National Public Radio

Daily Texan alumnus and National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett is currently working on an assignment about religion in East Africa. 

Photo Credit: Guillermo Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

John Burnett, UT graduate and National Public Radio’s roving correspondent based in Austin, exemplifies the meticulous journalistic style that has come to define NPR’s most popular programs. Even in an age where print media is in steady decline and celebrity-centric journalism takes precedence on TV networks, Burnett’s work as a reporter demonstrates that NPR is not only surviving the transition to the digital generation, but continuing to attract new listeners.

From the inundated streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, Burnett’s dynamic beat has brought him into contact with places all over the world for the last 27 years. For the past five months, the 6-foot-7-inch reporter has been working on an interim assignment based in Kenya.

“Right now, I’m covering religion for NPR in East Africa,” Burnett said. “But normally, I cover the [American] Southwest, which includes the borderlands. I’ve covered it for a very long time and speak Spanish.”

After getting his start on UT’s campus writing for The Daily Texan and studying journalism, Burnett traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish and cover civil wars around Central America. Work for the United Press International helped him garner experience with radio broadcasting, and since finding his niche, Burnett has never looked back.

“The one thing I love about radio is that you have this extra dimension to report a story so you go in with your ears open; you’re not just looking for details but you’re listening for details,” Burnett said. “You just learn to use sound to illustrate a story.”

Yet, reporting for international news organizations isn’t a care-free occupation, especially since Burnett specializes in a region of the world plagued by cartel wars and drug trafficking. The United States-Mexico Border has a distinguished reputation for manipulating, terrorizing and killing Mexican journalists. 

Although most reporting does not involve any hazardous circumstances, Burnett said, NPR has a hired security consultant who instructs reporters on “conceal and cover” techniques, first aid and situational awareness in countries with higher risk.

“[He and I] were in contact before I went to Mogadishu [Somalia] or the Congo. You have to have a pretty big security detail as a reporter; four gunmen around you at all times when you’re outside of the car, so it’s inhibiting, but it’s the cost of doing business there,” Burnett explained. 

At times, travel has also been a difficult aspect of his work for NPR. Raising a family while constantly on the move is no easy task, and in his memoir “Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions,” Burnett thanks his family for their support even in his absence.

Julie Hiebert, a friend of the Burnett family, argues that in spite of continuous departures from his home in Austin, Burnett’s work seems to bring him closer to the community he often leaves behind. 

“All of his family members have always been very proud of him and very supportive,” Hiebert said. “And in some ways I think he’s gathered more friends around him over the years. You’d think the opposite with someone who is so busy and so on. And I know when he goes places he makes friends, too.”

Burnett’s prowess as a journalist has earned him recognition and numerous awards including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award  and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television Digital News Association. His reports are frequently heard on member station KUT Radio, an affiliate of NPR that pays for daily programming, according to KUT news editor Matt Largey. 

Burnett’s popularity has also landed him some time on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” for pieces such as updates on Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations and a special report on ivory poaching in Tanzania.    

“You’ve got to learn early on not to be the funny guy. [Colbert will] cut you to ribbons otherwise,” Burnett said. 

Burnett said that with nearly three decades of experience in reporting, he becomes rather “evangelical” on NPR’s role in the evolving status of journalism. 

“Radio [is] a medium that works with the Internet generation because you can listen while doing something else. Plus, we transfer nicely up to digital, handheld devices,” Burnett said. “We cover the complicated, layered serious stuff that you need to know about to be an informed citizen. And I think people appreciate that it’s like ‘I’m gonna get my vegetables from NPR, I can get my dessert just about everywhere.’”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: International reporter shares NPR experiences

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 228-192 to approve a bill last week that could make it harder for public radio stations to acquire funding for programming. Seven percent of University-operated radio station KUT’s budget comes from federal funding to buy programming from National Public Radio and other entities that produce radio content, said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt. “What the bill does is that it severely restricts how local stations can use federal funds,” Vanderwilt said. The implications of the bill will be felt mostly at local community radio stations that rely heavily on federal grants to pay for national programming, Vanderwilt said. Programs at risk of being cut in local community stations could include “This American Life” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” he said. “KUT has no plans to drop or replace these programs,” Vanderwilt said. “Some stations, however, may be faced with having to do so.” Vanderwilt said 85 percent of KUT’s funding comes from community members and their support. “We will continue to reach out to our audience and ask them to be part of the funding model that keeps the station going,” he said. NPR released a statement saying the cuts would impact public radio stations across the country and weaken their ability to serve their audience. In a press release, NPR interim CEO Joyce Slocum said a society where entertainment is taking precedence over fact-based reporting, public radio stations are serving their audience with honest and critical analysis of issues. “It would be a tragedy for America to lose this national treasure,” Slocum said in the press release. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in a speech last week that the bill directly attacks KUT and similar public radios across the country. He said 250,000 Texans rely on KUT’s in-depth news analysis of state and local politics. “The only bias of those who begin with ‘Morning Edition’ is a bias for truth,” Doggett said in the speech. “My constituents tune in to KUT because they want fact-based, not faux-based, Fox-based coverage.” Tyler Norris, chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas at UT, said the bill is a step in a positive direction because public radio stations should rely on private-sector funding rather than federal grants to purchase programming. Norris said many private radio music stations rely on consumer ratings and advertisement to fund their operations. “There shouldn’t be any government involvement in [funding] NPR or public television,” the government senior said. “It’s not government’s job to fund entertainment or information services.”

When it comes to radio pledge drives, KUT deserves a Ph.D. for schooling every other local radio station in town.

The National Public Radio affiliate and University-operated radio station, KUT 90.5, announced Wednesday morning that more than 7,500 individuals and local businesses pledged more than $1 million during the station’s annual spring pledge drive. This success comes on the heels of last month’s news that the U.S. House of Representatives approved cuts to NPR that could result in $500,000 in losses for KUT.

This spring, Austinites donated record-breaking amounts to public radio. KOOP Radio has earned more than $68,000 so far, and UT’s student-run KVRX exceeded expectations with $7,000 in total pledges.

Although pledge drives are not considered competition from station to station, KVRX’s pledge drive coordinator Katie Carson said she was shocked to hear KUT’s final results and congratulated them for their tremendous success.

The NPR affiliate owes some of its success to members of the KUT advisory board, which includes community leaders and professionals, who pooled their respective resources to create individual goals ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.

Among the advisory board members was UT McCombs School of Business lecturer Ben Bentzin, who has been a guest radio host on the Morning Edition show several times this season and discussed the importance of donating to public radio, no matter how big or small the pledge.

“KUT’s pledge drives have incrementally grown as its audience grows as well,” said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt. “This success was driven by the loyalty of our listeners and their awareness of the federal funding concerns public radio is currently facing.”

According to KUT and College of Communication spokeswoman Erin Geisler, if the U.S. Senate passes the House-approved bill to cut all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the station could lose a significant amount of its budget.

“If passed, this [legislation] will have a huge impact on local stations, especially if those where [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] funding is roughly 40 percent of their overall budget,” Geisler said.

Federal funding for KUT amounts to about 7 percent, or $500,000, of the station’s total budget, and Vanderwilt has not put a backup plan into effect yet. NPR is facing leadership challenges after CEO Vivian Schiller resigned over a recent controversy regarding an administrator who was caught on camera blasting the Tea Party.

“Educational broadcasting has been supported by government grants for nearly four decades and will not be wiped out in one legislative session,” Vanderwilt said.