The Michigan Daily interviewed Rupert Allman, the executive producer of NPR’s daily radio show “1A,” prior to this week’s recording of the show at the University of Michigan hosted by Wallace House. Joshua Johnson, NPR’s host of “1A,” will talk on “Speak Freely: Debating the First Amendment in a Changing America.” The recording will be held Thursday at Rackham Auditorium.
Here are some highlights from the interview:
TMD: I want to talk about, first, the background of this show. It seems really geared toward significant issues of our time here in the United States — with our current political and social climate, how have you seen the significance of the show change?
Allman: We’re new, we’ve only been going a year, so it might be a bit early for us to make any firm conclusions about changing dialogue. I think what was important for us when we launched the program was that we felt that it was going to be really important to try and provide some vehicle on the air or online where we were happy to let it go anywhere, but the only rule we had was the fact that it was going to be done in a way where we avoided just people shouting at each other. I don’t mean we can’t be passionate. But it’s really important that we wanted to make sure that whatever we produced, people felt that they’re heard. … I worry a lot about the fact that, clearly there’s always going to be any number of shades of opinion that people genuinely feel, no matter what their position, they’re being heard, and I think that’s where we’ve come at the program, at least in our first year.
TMD: And what do you hope your central audience is?
Allman: It’s a challenging one, because to a certain extent we’re hoping that we’re part of a movement; perhaps people discover us really anywhere that they choose. Typically, on one level, we’re a very traditional outfit, a legacy media piece — you can hear us on the radio, you can tune in when we’re live and all of it. But what we’ve been trying to do more aggressively is make sure that we’re also in front of audiences who would never own a radio, they wouldn’t know how to turn on a radio. There are plenty of people who know what we do because they only get us on their phone, for example, or they might sample some of what we have through social media or something like that. If we’re more successful in that area, then the argument from our point of view is that we’ll hopefully bring in people who know nothing about public radio. It’s not really part of their media diet, and we’re kind of introducing them into something which hopefully would be some kind of area of discovery. Through us, they might find other things; they might find other, different pieces that they wouldn’t normally consume. I think that’s part of the mission; not just to keep us across the news, but also feel that we’re thinking about how we can get our content and our conversations in front of people who wouldn’t be a traditional public radio audience.
TMD: Right, and that definitely makes sense because a lot of these issues are so significant to the general public, not just the news mediascape.
Allman: I think you’re right — it’s that whole thing about who you’re talking to. We’re very conscious about preaching to the choir, we love the choir; they’re great for us, they’re hugely supportive, they’re absolutely valuable to what we do and are truly important to our business model, but I think we’re really conscious about the idea now that there is a very much so fragmented media landscape. We can’t expect them to come to us; it’s about how we aggressively go after them.
It’s important that we are mobile — we’re a national program, we’re based in Washington, D.C. — but it’s really important for us to make sure that we, as a new program, get in front of new audiences, go to new places, try different things out, and we’re trying to start to do that. It’s going to be a long thing for us to successfully do but it’s important that we’re asking to be mobile because there’s no reason why we have to stay in our studio environment being comfortable inside.
TMD: You’ll be coming to U of M to talk about these issues, and of course the First Amendment and free speech has come up quite a bit for the University of Michigan, especially recently — can you talk about (and this also previews the event a bit) the role of free speech with regard to often controversial speakers like Richard Spencer or – we also hosted Charles Murray in the fall – talk about that role and the possibility of them coming to campus?
Allman: I’m not here to offer definitive answers. I think it is a hugely important and very complicated subject. I think what’s important in terms of what we’re planning for this week is I think there are peculiarities and sensitivities about free speech on campus that really is worth exploring and is worth finding a little bit about — not just where we are at the moment, but perhaps the direction of travel for some of these arguments. Because depending where you are on the spectrum, you can see the debate as it happens on campus as being a kind of microcosm of the way this debate will play out on a much bigger field in the next five or 10 years’ time. I’m really intrigued to kind of sample something which goes beyond the little bit of academic discourse, if you know what I mean. It’s one of those things where you feel perhaps there may well be generational divides in this particular argument, that it goes a little bit perhaps to what we’ve heard from some of the #MeToo discussion, that depending on your age and circumstance, you’re clearly looking at this in a different way, and that thing that really fascinates me, of course, is the fact that some of the positions seemed to be flipped. That those who take a particular position you would naturally assume to be maybe perhaps part of a younger demographic, and the more conservative, kind of intense positions, being someone on the older range of things. That feels at the moment, that a lot of things we’re talking about are on their heads, it’s been turned topsy-turvy a little bit, and I think that’s worthy of discussion. … We’re very happy to expose some of those raw nerve ends, but hopefully push past just all the heat and see if some of the debate we get into can make us think a little bit more broadly about where the discussion is going.
TMD: That leads into my next question of this idea of having college students or a university campus as your audience for this particular event. Do you see any limitations or advantages to having this particular audience?
Allman: Limitations, no. …. I think the advantage is we’re not trying to put it through any of our filters, we’re kind of putting ourselves in front of the folks that are passionate about this where you are, and I think that really helps us get up close and personal in terms of the way some of these things are figured out. It’s really complicated, but from a program like 1A’s point of view, I think it’s one of those driving pieces of a healthy democracy that there is time to explore those arguments and for people to be heard. Because what tends to happen is everything gets sampled a bit, it all gets broken into little 10-second moments and things like that and it feels like the risk is being reduced to a headline or you’re taking the most sensational part of whatever someone said or putting it out of context. We’re not about that. We spend two hours every day making some space for arguments which need some space to be developed. I think that’s important and I hope we get to some of that this week.
TMD: I’d like to talk about radio as a modern medium for news consumption — of course, the University of Michigan doesn’t have its own journalism school, but we do have The Michigan Daily, which we like to think of ourselves as the journalism school here. But seeing how successful your show has been just recently, how do you think audiences have changed, and how can you recommend outlets accommodate changes?
Allman: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that. I will tell you the thing that really I think, energizes us in terms of the environment that we’re in is a couple of things. For years, we were told we were going to die, and so we’ve kind of proved we’re going to stick around for a while. And the other thing is I think there’s such an easy way now for people to do things without what I call formal structures. Everyone can be their own podcaster, everyone can do their own kind of publishing — the idea being that if you’re somebody that is interested in our subject, at one level — I’m not being naive — but at one level there’s nothing stopping you from getting up and doing something, and I think that’s really liberating. Because what we’re finding now is there are a whole range of voices we can find and they’re not necessarily having to come through a particular institution in that regard. The other part of it is the fact that we’re thinking. I haven’t really figured this one out at all myself, but obviously the way things go is, as a broadcaster, there are certain temples that you kind of stick to in terms of what you’re trying to do on a weekly or a daily basis. Increasingly, we’re finding that all manner of people are finding all manner of audiences, because perhaps they’re not broadcasters but they’re very much narrowcasters; they’re finding areas of specialism, they’re cultivating niche audience in that way. And it helps, I think, what I would call the general media ecosystem because – it sounds awful to say it – but I would like and I’d love to encourage people from all backgrounds of all kind of persuasions to feel that they have a role to play in the industry and how it gets produced and what gets seen and heard rather than a time when you have to have either certain contacts or go through a certain system or look or sound a certain way, if you know what I mean. It feels like it’s pretty fractured in that respect; it’s pretty much disrupted and that’s something which we welcome.
Sudents interested in contributing to the conversation can submit thoughts and questions beforehand here.