Ombudsman: Audio woes hampering NPR/PBS convention collaboration

Delegates fill the floor during the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen says the radio audience hasn’t been “well served” yet by the partnership between NPR and PBS during coverage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Jensen points out — correctly, I must add — that the audio on Monday was simply horrible for the radio audience. Because of the crowd noise from inside Quicken Loans Arena, the panelists were drowned out. Last night’s audio mix, however, was much better.

Why didn’t NPR/PBS put some windows on the luxury suite?

The answer, which Jensen relayed in her report card today, is classic public radio and TV. Money.

The convention producing team is aware of the problem. NPR’s newsroom chief Michael Oreskes, who said he was also speaking for NewsHour executive producer Sara Just, told me by email on Tuesday:

“The hall was indeed very loud. Our booth with the NewsHour is right in the thick of things. It’s a trade off. We could have installed glass on the booth. That would cost a lot. We are public media.

We like the you-are-there feel. But we also want you to hear. We are working hard to make it better tonight.

Our technical teams are looking at new microphones, different placement of the microphones, sound dampening materials that would reduce background noise and more. We, of course, ran tests before the convention. But the sound challenges in the moment are always unpredictable.”

Both organizations are giving the partnership a chance, as well they should. Political conventions aren’t as newsworthy as they once were, but the cost of covering one is skyrocketing.

What the audience is hearing, though, is a fundamental media reality: TV and radio are different and radio isn’t TV without pictures. What might look just fine on TV with the context of video can be terrible for a radio audience, such as when a reporter interviewing Bob Dole had to pass the microphone through a security barrier after each question. Interesting TV, perhaps. Terrible radio.

But an old complaint is surfacing again with the coverage. People, Jensen says, want to hear the speakers, not listen to reporters and analysts talking about the speakers.

Those are available with live streams, Jensen notes. And the changing nature of political conventions means news organizations don’t have an obligation to convey a scripted event.

That doesn’t satisfy some in the audience who smell a conspiracy around these sorts of things. Just wait until the Democratic Convention and watch the analysts shut up so the Democratic speakers can be broadcast.

They’re wrong. It won’t work that way at all. But why destroy the fantasy of a good conspiracy theory?

Still, says the ombudsman …

From a listener’s point of view, it was hard to understand the decisions of which speeches to cover and which to cut away from: full speeches from actors Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr., and excerpts or no coverage at all of the more substantive speeches from Luttrell and Smith, among others. On the radio, it sounded fairly random and messy, when the advance schedules should have allowed for a more thought-out flow to the night and smoother transitions.

Oreskes, again speaking on behalf of Just, as well, said Tuesday in response to the listener concerns: “We are constantly searching for the ideal balance between speeches from the podium, reports from delegates on the floor and context from our journalists in the booth. We hear the audience on this. We recognize our important role as public media to give strong attention to the speeches. We will be appraising the balance each night.”

It comes down to an editorial judgment and with two media trying to combine their two judgments, it can get dicey and a little ugly.

But they get to see the speeches ahead of time, so it’s hard to figure out why they’d carry Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech in full over Marcus Luttrell’s, who provided one of the better moments of the evening on Monday when he went off script.

NPR/PBS cut away after Perry’s speech, the sole purpose of which was to introduce Luttrell. Subsequently, the analysts noted the number of times Perry didn’t mention the word Trump.

It’s an occupational habit. Sometimes people who cover politics for a living gravitate to the politicians, their somewhat-less-than-authentic performances, and the minutiae of political science that plays better inside the Washington Beltway.

But that’s when they miss moments like Luttrell’s.

The joint effort is well intentioned, it makes sense financially, and Jensen says she’s rooting for it to work.