TheEC: New NPR Clocks

Nov 13, 2014

Your Intrepid Engineer attempts to puzzle out the new NPR clocks.
Credit Dave Fallon RIPR

Starting on Monday Nov.17th, the clocks for Morning Edition, All Things Considered (both weekdays and weekends) and Weekend Edition  will be changing.  

Today's Engineer's Corner is co-authored with our Operations & Production Manager, James Baumgartner.  He and I are the ones directly responsible for organizing all the clock changes' impact on Rhode Island Public Radio, and we've put together this synopsis of what the changes mean for our listeners.

"We LIVE, and we DIE by time, and we must not commit the SIN of turning our back on time." Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) in "Cast Away"

That line above was just a movie (albeit a pretty good one) about a fictionalized FedEx executive obsessed with timeliness.  But in the public radio world, there's a grain of truth to it.  Every NPR station in the country, along with NPR central in DC and LA, all operate on very accurate GPS-synchronized clocks.  That's how we seamlessly transition from national to local content, several times every hour.  We all wait for pre-arranged pauses barely one second in length, but that's just enough for us to turn off the national feed, fire up a local microphone, and bring you local news, weather, sports and other information every day.

Governing this whole process is the program clock (or just "The Clock").  Each show has one.  It's an agreed list of times when breaks occur.   For example, in the 7:00 AM hour of Morning Edition, 7:00:00 to 7:01 is the "billboard" (an introduction to what you'll hear in the coming hour).  7:01:00 to 7:06 is the top of the hour (TOH) NPR newscast, which has headlines and brief stories about the most important stories of the day.  Just before 7:06, the NPR newscaster (e.g. Lakshmi Singh) says "This is NPR" and pauses for one second. That's Elisabeth Harrison's cue to jump in and start the local newscast which runs from 7:06 to 7:10. 

These clocks don't change much or often, because they have to make sense not just for NPR, but for the hundreds of member stations across the USA.  So the last change was many years ago.

WHAT WILL SOUND DIFFERENT?

New MORNING EDITION clock, effective Nov.17, 2014
Credit NPR

Most of the changes are in Morning Edition​, and really very little is changing in terms of things being added or taken away.  It's more how things are arranged and presented.  

 

FAIR ENOUGH, THEN WHAT'S CHANGING IN MORNING EDITION?

The biggest change is the newscasts: instead of two big newscasts, now there'll be four small newscasts, spread out throughout the hour.

Specifically, with the old clock, Morning Edition has one long newscast with national and local news at the top of the hour, and one medium newscast (also with national and local news) at the bottom of the hour.  

The new clock, seen at right, has one 6 1/2 minute national & local newscast at the top of the hour, two shorter national newscasts at about 20 and 40 minutes past the hour, and a 2 1/2 minute local newscast at the bottom (the clock says "Music", but RIPR will have a local newscast there. In fact, where it says "music" on the clock, that just means that NPR is sending music down the line to us, but we cover it with local content).

The individual "segments"...labelled A thru E...are also slightly different in length.  That means you'll hear different segments at slightly different times, both local and national.   And they'll be slightly longer or shorter, depending on the segment.  Here's the new times for the local segments you hear every week:

Of course, along with those regular local segments, we also have feature stories from the reporters in our newsroom. The new clock gives us a little more flexibility for the length of our stories. We can produce feature stories that are anywhere between 2 minutes and 9 1/2 minutes long and fit them in several different places around the clock. 

YOU SAID SHORTER NEWSCASTS?  ISN'T THAT A BAD THING?

Both NPR and Rhode Island Public Radio are spreading the newscasts out across the hour, so you won't have to wait as long to hear an up-to-the-minute newscast about what's going on in the world and in Rhode Island.  Also, each newscast will be a mix of headlines with very quick updates, and more in-depth stories.  Folks who listen all morning won't be hearing the same news in every newscast. Of course, if there is a very big story of the day, you may hear something about that story in each newscast, but there will be a different take on the story each time.

In other words, the overall news content isn't really changing, it's just happening more frequently.   This better dovetails with the tune-in/tune-out listening patterns of most of our listeners.  See "roll overs" below for a bit more about this concept.

 

BUT I SET MY ALARM BY THE OLD CLOCK, HOW WILL I KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?

If you've listened to Morning Edition for many years, you probably have an intuitive understanding of clock. Many listeners rely on the timing of different segments to know if they are going to be late getting the kids out the door to school or getting themselves to work. You may need to slightly adjust your internal clock, but not by too much. In the interest of full disclosure, here's a minute-by-minute account of what the new clock will be like starting November 17.* 

MORNING EDITION Hour 1 (5-6AM & 7-8AM)

  • 5:00 - Morning Edition Billboard
  • 5:01 - NPR Newscast
  • 5:04 - Local Newscast & Weather
  • 5:07 - Morning Edition Segment A
  • 5:18 - Local Break
  • 5:19 - NPR Newscast
  • 5:20 - Local Break (business news, weather, sports, etc.)
  • 5:22 - Morning Edition Segment B
  • 5:30 - Local Newscast & Weather
  • 5:33 - Morning Edition Segment C
  • 5:41 - Local Break (weather, sports, etc)
  • 5:42 - NPR Newscast
  • 5:43 - Local Break (marine forecast, etc.)
  • 5:45 - Morning Edition Segment D (or local segment)
  • 5:50 - Morning Edition Segment E (Fridays: Political Roundtable)

