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St. Paul-based ‘American Radio Works’ documentary unit cut back

Last month, I wrote about the perils of hour-long radio documentaries.

Last month, I wrote about the perils of hour-long radio documentaries. Now comes word that American Radio Works, the in-house doc unit for Minnesota Public Radio sibling American Public Media, is taking a rather substantial haircut.

In a memo to staffers, APM Senior V.P. for National Content Judy McAlpine cited a “tight fiscal environment” for cuts to the Stephen Smith-led unit, which once tracked Yugoslavian war criminals but will now limit its work to higher education issues. Docs on sustainability issues will be coordinated out of Los Angeles, home to APM’s “Marketplace.”

The American Radio Works staff page lists 10 full-timers or contributors; Smith and one other staffer will remain, with a few other part timers, but there will be “reductions,” as McAlpine’s memo (below) notes.

One staffer who’s up in the air is Catherine Winter, a familiar voice to long-time MPR listeners. McAlpine says APM will try to place the excised in other parts of the company: “We want to keep the talented people we have.”

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Since its first piece in 1996, American Radio Works — perhaps the medium’s only stand-alone “documentary repertory company” — has produced more than 100 docs. During that time, poverty and economic history, race and international human rights have been emphasized; the higher-ed focus really kicked in last fall.

The unit cranked out seven hour-long pieces in 2009, and the same number in 2008. The documentaries are usually released in spring and fall “seasons.” Shorter segments show up in places like National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and APM’s “Marketplace.”

McAlpine insists APM is not abandoning the in-depth format. American Radio Works’ hour-long output will drop after the Sept. 30 cuts take hold, but she says there will be documentary production elsewhere in the company that is “unlikely to be branded” ARW. At the same time, more shorter-form American Radio Works features will make their way to “Marketplace,” which boasts roughly 5 million listeners each week, and 9 million if you throw in the morning report and “Marketplace Money.”

On some level, the American Radio Works cuts represent APM|MPR’s decision, in the wake of the recession, to focus even more tightly on regional news (such as MPR News) and “Marketplace,” where there is “a much greater audience for our work,” McAlpine says.

The increased centrality of “Marketplace” makes it seem like APM has appeased the Great God Mammon. However, McAlpine argues that “Marketplace” is a big enough tent for less-commercial topics such as poverty.

Still, irregular grants and underwriting undoubtedly affected a unit with an irregular output. (And for a unit that produces relatively few hours per year, even if high-quality.)

McAlpine acknowledges grants “come and go,” but APM doesn’t just cover what funders want. “We have had very significant projects on poverty — editorially, that’s something we care about,” she says. “We’re looking for away to extend that coverage in Minnesota.”

McAlpine adds that American Radio Works wasn’t cut because it emphasizes the long-form. “When podcasts first started, I was involved in the launch at the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corp.]. One piece of advice we got was, ‘Don’t do anything that isn’t short.’ But we thought we’d put out our best content, and if you look at the iTunes menu, some of the most popular downloads are one hour.”

Here’s the memo:

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This is to let you know of some changes to American RadioWorks for next fiscal year.

As you know, ARW’s documentaries are the leader in their field and APM supports this genre as an important way to tell in-depth stories and explore issues that matter to Americans. We are proud of the journalistic achievements of the ARW team over past seasons. However, we continue to be in a tight fiscal environment, and as a result we are aligning national documentary activity with two priority editorial areas at APM — Education and Sustainability. 

Planning is well underway for new documentary projects that explore education in the 21st century. In addition, our FY11 sustainability coverage includes a documentary stream. Some of this work will appear as ARW docs, some will be shorter in nature and appear in regular programs such as Marketplace or as specials. Along with the documentary work, we will continue to build out smaller features and online content as part of these projects.

As a result of this realignment, ARW will no longer be a stand-alone editorial team. Work will now be integrated into these two editorial projects. This will mean a change in some positions and reduction of others but we are doing everything we can to find other opportunities within our company for affected staff.

Judy McAlpine
Senior Vice President, National Content Division
American Public Media