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May 6, 2019, 10 a.m.

NPR debuts a new Morning Edition theme, and the fact that people care shows the continued power of old-fashioned, non-Internet radio

It’s a fitting change to make near the end of Jarl Mohn’s time as NPR CEO, where he’s breathed new life into radio shows some thought had dim prospects for growth.

In an auditory move that no doubt ruined some people’s wake-up alarms this morning, NPR’s Morning Edition changed its theme music for the first time in its 40-year history this morning. The old theme, by public-radio-theme auteur B.J. Leiderman, was perhaps the single most public-radio-y thing on public radio — a few seconds of music that pushed every cultural association you might have with NPR top of mind. Instead of gently rousing you in a ’70s commune smelling of patchouli, the new theme is a little faster, a little more percussive, and significantly more focused on handclaps. Have a listen:

J/k, here it is:

The change is being made, of course, for the kids:

The new theme is intended to attract a younger and more diverse audience, while also aligning with the evolution of “Morning Edition” into a newsier program, said Kenya Young, the executive producer.

“I wanted a sound and a mood and a tone and a feel and a vibe all mixed in one,” she said.

I don’t know that there’s anything that sounds particularly “young” or “diverse” about it — but it’s probably the fact of the change rather than its content that matters. To younger potential Morning Edition listeners, the old theme sounds like Dad’s radio show. Stripping away that layer of auditory reference might let a few people listen with fresh ears.

As you’d expect on the Internet, people don’t like change. (Remember when 280 characters in a tweet was the apocalypse?) So some of the reaction is no doubt occasioned by the general strangeness of a new theme more than the theme itself.

I tend to come down on the side of The Atlantic’s Rob Meyer — who got his bachelor’s studying classical choral music education, fer cryin’ out loud — in that the new theme seems likely to sound as dated to today as the old theme does to its era.

But more significantly, I think the new theme is worth noting as a going-away present to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, who is leaving the job next month after a five-year stint. He’s apparently been pushing for a new theme song that whole time.

I confess that when Mohn was named to the post in 2014, I was skeptical: first, because his background in commercial radio and TV didn’t immediately seem like a good fit for public radio; second, because he seemed to be more focused on the terrestrial radio side of NPR rather than the digital; and third, because, well, it just felt like it’d been a long time since any NPR CEO had ended his/her term in office with head held high. (He was the eighth CEO in eight years.)

One of Mohn’s signature efforts was to boost NPR’s two flagship news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He launched a “Spark Project” in which he asked local stations committed to what felt (at least to me at the time) relentless overpromotion of Morning Edition — about 100 promo spots a week.

The thing is, it worked; as he said in 2015:

Ratings for KPPC in Los Angeles are up 30 percent in morning drive. KUT in Austin, Texas, is now No. 1 in the market. Other stations are up as much as 70 percent. In overall ratings, our control group of stations that haven’t gone along with the concept are down 13 percent, while those that went with Spark are up 2 percent. Hey, haters gonna hate.

When his departure was announced in December, audiences for ME and ATC were up “more than 20 percent for listeners over the age of 12 from spring 2014, the last period before Mohn’s appointment took effect, to this past spring, the most recent comparable stretch.” And I haven’t seen any evidence that shoring up the radio side has hurt NPR’s digital efforts, where it very much remains a leader.

Here’s what I think Mohn saw then. Podcasts and other forms of streaming audio had enormous growth potential, yes. The share of Americans listening to online audio each week went from 36 percent when Mohn took office to 60 percent today. That’s been deeply transformative in people’s homes, where smartphones and smart speakers have relegated a lot of AM/FM radios to the attic crawlspace. (In 2008, 94 percent of people aged 18 to 34 had at least one radio in the house. By 2018, that number was down to 50 percent.)

But the car has remained stubbornly attuned to traditional radio. 81 percent of Americans say they’ve listened to an AM/FM radio in their cars in the past month — versus just 28 percent for online radio and 26 percent for podcasts. (CD players and “owned digital music” — both considered deeply last century by the digerati — are both way ahead of their digital peers.)

Why? Maybe it’s that live radio performs a companionship role in drivetime that podcasts can’t as easily. Maybe it’s that connected-audio systems in cars can still be kinda clunky. Or maybe it’s that radio is still profoundly simple to navigate when in motion — just turn it on! — as opposed to fiddling through a podcast queue or waiting for an app to launch.

In any event, radio has proved sticky, and large amounts of podcast/digital audio listening have proven to be additive to rather than substitutions for the radio dial. In 2017, the audiences for every major form of news media declined significantly year-over-year — except for radio, which was flat.

At a time when digital outlets are trying to build regular consumption habits in their readers, it’s hard to beat the established habit of…listening to the radio while you drive to work. At a time when digital outlets are trying to figure out how best to build a business model that ensures both maximum distribution and significant revenue from your best customers…public radio’s had that figured out for decades.

I know there’s (always) lots to gripe about within NPR or the public radio system more broadly, and Mohn’s leadership has not been controversy-free. People complaining about a new Morning Edition theme is pretty natural.

But I do want to give a tip of the cap to the departing CEO. In a time of digital transformation, it’s very easy for folks like me to see things like “promote the hell out of a morning radio show” as a retrograde commitment to old ways. But he proved to be more right than I could have imagined. Maybe we’ll end up liking the new theme, too.

Illustration based on work by Karolis Strautniekas used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 6, 2019, 10 a.m.
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