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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, March 29, 2013

End of an Era at NPR: Talk of the Nation To End in June

Neal Conan
You heard it here second: According to the New York Times, NPR's flagship phone-in show "Talk of The Nation" will end in June.

"TOTN" as it is known, has run for 30 years. It had a number of well-known hosts including John Hockenberry, Juan Williams, and Ray Suarez. The present and now final host is Neal Conan who has shown himself to be amazingly adept and naturally nimble at handling all manner of people and topics for the past 15 years. He also took a leave of absence from NPR to be a play-by-play announcer for one season with a minor league baseball team in Maryland. He said it would help him be a better talk show host. Neal is retiring after a long and brilliant career at NPR.

TOTN now airs live across the US from 2 - 4 pm, four days a week. On Friday, a similar program focused on science airs from New York. It's called eponymously, "Science Friday" and is hosted by Ira Flatow. It has also been on since the early 1990s.

(The reason for this scheduling anomaly is because when TOTN was launched, there wasn't enough money in the news budget to host a five-day-a-week program. Foundation money for a science program was available, hence, Science Friday was created to fill the gap).

NPR announced that TOTN will be replaced by a locally produced talk show from WBUR in Boston called "Here and Now" hosted by Robin Young. Having a female host in that time period will be one of the biggest changes.

Public radio, being the intimate aural landscape that it is, will suddenly seem unrecognizable to its fans. And the twitterverse and facebook pages are filled with expressions of shock and sadness at the change. There are a number of very talented producers and editors who have worked on TOTN. I hope they find another place to land that is as intellectually satisfying as this show has been. 

In the public radio culture which is strongly change-adverse, there is much breast-beating and teeth-gnashing.

And while TOTN still sounds good to me (hearing it on satellite radio in Toronto) there have been a few warning signs of fatigue, at least to my ears - perhaps normal for any program that has been doing the same thing for many years. But still an indication that a change needed to come. The smooth delivery that was the hallmark of the program has been less than it should be; NPR reporters are often unused to going live, and can sound unprepared as they "er" and "uh" their way through a two-way conversation with the host.

NPR has gone through some public relations goofs ("traumas" is not too strong a word) involving mishandled program and hosting changes.

When long-time morning host Bob Edwards quit in a huff, audience reaction was overwhelmingly hostile and mostly directed against NPR which at a corporate level, seemed stunned and unable to articulate a good reason why Edwards was leaving.

This time, I sense a more rational approach to change, even if the reactions from the staff are predictably loyal to the departing show and co-workers.




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