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CRISIS BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO

During three decades as a reporter and editor, Kevin Klose covered Watergate, Iran-contra, the Challenger explosion and internal strife in the Soviet Union.

But nothing prepared the current president and chief executive officer of National Public Radio for the events of the past two weeks.

"We've never seen anything like this before; the mystery of this tragedy and the majesty of the response by the American people," said Klose of the terrorist attacks and the aftermath.

He will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Allen Hall on the University at Buffalo South Campus, in an event sponsored by public stations WBFO-FM 88.7 and WNED-AM 970.

For NPR, this crisis has been a defining moment. Television may dominate the visual aspect and minute-to-minute coverage, but NPR is supplying the news and something more: context and history.

"It takes you to a place you can't get to otherwise," said Klose, 61, in a phone interview last week. "We make space to explore issues in a larger context."

Consider these examples of NPR's coverage of the tragedy:

World, located in the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Dozens of those workers were killed when the building collapsed, and a meeting was held for survivors. Many people rushed up to one man, who was thought to have been killed in the collapse. It turned out, however, it wasn't the man, but his twin brother.

Feehan, first deputy fire commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, who was killed in the twin towers collapse. Feehan talked about what it meant to be a firefighter and how death is sometimes part of the job.

to Mozart and other classical pieces that inspire quiet reflection. June Scobee Rodgers, widow of the commander of the Challenger space shuttle, appreciated that music and sent NPR a voice mail. "She just wanted to thank us for putting the music on," Klose said. "She found it very consoling."

NPR has been on the air for more than 30 years and has a $35 million budget for news. Nearly 250 employees out of 750, are assigned to news, Klose said.

"When the Cold War ended, a lot of media companies cut back on foreign news but we didn't," Klose said, noting that NPR has increased its reporting staff throughout the world. "We found our listeners wanted and had a considerable need for foreign news."

The radio network normally attracts about 16 million listeners a week. During the Gulf War, NPR doubled its audience and may do so again during its coverage of the terrorist crisis. Hits on its Web site rose from about 70,000 a day to nearly 400,000 daily since the crisis began.

"NPR has a done a good job on this story because it gives you reasons, issues and background," said Michael McKean, who teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "It takes all the time it needs to give you the full story. I thank that's why NPR has touched people so much during this crisis. The listeners are very passionate about NPR."

Unlike most radio stations, NPR isn't burdened by limited news time and commercials.

"What you hear on commercial radio almost sounds like talk radio," McKean said. "You get some intelligent conversation but also a lot of hot air. NPR has a higher standard."

Maintaining that standard has been Klose's goal since he became head of NPR three years ago.

Before that, Klose spent a quarter century working at the Washington Post as a reporter and editor. He later served as director of U.S. International Broadcasting, overseeing the government's global radio and television news services.

Klose was also president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"Radio has always been an important part of my life, I come from a radio family," Klose said. His father was a broadcaster in St. Louis, the radio heyday of the 1930s.

The demand for news in the past two weeks has proven that radio still has a place in a modern communications era.

"As our lives become more complicated, radio provides a more personal space for people," Klose said. "I think it makes you use your mind because radio is a medium of imagination."

The current crisis will only become more newsworthy, Klose believes.

"I think we're going to be deeply engaged in this for years to come," he said. "We have to be objective, but we also have to accept the human toll of these attacks and what a blow it has been to our society. The world has been weeping over this, and we have been conveying that sadness."

Still, "it's extremely important we stay focused and continue to report this very complicated story," Klose added. "We have to provided enlightened and balanced reporting."

Veteran newsman Daniel Schorr, an NPR commentator, believes Klose will help meet that goal. "It's always great when an organization whose primary mission in life is news is headed by a journalist," Schorr told Current magazine. "I've known Klose for many years, and he is a professional."

Klose's professional expertise will be needed as NPR, like all stations, contemplates a future that will include satellite broadcasting and other changing technology and demographics.

"The power of radio is phenomenal, but for us it's still about putting the issues out there and engaging in serious conversation. NPR has been up to the challenge of this crisis. What has happened has only confirmed that we can shape our programming to serve listeners."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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