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Joint Convention Coverage Makes For Not So Conventional Radio

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Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Any first-time collaboration has a settling-in period. The NPR and PBS joint coverage of the Republican and Democratic political conventions — more than three hours of nightly shared time — is no exception. All the planning and testing in the world can't anticipate the many challenges of bringing together two disparate newsroom teams, with two different styles, to track and make sense of the sprawling events of a live political convention.

With those acknowledgements, from my point of view, NPR's radio audience was not well-served by the broadcasts of the first two nights of the Republican National Convention.

The joint broadcast is relying on a seasoned (if only minimally diverse) team. PBS NewsHour hosts Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff are anchoring. Rachel Martin, who hosts NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, is reporting from the podium. At the RNC, NPR's Congressional reporter Susan Davis and the NewsHour's political director Lisa Desjardins are on the floor. NPR's Mara Liasson, Domenico Montanaro and Ron Elving are providing analysis, along with commentary from NewsHour regular contributors Mark Shields, David Brooks and Amy Walter. On Monday, PBS' John Yang reported from outside the hall, although there was very little going on.

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On paper it should work and at times, it has. Much of the commentary has been measured and thoughtful, in the NPR/PBS style, and, compared to the coverage on cable, I appreciated the lack of spin from campaign surrogates.

But there were problems. Most fundamentally for a radio audience, listeners simply could not hear the hosts, analysts and commentators over the din of the crowd. Tuesday was better than Monday, possibly because the crowd in the convention hall was noticeably sparser, but listeners still reported serious audio issues.

The convention producing team is aware of the problem. NPR's newsroom chief Michael Oreskes, who said he was also speaking for NewsHour executive producer Sara Just, told me by email on Tuesday:

"The hall was indeed very loud. Our booth with the NewsHour is right in the thick of things. It's a trade off. We could have installed glass on the booth. That would cost a lot. We are public media.

We like the you-are-there feel. But we also want you to hear. We are working hard to make it better tonight.

Our technical teams are looking at new microphones, different placement of the microphones, sound dampening materials that would reduce background noise and more. We, of course, ran tests before the convention. But the sound challenges in the moment are always unpredictable."

At one point Tuesday evening, when the noise escalated out of control, the hosts cut to a quieter, previously taped floor interview. That was a very good move, but I would hope other solutions are coming, particularly by Thursday, when nominee Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech and the crowd will likely be at its peak.

Many of the interviews from the floor have come off well (although Tuesday night Davis and Desjardins disagreed on how delegates reacted to Paul Ryan's speech). But a Monday interview with former Kansas senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole was not well thought-out. As Desjardins explained, because of a security barrier, she had to pass her microphone back and forth to the senator. Television viewers could see what the hold-up was; radio listeners just had to contend with some awkward dead air. The interview did not elicit insights that justified the effort, to my mind.

The teams knew going in that they faced a challenge when the official convention program called for pre-produced videos, which don't work very well for a radio-only audience. At one point Monday, the hosts off and on narrated what was happening on the screen before cutting away somewhat abruptly.

The vast majority of email to my office — dozens of messages — has come from listeners (and some viewers) complaining about which podium speeches the team chose to cover and which ones they cut away from.

Duane Nelson of Hazelwood, Mo., who called himself a loyal listener, was one of the more polite emailers: "It is a wonderful service that you broadcast the conventions, but if your insightful commentators could just be quiet for five minutes we might be able to hear the speakers."

Jay Neves of Mission Viejo, Calif., wrote: "You are all about letting your news people talk while we want to hear when the convention speakers are speaking. Your people's thoughts can come after the speakers, not before or during. This is not a convention for your egotistical news people. It's about hearing [and] making a decision about who to vote for!"

Others, including a Houston listener who gave only a partial name, saw political bias: "I am appalled at the lack of coverage of the Republican National Convention. The most important speakers are being drowned out, on purpose, by the moderators. It is ridiculous and unprofessional. Specifically, could we hear the Marcus [Luttrell] speech? We have no idea what he said because the moderators had to tell us what they thought that we should know. This is not an editorial edition. Could we hear the Benghazi attack timeline presentation that was given at the convention? We have little to no idea because the moderators had to talk out of turn and the producers had to add enough background noise so that we could not even hear them. Could we hear the Pat Smith speech in its entirety? The moderators cut in again and had to talk. Unprofessional, propaganda, ridiculous. What is PBS/NPR trying to hide? Tell us, we are Americans, we can handle the truth."

OK, that was pretty over-the-top—and no, for the record, the producers are not adding in background noise, they are trying to eliminate it. But it was not the most scathing email, by far. Many, many listeners (and viewers) saw political motivation in the choices of what to air or not.

My focus is on NPR, but I do think a little history of the PBS (and NPR) approach to the conventions might help explain some of the ire. Conventions used to be real news affairs; that is, until the party organizers realized the power of what was essentially a free four-night advertisement beamed into millions of U.S. TV homes. So in the 1990s the parties began scripting the events down to the minute, eliminating as much as possible any unplanned drama (i.e., news) and crafting strategic political messages into each night's theme.

As a result, the broadcast networks pared what had been gavel-to-gavel coverage sharply, to just one hour each of the four nights, or less, and moved much of their convention efforts to cable. That left PBS and NPR as the sole over-the-air (in other words, free) outlets to offer full convention coverage, with a focus on the podium speeches and a relative minimum of host and analyst commentary.

As broadband internet connections have become more universally available, that public service has seemed less vital. Both the Republicans and the Democrats now offer live streaming of the podium events for viewers who just want to see the speeches, uninterrupted, (as does PBS) and PBS and NPR have added increasingly more interviews and commentary to their broadcasts, spending less time on the speeches.

That is the correct journalistic choice. There is no obligation on the part of any news organization, even public media, to stay solely focused on the scripted events of the convention podium (although I am sympathetic to those in rural areas, in particular, who do not have access to broadband and I am not sure what the solution is).

My reaction to the choices made Monday and Tuesday was a bit different than those of the listeners who wrote. I do not believe there was political motivation at work. I just did not see the usual care that goes into an NPR broadcast.

From a listener's point of view, it was hard to understand the decisions of which speeches to cover and which to cut away from: full speeches from actors Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr., and excerpts or no coverage at all of the more substantive speeches from Luttrell and Smith, among others. On the radio, it sounded fairly random and messy, when the advance schedules should have allowed for a more thought-out flow to the night and smoother transitions.

Oreskes, again speaking on behalf of Just, as well, said Tuesday in response to the listener concerns: "We are constantly searching for the ideal balance between speeches from the podium, reports from delegates on the floor and context from our journalists in the booth. We hear the audience on this. We recognize our important role as public media to give strong attention to the speeches. We will be appraising the balance each night."

Tuesday night, the more substantive speeches were indeed carried in full, including those of House Speaker Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But I still did not hear a broadcast that felt NPR-like.

The joint effort is well intentioned, and it makes sense from a financial point of view; as Oreskes noted, public media does not operate with the same big budgets as commercial media. I am rooting for the venture to win, so I trust that the newsroom is indeed working on and will succeed in improving the radio experience. And I would not want the criticisms to take away from the excellent work that the NPR news team is putting out, from the smart, quick turnaround overnight NPR Politics Podcasts to Facebook videos from Sam Sanders and Scott Detrow, among others, and newsmagazine fact-checking and interviews. I'll follow up in a future column.

Editorial researcher Annie Johnson and intern Shane McKeon contributed to this column.

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