PRNDI History

By Tripp Sommer, with help from Maryanne Zeleznik and Peter Iglinski

Over twenty years ago, 45 public radio news directors gathered in Chicago. It was the first meeting of the group that became known as PRNDA, then PRNDI, the last letters standing for Association and Incorporated, respectively.

Charter member and current KLCC Program Director Don Hein, says "the real story is news directors telling NPR 'give us some respect'. It then blossomed into discussions and sessions on management skills, ethics and fundraising".

In 1985, news directors completed a 17 part survey for PRNDA. Among the results: 46% said they "rarely" had contact with NPR news staff; 34% said they did not frequently contact NPR because " attitude of NPR editors discourages us". Another 34% responded, "we simply don't have time to call"; 54% rated NPR's news judgment as "good"; and 59% planned to attend the inaugural PRNDA conference in Chicago July 12 and 13.

Michelle Petersen, Marc Magliari (now with Amtrak), Doug Berman (of Car Talk fame),Don Hein and Maryanne Zeleznik were listed as the steering committee in Volume 1, Number 2 of the PRNDA newsletter, "Advisory: Not for Broadcast" which came out in November of 1986. That issue also listed the Treasurer's report, with Disbursements of $5,538.37, Conference Fees of $1,280.00 and a post-conference account balance of $1,549.54.

The following year, 1987, the Association adopted by-laws at its 3rd annual conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rooms were 55 dollars a night. Check that against the Chicago 20th anniversary hotel bill of 159-dollars!

1987 also found some new volunteers on the Steering Committee - Pat Kemp, Susan Lavery and Kathy Merritt. Kathy was elected President of PRNDA the following year, when the meeting was held in Washington D.C. The nation's capitol was the site for biennial meetings of PRNDA/I, to afford news directors a chance to meet with NPR editors and reporters and tour NPR. Some of those early sessions with NPR were contentious and loud - after all, PRNDA was formed primarily to improve communication and working conditions with NPR. (In the early 1990's, as President, I considered wearing a referee shirt and blowing a whistle to keep order.)

During this same time the PRNDA newsletter printed an article by reporter Jo Miglino.

She felt the only way for relations between news directors and NPR to improve was to "blow up the national desk". I'm happy to say PRNDI members and NPR editors are on much better terms these days.

1988 saw PRNDA pass resolutions to:

  • allow member station reporters submitting stories to NPR to keep the payments for those pieces. At that time, - and at a few stations still today - stations kept the money for the NPR stories.
  • have NPR establish the Southern Editor's position. At the time ALL edits were done from the National Desk at NPR. The Southern Editor was ?the first among the regions that NPR has established over the years.

1988 was also the first PRNDA-sponsored awards contest. The much-coveted awards are still the result of the only national contest to honor local reporting.

Another sign of NPR acknowledging the importance of PRNDA and its members came in January of 1989 when President Kathy Merritt attended a meeting at NPR as part of the Newscast Advisory Committee. In subsequent years, PRNDA/I board and organization members have participated in All Things Considered and Morning Edition advisory groups and held conference calls with NPR editors. In 1989, President Kathy Merritt began monthly phone calls with NPR's Vice President for News and Information, Adam Clayton Powell III.

April 1989 PRNDA implemented another of its key goals - training. Twelve journalists attended the two day session on editing and production, lead by NPR's Skip Pizzi in Charlotte, North Carolina. Current conferences include two days of Management Training just prior to the main event.

1991 was another banner year for the organization. While meeting in Atlanta, the membership considered hiring an executive director. The discussion percolated for a couple years until 1993 and the hiring of Debbie Elliott to serve as PRNDA Board Assistant. It was felt this position would be more valuable and consistent for the organization, allowing a volunteer president to be elected every two years. Christine Paige-Diers was hired to replace Debbie in the summer of 1997.

As PRNDA President in 1991, I worked closely with - and leaned heavily on - our "local host" when organizing the conference in Atlanta. News Director Ed Hula proved invaluable in lining up a Friday evening tour and reception at the Carter Center.

No, Jimmy wasn't there that night. I chartered a bus to transport attendees. The driver wasn't sure where he was going and took us over a few curbs en route. Afterward, with everyone on the bus ready to head back to the hotel, the bus wouldn't start. The driver asked if I had any needle-nose pliers - which I forgot to pack. He was able to rig something to bring the engine back to life. As the bus drove off, Ed, his wife and I waved good bye and hoped everyone made it back to the hotel in a timely fashion. They did.

Hula also lined up Newt Gingrich as Keynote Speaker at the Awards Banquet. AND we had entertainment. Voice coach Marilyn Pittman, who had done conference sessions, delighted us with stand-up comedy.

