Takeaways from PRPD: Best Practices for New Clocks

Sep 21, 2014

Behold: the new NPR magazine clocks.
Credit Jonathan Ahl

NPR member stations around the country are working feverishly to figure out how they will insert local content and cover the breaks in the new clocks for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and the weekend news magazines.  

Determining and implementing the best practices for using the new clocks was the topic of a breakout session at the PRPD Conference in Portland, OR on Sept.10.

The panel, made up of station representatives, not NPR staff, advised attendees that MEGS (Morning Edition Grad School) principals of best practices still apply – mainly the priorities of forward promotion, stationality and avoiding stacks of underwriting in continuity  breaks.  

That Tricky Bottom-of-the-Hour Break

While generally supportive of the new clocks, the panel advised attendees the bottom of the hour Morning Edition break would be tricky.

“It takes a new mindset to get through this one,” said Scott Williams, Director of Audience Research at KJZZ-KBAQ. He played a sample break which included an ID, a forward promo, the “return” from NPR, traffic, an underwriting credit, an ATC promo (read by the host), one news story (a reader with tape), weather, a recorded promo for the station’s app, a time check, and then a rejoin to the show. 

“Listening to it now, we are going to play with it, and try some different things. This is going to be the hard one to deal with,” Williams told the session attendees.

While there may be some tricky issues with continuity breaks, the bigger concern seems to be how to present local news in the new clock in Morning Edition. The new clock requires stations to carry 90-second newscasts at :19 and :42, followed by 90 seconds for local stations. 

David Thiel, Content Director at Illinois Public Media/WILL expressed the concern of many small stations. “We currently only have a top of the hour newscast. What are we going to put in all those 90-second holes?” he asked the panel.

Stations are grappling with the approach to these newscasts, wondering if they should go for mini newscasts with some sound, one superspot, or a more headlines-like reader.

Earlier during the PRPD Conference, the value of headlines newscasts came into question during the News/Talk Format Group meeting.

“In all the research we’ve done, NPR listeners want depth. They don’t want headlines.  They can get that in any number of places,” said George Bailey, with Walrus Research. “If you read 90 seconds worth of headlines with three or four stories two or three times per hour, you are doing absolutely zero good for your audience.”

No Wraps in 90-Second NPR Newscasts

NPR’s Executive Producer of Newscasts, Robert Garcia, refutes the idea that Newscast 3 and Newscast 4 in the new Morning Edition clock will be headlines.  “We expect to be able to do four or five stories per 90-second newscast with two to three pieces of sound on the average,” Garcia wrote in an email responding to questions about newscasts in the new clock. “We will not be using wraps in the 90-second newscasts, though we do expect to be using correspondent and hopefully, member station reporter Q-and-As.”    

That’s why two of the panel member suggested stations try to emulate NPR in the 90 seconds after the newscasts.

The Virtue of Superspots

Tanya Ott, VP of Radio at Georgia Public Broadcasting said she plans to have local newscasts that include “a few stories with a couple pieces of tape. Another option is a superspot.  Can you do that? Does a superspot really add context, or is it a spot that should be edited down to a normal spot length?” Ott asked.  “90 seconds is not a lot of time. It’s a great opportunity for reporters to focus on writing with the fewest and most powerful words.  There is a lot of fat on the bone that can be eliminated to make stories that currently run longer fit into the shorter newscasts,” she said.

Tamar Charney, Program Director at Michigan Radio and PRPD Board Chair took it one step further.  “I’m going to challenge our news department to follow the NPR rotation in terms of moving the top stories around, freshening up stories and hitting the same level of repetition,” she told the group. 

Tri States Public Radio's plan for inserting local content into the new Morning Edition clock.
Credit Jonathan Ahl

Charney went on to say that newscasts, while short are very important.  Charney said local newscasts did well in the “dial test” that Michigan Radio and WNYC did when testing the new clock.

Some stations will likely experiment with one longer story in the 90 second breaks. Ben Adler of Capitol Public Radio said, “we do too many wraps and not enough superspots.  There are stories that need more information than a spot but aren’t needing a feature length. This could make that work.”

Hurray for the D-Segment Cutaway 

MEGS trainer and WBOI General Manager Peter Dominowski said the options are what will make this clock work for a lot of different stations.  “Ultimately you have to decide about what impression you want to give to your listeners about the community and how you cover it,” Dominowski advised the attendees.  “Look at the whole combination of pieces, spots, superspots and headlines to determine what it is you want to communicate to your audience and how you want to do that.”

On the topic of flexibility, there was general consensus that the D segment in Morning Edition and the addition of a cutaway in both hours of All Things Considered will make it easier for stations to program long-form pieces and features.

PRPD and PRNDI are offering webinars for stations to help communicate more ideas on how to approach the new clocks before the implementation date in November. The first webinar will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at 3 p.m. EST. Mark your calendars.