NPR Tour

By Katherine Baer
Maryland Collections & Reference Librarian
Maryland State Law Library

NPR headquarters is located in downtown DC near the DC Convention Center, and this is where many of its news programs, such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are produced.  About 15 LLAM members were taken on a tour of their facilities guided by NPR librarians.  The librarians took us though the building, pointing out high points of the NPR news process while describing the varied duties of the librarians themselves.

The tour started in the Broadcast Library.  The Broadcast library is where most of the NPR library collections are housed.  The major collection is the recordings of NPR- produced shows.  For many years, there was only 1 copy of the shows, and they were stored on analog tape.  These reels are now kept in a climate-controlled archive connected to the library, and earlier years can be found at the National Archives.  In 1999, NPR began making show copies on CD-ROM, with both a circulating and an archival copy.  One major reason why this was done is because analog tape can get a condition called “sticky-shed syndrome”.  This is when the layers that make up the tape separate and become sticky resulting in shedding when the tape is played.  NPR actually uses a convection oven to “bake” these tapes, which fuses the layers back in place temporarily, allowing a copy to be made. Now the CDs are in the process of being saved to servers as backup to the CD copies.

The other two major collections housed in the Broadcast Library are the music and the spoken word collections.  There is a music librarian who helps directors and reporters make selections of the music that is played within segments and through the shows. As you can imagine, NPR has several thousand CDs to choose from, as well as several online sources.  Spoken Word is a collection of historical sound ranging from old radio newscasts to early TV programs, commercials, and political speeches.  Anytime you hear archival sound in an NPR program, the chances are it came from the Spoken Word collection.  If the library does not have something a producer or reporter needs, the Broadcast librarian will make every effort to find it.  The Broadcast librarians rotate manning the main information desk, and when they aren’t on reference, some are cataloging NPR programs, working on digital projects, and gearing up for a migration to a new library system.  Selection of a new system for their catalog has been quite complicated as they are trying to find a system that can work with all the other systems throughout NPR.

Inside Studio 4E.

There are also reference librarians “embedded” throughout the News division, and we met some of them as we moved on through the building.  The NPR News division is divided up between both shows and units; e.g. there is an area where all the Morning Edition staff works and another area for the Science unit, etc.  The News Division is spread over four floors and there are five librarians located throughout.

Other stops along the tour included Master Control.  This is the central area where all NPR’s input and output gets coordinated.  It looks like a space ship with hundreds of blinking lights & buttons.  It is continually manned by engineers making sure everything gets where it needs to be.  We were also able to go to one of the studios while the show Talk of the Nation was on the air.  There is a viewing area for guests where you can see both the director and the show host.  We saw their state-of-the-art Studio 4A that is used for live interviews with recording artists.  As you can imagine the digital revolution is huge at NPR, so we stopped by two projects that focus heavily on the digital world.  One was called NPR Labs and the other was Digital Music.  NPR Labs’ sole purpose is to explore new technologies and their possible uses throughout the NPR system, and Digital Music allows for a central location for musical genres and a variety of media platforms.  Lastly, we stopped by Morning Edition and heard how a show is produced, including how the various news pieces come in and how they piece together the segments.

It was fascinating journey into the behind-the-scenes action at NPR, highlighting the news, music, digital, and library missions.