Nobody ever gets rich working for National Public Radio. But NPR journalists do get the freedom to pursue the kind of subtler stories that commercial broadcasting outfits often ignore. Which often leads to recognition for journalistic excellence. Which sometimes leads to lucrative job offers from the very commercial broadcast outfits that don’t do NPR-ish stories in the first place.
The latest public-radio voice to become a commercial-TV face belongs to John Hockenberry, who left NPR to become a correspondent on Day One, the ABC prime-time newsmagazine that premiered this month, anchored by Forrest Sawyer. In so doing, Hockenberry joined a long roster gone network, including senior news analyst Cokie Roberts, now with ABC News; economics correspondent Robert Krulwich, now at CBS News; legal-affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who signed on as a contributor to NBC News last September; Saturday Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, who is currently coanchor of NBC’s weekend edition of Today; and Asia correspondent Deborah Wang, who will begin reporting from ABC’s Beijing bureau in April.
”Radio is a very stripped-down, slim operation where your stories are really a chronicle of your own conclusions and observations. In television, that’s much less the case,” assesses Hockenberry, who nevertheless was attracted to Day One because ”there’s a lot of interest in doing things differently here.” While the 12-year NPR veteran has left the radio airwaves completely, his other colleagues who have gone to the networks still maintain an affiliation with the medium that made their name.
”We’re paid very low salaries at NPR, so one way to be able to stay there is to do TV,” says Totenberg, who continues to work full-time for NPR. But sometimes tensions arise between those loyal to NPR and those who also pursue television as an outlet for their work. Hockenberry, for one, chafes at ”people who think of NPR as a cult” — the One True Church of untainted broadcast journalism. Arguing the other side is Bill Buzenberg, NPR’s vice president for news: ”Can we compete with big bucks? Not on a financial level.” But, he adds, ”I hope we can compete on a satisfaction level. I’m not sure that a move to network TV is the greatest thing in the world.”
Buzenberg points to the experience of Scott Simon, who had a loyal following on NPR’s Weekend Edition and who has made no secret of his unhappiness at NBC. (Sources expect him to return to NPR full-time this summer.) ”Here you’re dealing with ideas, not how your hair looks,” says Buzenberg. To which Simon responds, ”I don’t worry about my hair on TV. But other people do.”