NPR is an increasingly powerful cultural force in books, films and music nationwide—a role that is focusing more attention on the ethics of its coverage, too. The question that pops up among listeners is whether there is a conflict of interest with the online sponsorship ads that are placed in NPR.org by record labels, film distributors and book publishers.
The banners placed by the companies feature their film, book or album—not the company—and run in NPR's cultural Web pages. On rare occasions, the banners even run cheek-to-jowl with a review of the same film, book or album.
What gives? Like some listeners, I, too, have been jarred by seeing such apparent twinning. I recently wrote at length about the ethics of corporate sponsorship in general. I found that the NPR firewall between sponsors and the news to be so firm that it was not necessary for reporters and hosts to make a public disclaimer every time a sponsor was mentioned in a story. I did allow for exceptions, however, if the relationship looked too close.
Among the few exceptions I had in mind were those cheek-by-jowl sponsorships, especially on the music Web pages. In early March, a sponsorship banner for Esperanza Spalding's album "Radio Music Society" appeared on the same page as NPR's "Exclusive First Listen" of the same album. A few weeks later, the same thing happened with the band Of Monsters and Men.
This has been happening for some time. Almost exactly two years ago, my predecessor, Alicia Shepard, wrote in response to listener complaints about an advertisement for an album by Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) appearing right next to a website report on Dylan's "Tiny Desk Concert" at NPR.
Upon digging further into the cultural pages and talking with NPR editors, executives and technical managers, I find no actual ethical violations. NPR's cultural critics and reporters maintain strict independence. I am further satisfied, moreover, that ads are not deliberately placed adjacent to reviews on the website. Rather, these adjoining placements are technical faults. They are hard to avoid and so infrequent that, as a practical and financial matter, we just may have to live with them.
There are no measures of how infrequent. But because it seems inevitable that such things will happen, I think that NPR should permanently post an explanation on all the cultural pages. The jarring appearance of a conflict of interest happens often enough to warrant a disclaimer. It is not enough to rely on the availability of NPR's overall ethics guidelines elsewhere in the website, or to depend solely on the trust that most listeners do and should have in NPR's journalists.
Two things further tip the scale in favor of this recommendation. First is the public nature of NPR and the immeasurable value of maintaining its saintly image. Second is the great growth of NPR in digital realms and the evolving nature of online sponsorships.
NPR.org attracts some 10 million unique visitors each month and continues to grow vigorously as the nation moves online and onto mobile platforms. The NPR Music site is particularly popular, drawing 2.4 million unique visitors a month this year, an increase of 30 percent from last year, according to NPR's senior digital analyst, Sondra Russell. NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series is becoming a national cultural touchstone, and NPR Music is riding a wave of popularity at music venues like Austin's SXSW. What distinguishes NPR Music is its ability to find and promote quality and originality in so many genres across the board. NPR's book and film sections are successfully following suit.
Sponsors, meanwhile, are increasingly seeking to appear in specific sections of NPR.org. Ally Bank sponsorship ads, for example, appear on Planet Money. The cultural sections are an obvious sponsorship destination for cultural companies.
That's fine, but this is where geometry and arithmetic come into play. There are fewer ads on a Web page at any given time than in a similar print newspaper business or health section, for example, or on a television show. An online sponsorship is thus more singularly in-your face. Then comes this game of chance as described to me by Anya Grundmann, director and executive producer of NPR Music:
As you might expect, media coverage often coincides with the release date of an album, which is also when it's being promoted by record labels. The same thing happens when movie reviewers cover new films that are being heavily pushed by studios. This is how on occasion a sponsorship placement promoting a new album will appear next to an artist that's featured on the site. Because our content is so wide-ranging and is sourced from more than thirty different programs and stations across public radio, we cannot prevent all instances of overlap.
In other words, sponsorship ads, articles and reviews involving an album, movie or book all naturally land in the online cultural section at the same release-date time. They thus regularly appear on the same Web page, and by chance sometimes run adjacent to each other.
Producers and executives say that they try to limit the chances. On the radio, the executive producers and other top editors receive a list of sponsors for each show so that the editorial side can take scheduling action to avoid the appearance of potential conflicts. The Web is a different beast.
The radio is a linear medium: you know when a sponsor is going to appear on ATC [All Things Considered]. It's scheduled into a clock. The show producers know what will appear before and after it. The Web is so different. We can have a dozen sponsors running across the NPR Music site at any time on the tens of thousands of pages that we must have by now. It's not possible at this time for us to control what appears next to what. We send out notes about our most high profile coverage so that [the sponsorship department] can be aware and catch the most egregious potential examples of duplication, on our First Listen series, for example, where our coverage of artists and record label marketing plans have the most potential to collide.
"It's a manual process," explained Steve Moss, CEO of National Public Media, which sells the corporate underwriting and is a partnership among NPR, PBS and WGBH of Boston. "While we are successful in preventing something like this in most cases, it's not a perfect system," he said.
It would seem that in this online roulette of ads and stories one could find a software or code-writing solution, but that apparently is much easier said than done. Bryan Moffett, NPR's Vice President of Digital Strategy and Ad Operations, explained the process in more detail. His description is heavy reading for someone not versed in website logistics, but it does explain how mistakes happen:
Nearly all label-related music sponsors have short "run of music" placements, which means they get rotated through all the content across the music site over a few weeks. My team keeps an eye on the weekly email updates from the music team that detail upcoming First Listens and special events. When they see a First Listen or special feature for a running sponsor that overlaps, we will exclude that specific page from the sponsor's campaign.
We do not pass specific meta-data about content to the ad server; just the overall topic or series. So for a page like that First Listen, the ad server only "knows" it's the First Listen series, not a First Listen of Esperanza. There's no way to automate an exclusion in that system. Each page has a unique ID number, however, which is what we use to exclude a specific page from a sponsor's campaign.
This means it's an after-the-fact process, since the page needs to be built and published before we have the information we need to target away from it. So, there is overlap in the process where the banner can appear on the page. And since orders as well as music events can come up on short notice, it's not perfect. It largely comes to someone on my team browsing through the site every day to look for them as time permits.
It's also worth noting that we only take this step for stand-out pieces like First Listens or major exclusive concerts, like the Shins event a few weeks back. The Music team is always creating new content in the form of news and reviews, and that content is promoted and referenced in multiple places across the Music site. It would be nearly impossible – and unnecessary – to always police to a standard that excludes a sponsor from a page that references the sponsor. The process outlined above is to handle the unique cases.
Any techies in the audience are welcome to propose alternatives. Until there is a practical way to resolve the technical inevitability of adjacent placements of ads and reviews, however, an explanatory note should be put on the pages. The good work of NPR's cultural reporters, reviewers, producers and editors deserves the extra protection to their reputation.