That year, PRNDA adopted a Code of Ethics. An update version was approved after a "group edit" over lunch at the 2004 conference.

By 1993 the organization incorporated and PRNDA became PRNDI (known as prin-dee, with no comma between Directors and Incorporated, thanks to Peter Iglinski). That year we met in San Francisco where "lead local host" was Raul Ramirez of KQED. KPFA and Youth Radio from Berkeley also pitched in with organizing.

Two more elements of PRNDI started that year.

The PRNDI Project. Brainstorming started around the idea of doing radio at a radio conference. Practicality won out and a pre-conference story development and editing process was developed. Reporters with medium skill levels were chosen from around the country. The editor for this and other years of the PRNDI Project was KLCC's Alan Siporin. He had filed extensively with NPR and was a call-in host at the Eugene, Oregon station. After working extensively with reporters on the phone, Siporin met with them just prior to the conference. This allowed time for production and related training. In 1994, and for the duration of the Project, the stories were uplinked.

The site for the PRNDI Project sessions in San Francisco was Western Public Radio, run by the one and only Leo C. Lee, a long-time newspaper man bitten by the public radio bug. (The morning of the first session at Western Public Radio, PRNDI Board member Gordon Bassham and I worked against the clock to set up the production rooms to accommodate the sessions.)

1993 was also the year PRNDI established the Leo C. Lee Award as a way to honor friends of public radio news. Leo was an inspiration to us all that year!

P.S. Leo hosted a great reception at the San Francisco Press Club for PRNDI conference attendees.
Leo C. Lee Award recipients to date are:

  • 1993 - Leo C. Lee
  • 1994 - William Siemering
  • 1995 - Jo Ann Wallace
  • 1996 - Carl Kasell
  • 1997 - Bill Buzenberg
  • 1998 - Tony Griffin
  • 1999 - Ira Glass
  • 2000 - Poynter Institute
  • 2001 - Susan Stamberg
  • 2002 - Jay Allison
  • 2003 - Jim Russell
  • 2004 - Linda Wertheimer
  • 2005 - Rich Bradley
  • 2006 - David Isay
  • 2007 - Danny Zwerdling
  • 2008 - David Candow
  • 2009 - Doug Mitchell
  • 2010 - Maryanne Zeleznik
  • 2011 - Jonathan Kern
  • 2012 - Ellen Weiss
  • 2013 - John Dinges
  • 2014 - Tripp Sommer

May 5-7 of 1994, PRNDI hosted the Conference on Public Radio Journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PRNDI partnered with NPR (John Dinges) and PRI (Ken Mills) for two full days of sessions on the standards, practices and challenges of our profession.

Poynter served us well with input from staff and faculty, an atmosphere of collegiality and hardwork - and an accommodating facility. Out of this conference came "Independence and Integrity: A Guidebook for Public Radio Journalism", written by University of Oregon professor Al Stavitsky. It was distributed to all public radio news rooms by CPB.

A follow-up conference was held at Poynter in 2003 and Stavitsky's updated version , with an assist from NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, "Independence and Integrity II" was published and is available online.

The 1994 conference at Poynter was the beginning of PRNDI's ongoing relationship with the Institute. Board retreats are held at Poynter early each year to train board members and plan conferences. Poynter faculty are also regular presenters at PRNDI conferences.

A new PRNDI president was elected in 1996 at the Washington D.C. conference. The board included Peter Iglinski, President, Maryanne Zeleznik, Secretary/Treasurer, along with Martha Foley Smith, Lester Graham and Melanie Peeples.

Developments 1996-2002:

  • Development of NewsWorks training program in 2002. Trainers were: Michael Marcotte, Melanie Peeples, and Tanya Ott.
  • First National Conference on Public Radio Talk Show, April 18-20, 2002 at Poynter Institute; co-sponsored by WXXI.
  • Budget grew from $29,320 (Aug 96) to $107,000 (May 02) - both figures are before conference payments.
  • Local News Research Project—final report issued in July 1999 at Boston conference.
  • Tony Griffin, former board member and news director of WMUK (Kalamazoo, MI) died on December 30, 1997
  • Web site developed (Spring 1999?)

Later Developments:

  • The PRNDI ethics code was updated in 2003.
  • PRNDI worked with NPR on a bureau chief evaluation in 2003.
  • PRNDI sponsored a second talk show conference at the Poynter Institute in 2003.
  • In 2004, PRNDI worked with Public Radio Program Directors on a beta test project of the Core Values of Public Radio Journalism. Twelve member stations took part. The project led to a Toolkit for stations to use and editorial planning and evaluation grids.

Post Script. This history of PRNDA/I is obviously far from complete and will always need updating. We need your memory and energy. Please contact me with input, corrections and updates.

--Tripp Sommer