NPR’s Davar Ardalan on Leaving the Mothership

Today is Davar Ardalan‘s last day at NPR, the place she has called her professional home for 17 years. Davar is an incredibly talented radio producer who has been at the forefront of digital innovation at the network. She served on the Talent Committee for MQ2, and incubated four of the MQ2 projects at Weekend Edition.

“I am so incredibly grateful for all of the support that Davar provided us with Mapping Main Street throughout the summer and fall,” wrote Ann Heppermann. “She took us on board without question and gave our work a home on the airwaves. I’ll always be thankful for her guidance and really look forward to the exciting projects she’ll be working on in the future.”

“It doesn’t take rocket science to know that the future of public media involves the Internet, but it does take something special to really try to understand and explore how that connection could add meaning and value to the purpose of public radio,” wrote Shea Shackelford of The Place + Memory Project

“From the beginning, Davar and her Weekend Edition team were enthusiastic and creatively engaged with our team and the idea behind The Place + Memory Project…That was incredibly encouraging to us as we developed the largest project we’d ever undertaken as independent public media producers. It seemed to me that Davar had created a rare environment at NPR, where a large, established media organization seemed willing to step outside its own comfort zone to explore the potential of a meaningful relationship between radio broadcasting and new media.”

Indeed, Davar has been a great friend to independent producers. As a leader, she has willingly nurtured
new talent and elicited excellence from those around her. We couldn’t
let her departure go without taking the opportunity to reflect and find out what’s on her mind as she takes this bold step.

1.  Looking back on your years at NPR, in particular on the Weekend shows, what do you feel are you most important contributions?

Early on at Weekend Edition, I encouraged audience interactivity and encouraged our staff and Liane Hansen and Scott Simon in particular to embrace social media. Even legendary newsman Daniel Schorr relented and tweeted for at time! This past January, I commissioned a social media survey and 7,200 people responded. The results were pretty remarkable and a great testament the tremendous efforts put forth by my staff. Our enterprising journey into the social media space had paid off. We found that listeners who became social media followers ended up with more
positive opinions of Weekend Edition and increased the amount of their listening to the show. Weekend Edition social media followers also ended up having more positive opinions and increased their listening to NPR. We now have the hard proof we needed to illustrate why it is important to continue and strengthen our engagement with our audience.

2.  What important lessons did you learn in the process?

I learned that the web has forever changed every aspect of our medium, from engagement to how we gather news during a crisis to the programming choices we make. The architecture of news has shattered.  Real time stories by citizens in crisis have been informing journalists in unthinkable ways.  From Iran to Haiti to Chile, we monitored harrowing tweets after the 2009 disputed elections and the devastating earthquakes of 2010. News organizations are scrambling to understand this new media landscape. The era of digital news will be like no other. Networks
won’t be as relevant as community and local news initiatives.
A major paradigm shift is on the way.

3.  What thoughts do you have about the role of independent producers in pushing innovation in public radio/media?

I firmly believe that Independent Producers will have a major role in pushing innovation in the near future.
First because by their very nature they are independent, meaning they can adapt to the new media landscape much easier that journalists working within bureaucratic organizations.  Second because many are already skilled new media journalists and are much more mobile. Iphone or mobile device in hand they can show up at any news or community event and within moments upload a story. Many are also skilled in the craft of radio and will be able to train the next generation of citizen journalists. Independent Producers have been very patient these past few years as networks cut back on acquisitions but again the media landscape is changing and new APIs and distribution models will open new opportunities.

4.  What did the MQ2 projects do for NPR?

The Makers Quest project proved to be a worthy experiment. On a show level, the successful projects allowed Editors and Producers to learn lessons on how to collaborate on sound-rich stories that also engage listeners online. We worked with our online colleagues to build a hub for the MQ2 and promoted the stories across twitter and facebook. On a larger scale, inspired partly by the MQ2 experiment, NPR embarked on an internal search among staff for innovative projects with cross-platform potential as well as the potential to grow the audience. This February, several projects were selected and are now in the process of being incubated.

5.  What is the funniest thing that happened during your years at NPR?

At one point when I was working on Weekend All Things Considered back in 1997, I was desperately searching (on a Saturday morning) for an actor to talk to us about what it’s like to be hounded by paparazzi. It then dawned on me that earlier in the week one of our colleagues Dean Olsher had interviewed Actor Alec Baldwin and I thought how perfect – clearly Alec Baldwin and his wife at the time Kim Basinger would have tons to say about this. I went up to Dean Olsher’s cubicle and much to my surprise, I found Alec Baldwin’s phone number in his rolodex. I found the courage to call Mr. Baldwin on a Saturday morning and was delighted that he picked up the phone. I told him I was a Producer at NPR and working on deadline for this story and would really appreciate it if he would talk. He was very nice and agreeable. I then asked if his wife would also like to be on the show and he thought about it for a second and said sure why not. At this point, I was seriously freaking out because I was just about to book Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger on a Saturday morning for that afternoon’s broadcast. I said I would call him back to confirm and I dashed down to the studio to make preparations and write some questions but something in my gut told me that this whole thing was too good to be true. I called him back and said, “Are you Alec Baldwin the Actor?” And he said, “No, I am Alec Baldwin the Professor.”  It was pretty embarrassing to say the least. He said he now understood why I wanted to have his wife on the phone with him!  It was such a coincidence that Dean Olsher had interviewed the Actor just that week but he also had a Professor source with the same name!

6. What will you be doing next? Will it involve journalism, radio, personal projects, etc.?

Given that I came to NPR through a CPB-funded diversity initiative back in 1993, I want to help explore ways that communities of color can have an active voice in the new media landscape. There are many exciting proposals out there and I am eager to be part of them.  I shared this on a farewell blog I posted on NPR and I’d like to share with you as well. I leave the edit booths of NPR at a time of great transition in journalism, but I will not go far. I plan to stay in citizen journalism and social media, with an emphasis on innovation and diversity. The secret to great radio conversations has been to close your eyes and pretend you are talking to one person — social media shatters that image — instead you actively engage and seek out hundreds of listeners. You work to build a relationship with them – ask for their ideas and feedback – you get them on the program and make them a part of what you are creating. As public broadcasting reboots, those of us in the field who have a proven record in integrating new media platforms with traditional forms of journalism have an added responsibility to empower a new generation of journalists and to broaden our reach to a more inclusive and diverse audience.

Khayli Mamnoon

That’s how you say “thank you very much” in Farsi, according to at least one site online. Davar spent part of her youth in Iran. She authored a memoir called My Name is Iran. Davar: Khayli Mamnoon. Many thanks for all you have brought to
NPR and AIR and MQ2, and for all you will continue to bring to the
world of public media journalism.

You can watch a slide show celebrating Davar’s NPR career here. That’s where I found that wonderfully fitting photo of Davar in front of the pyramids in Eqypt. The snapshot got me thinking about the durability of what she built at NPR, and how her future’s so bright, she’s gotta wear shades.