committed to creating programs that appeal to particular segments of listeners, though. Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s executive vice president and chief content officer, said in a prepared statement that the company had no plans to pivot away from issues of ethnicity in NPR coverage, noted Jensen.

“It’s a pivot, for sure. We live in a fast-changing media environment, and while we are constantly rethinking our approach to these issues, we don’t see it as a retreat,” Wilson said.

What do you think about the end of “Tell Me More,” media budget cuts and layoffs? Can NPR sustain itself with specialized radio shows, or should it focus on its web content above all? 

Correction: A previous version of this article was worded in a way that suggested “Tell Me More” had a $6 million budget deficit. NPR has the deficit. The story has been updated to reflect this.