MORNING EDITION HOUR 2  (6-7AM & 8-9AM)

  • 6:00 - Morning Edition Billboard
  • 6:01 - NPR Newscast
  • 6:04 - Local Newscast & Weather
  • 6:07 - Morning Edition Segment A
  • 6:18 - Local Break
  • 6:19 - NPR Newscast
  • 6:20 - Local Break (business news, weather, sports, etc.)
  • 6:22 - Morning Edition Segment B
  • 6:30 - Local Newscast & Weather
  • 6:33 - Morning Edition Segment C
  • 6:41 - Local Break
  • 6:42 - NPR Newscast
  • 6:43 - Local Break (marine forecast, weather, etc.)
  • 6:45 - Morning Edition Segment D (or local segment)
  • 6:50 - Marketplace Morning Report (Fridays: Political Roundtable's Bonus Q & A)

*Many of the segments don't start right at the even minute mark, but I've left out the seconds just to keep this a little bit simpler. You can see the exact timing on the clock image above. 

WHAT ABOUT ALL THINGS CONSIDERED?

New ALL THINGS CONSIDERED clock, effective Nov.17, 2014
Credit NPR

The ATC clock is not changing significantly; the local breaks at xx:18:00 and xx:49:00 are expanding slightly and other pieces are shuffling around a bit to accommodate.  You'll still hear the same in-depth national news and local reporting from Dave Fallon and the RIPR newsroom every weekday afternoon!

There will be a few small changes:

 

HOW ABOUT WEEKENDS?

Again, things aren't changing too much with Weekend Edition: Saturday / Sunday, nor with Weekend All Things Considered.  

The local breaks are shifting a minute or two to accommodate national segments of different lengths, but that's all.  The overall content is not changing, it's just that different segment lengths give program producers more flexibility in what stories they can cover and how they cover them.  You'll hear the same local newscast from Chuck Hinman every Saturday and Sunday morning.

ROLL-OVERS, or WHY IS MORNING EDITION NOW REPEATING ITS STORIES?

Actually Morning Edition has always done that.  It's a two-hour show that runs from 5am to 7am ET, and then repeats every two hours until 1pm ET (although RIPR only carries it until 9:00 AM).   Stories often repeat from two-hour chunk to two-hour chunk, but there's also a whole slew of reporters and producers constantly updating stories as new information comes in, so everything is always fresh.

The reason they do that "repeat" is for time zones.  NPR has affiliate stations across the country, so they repeat, or "roll over", the show every two hours to give everyone, in every time zone, fresh content for their entire morning, regardless of whether it's "morning" in California or Washington DC (or Rhode Island, of course!).

As for why RIPR airs both the 5-7am "chunk" and the 7-9am "roll over" has to do with how people listen.  Most people tune in for relatively brief periods, often 20 to 30 minutes.  Logically, this makes sense.  Someone working flex time is often awake and at work pretty early, so they might catch more of the 5-7am "chunk".  Whereas someone working "9 to 5" is more likely to tune in for the 7-9am "chunk." Even more common, is that someone will only hear Morning Edition while they are commuting in their car from 8:10 - 8:33 (for example).  Overall, both NPR and RIPR have found this is the best balance of making top-notch content like Morning Edition as accessible to as wide an audience as we can, without repeating ourselves so much that long-form listeners get bored.

By the way, All Things Considered works on the same principle: the first "chunk" is 4-6pm ET, we then air part of the second "chunk" from 6-6:30pm before transitioning into Marketplace from 6:30-7pm.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE DAY?  ON POINT?  HERE & NOW?  FRESH AIR?  THE BBC?  OTHER SHOWS?

There are no firm plans to change the clocks on any of those shows.  Listening patterns tend to be rather different for mid-day or evening when compared to morning- and afternoon-drive times.  Right now I'd say the prevailing attitude is "wait-and-see" on the ME/ATC clocks before even looking at anything else.  So even if changes do eventually come, it'll be many months...if not years...before that happens.

Also, the BBC Newshour is not produced by NPR and thus they set their own clocks.  Fortunately, they have a similar type of newscast at the beginning of the hour which makes their programming compatible to ours.

 

WHY IS RIPR DOING THIS?

All NPR affiliate stations are adopting these new clocks, not just RIPR.   NPR spent well over a year researching and examining audience listening patterns across the country, as well as how stations were using the clocks to insert local content.  To say the studies were exhaustive would be a significant understatement.  These new clocks represent the best possible balance of:

  • Adapting to changes in listener habits in the post-Internet age.
  • Allowing needed flexibility in national content production & presentation.
  • Meeting the needs of local affiliate stations.
  • Accommodating practical realities of operational methods inherent to a clock-based synchronization schema between national and local content.

 

I THINK THIS IS GREAT!/I THINK THIS IS HORRIBLE!

By all means, please let us know!   Tell us what you think in the comments below, or you can email or call James Baumgartner: james@ripr.org, 401-751-1547. James is always very happy to talk to listeners about the programming on our air.