Ellen McDonnell, executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition, is running for a plane and talking breathlessly on a cell phone about the needs of her show. ’If I can bring a smile,’ says the woman who has been with the show since it began, ’then I think that’s what makes us different. It’s the human touch.’
Ellen McDonnell, executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition, is
running for a plane and talking breathlessly on a cell phone about the
needs of her show. ’If I can bring a smile,’ says the woman who has been
with the show since it began, ’then I think that’s what makes us
different. It’s the human touch.’
McDonnell is off criss-crossing the country for new material. She’s like
a bargain hunter at a tag sale in her quest to unearth the kind of
material you are unlikely to find anywhere else on the dial.
For the 8.6 million listeners of NPR, the unpredictable nature of the
two-hour show is part of its draw. One July program featured a look at
the first international tribunal for crimes committed against women,
historic tree carvings in Arizona and an exhibition on the art of the
horse in Chinese history.
Running the gamut of issues
If all that sounds a little offbeat, rest assured, Morning Edition is
never far from the mainstream news. The show also covers more foreign
stories than the typical radio outlet - and does so with its huge
network of overseas staff, who don’t kowtow to a US-centric perspective.
During the same July program July, reporter Nick Thorpe filed on
Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s plans to change the country’s
constitution while Jennifer Ludden reported from Jerusalem on Israeli
reaction to American peace plans for the region.
McDonnell has been with the show since 1979, starting out as a writer
and working nights for five years, before moving her way up to the top
slot. Now her chief responsibility is keeping the show relevant, and
’challenging the listener without being condescending,’ as she says in
her bio located on the Web at www.npr.com.
McDonnell works closely with the show’s producers and host Bob Edwards,
who has also been with the broadcast since day one. The Louisville
native won an Alfred I. duPont journalism award in 1995 for a report
titled ’The Changing of the Guard - The Republican Revolution.’
More recently Morning Edition has been running an 18-month series on
’The Changing Face of America’ in an attempt to deal with such issues as
immigration, intergenerational conflict, economic development, urban
growth, education, technology and leisure.
’We went to an elementary school in Washington and found a classroom of
fourth-graders with between 20 and 30 nationalities,’ McDonnell
The reporters got the teacher to describe on the air how that made
teaching them difficult.
The series is due to run until June 2001 and has taken the team out on
the road. Once a month, Morning Edition and reporting teams for other
NPR shows - All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation - broadcast
live from a city. In May, Morning Edition aired a segment that looked at
what it’s like to be elderly in the first hour and generational conflict
in the second hour.
The NPR editorial staff is centralized and can be used for one of any
number of news programs, though Morning Edition has its own core. Among
them is Susan Feeney, who left her print job at the Dallas Morning News
to become senior editor. Handling the stories from beat reporters are a
number of key editors, including Loren Jenkins, who oversees foreign
stories; David Sweeney, who looks after national affairs and Washington,
DC; and Ann Goodhoff, responsible for science. The key points of contact
should be their editorial assistants.
The show, programmed from Washington, DC, has 17 staff members based in
New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with outside specialists covering
issues from pediatrics to geriatrics.
In terms of evolving the show’s remit in the new millennium, McDonnell
says she’d like to see more pieces on technology make the airwaves.
’Technology is a cultural phenomenon,’ she says, warning that Morning
Edition aims to steer clear of the ’gee whiz’ reporting common to other
’The reality in most people’s experience is that computers crash when
they use them,’ she says.
Doesn’t ignore mainstream
No one could accuse the show of ignoring the cultural mainstream. There
have been pieces about the popularity of CBS’ Survivor and gardening
correspondent Ketzel Levine is currently airing a series on celebrity
gardens. Among the guests were John Spencer, who plays the chief of
staff on NBC’s West Wing.
Amy Weil, a New York-based media relations associate for the American
Civil Liberties Union, is a regular listener and has worked with the
Morning Edition did a story on an ACLU report about the police conduct
during the WTO violence in Seattle. ’They come at things differently,’
Weil says. ’You can talk to them about things that might not be right
for print. They are a hard news program, but they also have a wandering
In forming a pitch, you’ll need to consider how to tell your story
without visuals and through words only, although NPR is famous for its
use of background sounds and McDonnell is adept at bringing radio
stories to life. ’When you listen to radio, you have a picture in your
mind’s eye that is always more vivid to me,’ she says.
Weil advises looking at the NPR Web site to see what topics the show has
covered before. The site carries an archive of subject matter dating
back a few years, as well as an extensive bio list of the NPR staff.
McDonnell says she is deluged with calls from PR pros and nothing irks
her more than pitches on irrelevant subjects.
While NPR has been taking a more pro-active approach to its own
promotion - hiring Ketchum to help in that effort - McDonnell herself is
skeptical about the need for PR to promote the show. Her views on
marketing may be a little old fashioned: ’Good programs are what drive
people to the show.’
National Public Radio
635 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001-3753
Tel: (202) 414 2150
Fax: (202) 414 3329
Executive producer: Ellen McDonnell
Assistant managing editor: Barbara Rehm
Senior producers: Neva Grant, Audrey Wynn
Senior foreign editor: Loren Jenkins
Senior editor: Susan Feeney
Senior editor (science): Anne Gudenkauf
Deputy senior supervising national editor: David Sweeney
Host: Bob Edwards
Newscaster: Jean Cochran
Commentator: Frank Deford (sports)
Special correspondent and substitute host: Rene Montagne.