NPR goes visual

If you're a fan of National Public Radio, you've probably noticed the announcers inviting listeners to visit NPR's revamped Web site.

You can listen to stories on the Web site and you can read them, too, plus see photos and watch videos.

Over the years, NPR has been part of a media trend in which everyone has to have a Web site with text, photos and video. Newspapers and magazines send their staff members out with video cameras so they can post videos to Web sites. Television news announcers reporting live from out in the field don't just glance at their notes and speak into the camera. They're also writing up their stories and posting them to television station Web sites.

All of that instant, on-demand Internet news is wonderfully convenient for the public, and it's no mystery why all media outlets do it.

In NPR's case, I think about what we might lose if public radio someday became Internet-only.

After all, many long-established newspapers have gone out of business or gone to a Web-only format because of declining circulation and the proliferation of news Web sites.

Listening to NPR news and entertainment delivered the old-fashioned way — via radio — is one of our last links to oral traditions that sustained humans for thousands of years. We evolved to listen to stories, using our imaginations to flesh out the tales. Visual images to accompany stories are a relatively recent development, unless you count cave paintings and aids like masks. Even those "props" required imagination because they couldn't capture reality like a camera can do today.

Usually I listen to NPR in my car, but sometimes I visit its Web site. I'm always surprised how short their stories actually are in text format, and how the quotes are flat, lacking the emotion and character of the human voice.

Now, of course, I could always choose to listen to the stories on the Web site, but reading is so much faster, isn't it? Why spend five minutes listening to a story when you can read it in half that time?

Some stories I've heard over the radio stand out vividly in my mind because of a particular sound.

In one, an NPR reporter talked to a man who had spent his adult life hunting down former Nazis. The reporter asked him how he could stand to spend decades working on such a heart-breaking task. He answered that when it all started to become too much, he would put on records that he listened to in his youth — before he knew anything about concentration camps and gas chambers.

The story ended with the sound of him playing a song from his childhood.

In another story about the devastating 2008 earthquake in China, an NPR reporter didn't run around collecting official statistics about the number of deaths. Instead she spent the entire day with a couple desperately searching for their child in the rubble of a collapsed building. Finally, the child's lifeless body was pulled out. The story included the sounds of the parents setting off firecrackers to chase away the soul of their dead child so that it wouldn't linger around the body in a permanent state of limbo.

Thankfully, NPR doesn't only have stories that bring tears to listeners' eyes. Some are more light-hearted.

While driving, I heard a story last week about how Ray Bradbury's classic "Fahrenheit 451" — about a future where firefighters burn books — has been turned into a graphic novel (a fancy term for a long comic book.) The story said the illustrator had purposefully limited his palette to "muted tones of blue, green and gray," except for the brilliantly colored pages where fire is depicted "as a many-tendriled creature." The descriptions from the radio broadcast caused me to go straight to NPR's Web site when I got home.

Somehow, the comic book illustrations, though masterfully done, didn't measure up to what was in my imagination.

Try it yourself. Go to the Web site address for the story, push the "listen to the story" button without peaking at anything below, and only after it's done, look at the written words and illustrations on the Web site. You can find it at

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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