The Little Station That Could

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Photo of Renée Fleming from Lucrezia Borgia courtesy Washington National Opera

Davidson’s WDAV took center stage during the recent kerfuffle surrounding NPR’s employee codes.

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By Stacey Schmeidel

The Occupy Wall Street movement is already changing the world—the World of Opera, that is. The nationally syndicated program— the only one in the nation to broadcast live, full-length operas from around the world—is now being distributed by WDAV, thanks to questions about whether the host of an NPR cultural show can simultaneously be involved with a political organization.

The kerfuffle began when media reported that World of Opera host Lisa Simeone was participating in Occupy D.C. protests. NPR officials expressed concern that Simeone’s involvement might be at odds with NPR’s Code of Ethics, which says, in part, “NPR expects its outside contributors to be free of conflicts of interest on content they submit.”

But WDAV general manager Scott Nolan noted that NPR and WDAV have different missions. “WDAV respects NPR’s mission to serve as a leading news provider,” he said. “WDAV on the other hand, exists to serve as a leading provider of arts and cultural programming.” It’s an important distinction, one that’s even alluded to in NPR’s code: “There will be instances where provisions of this code are not applicable to an outside contributor. For example, a freelancer who primarily does arts coverage….”

Nolan noted that Simeone is an independent contractor for WDAV. “Her activities outside of this job were not in violation of WDAV’s employee codes and had no effect on her job performance,” he said.

A few days after the story broke, NPR decided to stop distributing World of Opera, and WDAV announced that it would pick up distribution of the show. “This program is loved by listeners across the nation and online,” Nolan said. “We feel it is vitally important to continue providing this unique programming.”

The decision was applauded by opera fans and defenders of free speech. Under the headline “Well, Good for WDAV,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote, “The rules are and should be different for full-time employees of NPR than for a contractor like Simeone.” On WDAV’s blog, John Middleton noted, “I’ve long supported WFAE in Charlotte, but it now appears I’ll be sending WDAV a check, too.”

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