As a lifelong National Public Radio fan, I, like millions of American’s who tune in, feel like the personalities are beloved friends. Ira Glass, Audie Cornish, Garrison Keilor, Steve Inskeep, Bob Boilen and others have spent thousands of hours, miles, and stories with me. Their voices are ingrained in my daily life.
So when part of the clique, Garrison Keilor, announced he were leaving the air, I was nervous about what would happen to the beloved show he hosts, A Prairie Home Companion. He created and first hosted the show 41 years ago, almost to the day. It originated in Saint Paul Minnesota and is based around a string of fictional stories, musician guests and banter based on a fantasy town, Lake Wobegon.
Last week, Keilor announced his successor: mandolinist Chris Thile, lead man of the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek.
Moving in an alternative host is a sign the organization is aware that is needs to attract a younger, broader audience. A majority of A Prairie Home Companion's guests are folk players, and Thile has been on the show many times before. Just this year, Thile and Keillor co-hosted from San Diego's Civic Theatre on January 23 and New York's Town Hall on April 16. The show undeniably had a plethora of choices on the table before it decided that Thile (a relatively untested host) would carry on the legacy.
National Public Radio has historically been dominated by white, male voices. Many of the legacy hosts have been at their posts for decades. Young (female) talent is growing up the ranks — Invisibilia is hosted by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, and visionary storyteller Sarah Koenig continues to make a bigger impact on the programming. But diversity isn't necessarily NPR's strongest suit.
"Looking at NPR, the overwhelming majority of its radio audience is in fact white – roughly 87 percent, according to research pulled together for me by Lori Kaplan of NPR's Audience, Insight and Research Department,” said Edward Schumacher-Matos in a diversity-based editorial column in 2012. That same internal report said that "more than two-thirds of NPR listeners have a college degree, compared to less than one-third of all Americans.” Bringing Thile into the station probably won’t have much of an affect on those numbers, but it is a step into bringing down the age of the listeners. Thile is 34 and co-created Nickel Creek when he was only nine years old. He and is bandmates met as children at bluegrass shows they attended with their parents. He is also in the band Punch Brothers, which he co-founded in 2006.
With programs that have been on the air with their original hosts, such as 56-year-old Ira Glass and and 68-year-old Robert Siegel, reaching a younger generation has proven one of NPR's biggest challenges. Keilor is 72, and hosts one of the oldest shows on NPR, not including All Things Considered. With programs that haven't seen much of a facelift in a life-span longer than the majority of young adults, there is going to be an unavoidable cultural void that isn't being filled.
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While bringing Thile into the station probably won’t have much of an affect on the diversity and socio-economic numbers, it is a step into bringing down the age of the listeners. The new NPR generation are young adults, and are the children and grand children of those who were there for the humble beginnings of the organization. For NPR, creating content that relates to those listeners is vital for the growth of the programs. The thought of content brings up an interesting question: What does a legendary mandolinist know about hosting a legacy radio show? The answer is in the audience. People ages twenty to thirty aren't looking to be dazzled by traditional journalism degrees, classroom fiction writing skills and old-form story telling. They are looking for someone to relate to, to make them laugh and smile and remember. They are looking for raw, interesting content. And a well-known name that wasn't previously associated with traditional media may make Thile the perfect match for A Prairie Home Companion, and NPR.
To keep young listeners invested, the organization must do more than create state-of-the-art apps and feature-focused podcast shows. While the organization needs to take many more steps to be more accessible to not only a more diverse range of listeners, but also a wider socio-economic range, they need to take steps to relate to those audiences in a way they haven't before. While news shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered cover many topics related to race, education, police violence, and more, they do so in a isolated bubble that is National Public Radio. It is apparent that the programming must breathe new life into their existing shows. While on a small scale, Chris Thile does represents more for NPR than a new radio host with fast fingers and a soothing voice, it represents a new generation for media’s leading organization, and hope for expanding past radio’s traditional reach.
Until then, let's enjoy Thile performing in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.