Morning news: listening beats looking

The most listened-to morning news program is not the "Today" show. It's not "Good Morning, America" and certainly it's not CBS's previous incarnation called "This Morning" or even its brand new "The Early Show."

According to Nielsen Media, 4.9 million people on average last month watched NBC's "Today" show, 3.6 million watched ABC's "Good Morning, America," and 2.7 million watched CBS's "This Morning."

Yet according to Arbitron, 8.8 million people listened every day to National Public Radio's newsmagazine "Morning Edition."

The skirmishes among the pairings of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, and now Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson, have been highly publicized. "The issue, of course," wrote Bill Carter last month in The New York Times Magazine, "is Gumbel's personality - or at least the perception of his personality."

The talk about the vicissitudes of the morning shows has centered around how on-air "chemistry" translates into ratings - there has been little discussion of the larger political impact of the shows. Says Stephen Salyer, president and chief executive of Public Radio International (PRI), "We lack measures beyond the Nielsen ratings for understanding what is really shaping public opinion."

One could argue that the success of public radio is a triumph of substance over style. "Morning Edition," for example, offers its listeners extensive national news and the local stations that carry the show add their own fillip of local news, traffic and weather. But "Morning Edition" doesn't have a tourist-friendly street-level set in New York's Rockefeller Center like NBC, or a wave-to-the-camera window like CBS's.

"Morning Edition" may not offer the homemaking tips of new billionaire Martha Stewart or an interview with a Hollywood blockbuster star, but it has credibility. "Cokie Roberts is only on 'Morning Edition,' " says Bob Ferrante, its former executive producer for 10 years as well as the former executive producer of CBS "Morning News," "because she wants to make sure that people on the Hill, the people in politics, hear her in the morning."

"Television has a visual presence that is difficult to get away from," says Mr. Ferrante. "There is so much working in the mass media in support of its programming." Since the morning news shows are the only time of day when the networks are actually gaining audience, in the debacle that is television news the morning programs are the most valuable turf.

The "Today" show, for instance, rakes in a profit of $150 million a year, making it the most profitable network-owned property in television. "Public radio is not a player in the same way," says Ferrante.

But in this increasingly multi-tasking society, public radio is gaining ground. The frantic pace of many households in the morning, where couples as well as children are all trying to get out the door, means that morning papers and even morning television can get bypassed in the haste to tug on socks and grab a piece of toast. Once in the car, constrained by traffic jams, commuters who want to stay informed can listen to NPR's "Morning Edition."

And while online at the office or while driving home, the same multitaskers can listen to NPR's afternoon program "All Things Considered" or hear the business news on PRI's "Marketplace." Even Ferrante's four-year-old program, "The World," co-produced by PRI, the BBC World Service, and WGBH/ Boston, has more than a million listeners.

"Public radio hasn't been factored into the dialogue of where people go for their news," says Mr. Salyer. It should be. For those committed to morning news, there were two dates this week to mark on the calendar: Nov. 1, the debut of the most recent retread of the CBS morning show, and Nov. 5, the 20th anniversary of "Morning Edition."

Nov. 5 deserves the larger celebration.

*Susan D. Moeller is director of the journalism program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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