For the first time, National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters welcomed its fans to its annual brand merchandise sale. Barbara Sopato, NPR director of consumer products, had a brainstorm to clear out decade’s worth of NPR merchandise before the national nonprofit broadcasting giant moves from its Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. location to its new home on North Capitol Street.
“Our annual sale was always held for employees and it was a wonderful way to reconnect with each other at the end of the year,” said Sopato. “This year, because of the move, we decided to open the sale up to the public and share our supply of t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, caricature pillows, and electronics with our loyal listeners. It is also a great way to support the non-profit radio programs listeners are so passionate about.”
And NPR listeners are a passionate bunch. According to Sopato the brand identity merchandise were hot-selling items. “Our listeners love to proudly wear and display the items. Showing off the NPR logo has an elitist appeal.”
What has caused NPR’s listening public to become so enthusiastic about the broadcast giant’s visual brand identity? After all, the radio medium is not a visual experience.
Sopato explains, “As NPR developed its visual brand identity on the Internet, our listeners became more passionate about identifying with the brand itself. At first some of our reporters resisted, they were concerned this consumerism might affect their journalistic integrity, but that has not been the case.”
So the CDs, books, reporter notebooks, luggage tags, CD players and iPod speakers, stuffed caricatures, Car Talk football and bicycle jerseys have become perfect holiday gifts. Musical entertainment and NPR celebrity sightings were part of the two-day event, Friday, December 14 through Saturday, December 15.
Susan Stamberg, the original “All Things Considered” host, was one of the radio personalities on-hand Friday evening. She signed autographs and chatted with NPR fans. Susan recalls her beginnings with NPR in May 1971. “I was hired the same time as Linda Werner,” she remembers,” We had 60 people on staff and we were on 60 local stations. Now we air on more than 800 globally. When we started, each one of us did everything that needed to be done, it was an honor to be part of the invention of public radio.”
Stamberg recalled the 1980s as the years public radio broke through its niche. “NPR broke several important stories that decade and that changed the public’s view of what we did. Nina Totenberg broke the Anita Hill story, Daniel Zwerdling was the first reporter to discuss the problem of soldiers’ post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and we also were the first news operation to investigate the cause of the Challenger Space disaster. As newspapers started collapsing and TV started abandoning real news, NPR stepped up to fill in as the go-to news source.”
Stamberg said the intimate essence of the radio medium contributed to much of this ascent, “Radio is intimate, we reach out to you in your kitchen, your car, your bedroom. And we are not voices from on top of the mountain like some of the early TV anchors; we are like close friends with whom you have a connection. Our listeners have an almost cult-like attachment, because we present ourselves as whom we are.”
Stamberg laughed remembering how when listeners could hear she had a cold; some of them would drop off homemade chicken soup to the front desk for her. “It was innocent times, I took the soup home and ate it, and there was not a worry about it.”
Nowadays, Stamberg often travels to the local NPR affiliate stations to help with fundraising and she also files special reports. She works to create a personal connection with the next generation of public radio fans, the children of her original listeners. “Everywhere I go, I meet listeners with whom I have a personal connection and this connection is being passed on to younger listeners who have learned to listen to us when they were growing up.”
What a thought, despite today’s many electronic distractions, NPR listeners of all ages are still passionate about radio. The simple authenticity of a human voice explaining and sharing is a primal experience we don’t outgrow. In fact NPR listeners are proud of this habit and wear or carry their allegiance proudly in the form of NPR logo-emblazoned merchandise.