NPR Air Traffic System Story Flies ‘Beyond Radio’


For this assignment, we were required to listen to an NPR story online and comment on how it relates to to Chapter 18, “Beyond Radio”, from Sound Reporting, by Jonathan Kern. The story I picked was “Could The New Air Traffic Control System Be Hacked?“, and it aired on All Things Considered on August 14.

The audio version/transcript and the web version of the story are similarly structured – indeed, some parts of the web version are written verbatim as they are written in the transcript. However, it is interesting to look at how the web version is broken up into short paragraphs; in listening to the audio story, such breaks aren’t always clear or required. As Kern indicates, the shorter paragraphs make it easier to scan the story and get the main points out of it, since important details are usually found in their own paragraphs. For example, “The old system is getting overwhelmed” stands alone in its own paragraph, as does, “And recently, ADS-B [the new system] has caught the attention of hackers.”

At the same time, the web version has several aspects that make it uniquely “beyond radio”: first, and what I found most interesting, was the inclusion of an embedded YouTube video that shows a fake plane signal mixing with real air traffic. In it, the fake plane makes all sorts of bizarre turns and movements over an airport, all shown on a Google Earth map also showing real air traffic. The video’s value is enhanced by how, as the article points out, the fake signal could have been sent to a real airport if the demonstrators had set up two additional pieces of equipment.

The web version included an embedded video showing a fake signal mixing with real air traffic.

Finally, the web version of this story exemplifies one of the biggest advantages of preparing stories for the web: the inclusion of additional information. The web story includes details from the FAA on how NextGen will be able to verify signals. The audio story/transcript does not have any information on how the new system would verify signals, other than the FAA’s comment that the new system would be able to do so. Perhaps the additional information from the FAA came after the story aired, or perhaps the audio story’s time constraints prevented its inclusion. However, the fact that the web has no time/space constraints and can be modified after publication prove to be major advantages in this particular case.

I felt NPR did a good job of moving beyond radio in this story, but additions that could have been made to take advantage of the web dimension could have been more background on NextGen and more visuals. The story describes at some length how NextGen will work and how it compares with the current system, but it could have discussed the differences a little more. There also could have been more photographs and graphics used in this story; perhaps graphics would have been a good way to describe the differences between both systems.


  1. You’ve got a good headline: It’s a little clever (without being silly), but most important, it represents the blog post well. Including a screenshot as your graphic was smart. It reinforces that you are writing about something that was on a website.

    You have a little link overkill — probably no one needs a link to NPR, because it’s easy to find. The story you’re writing about includes a link to All Things Considered, so you don’t need that one either. The essential link is the one to the story Web page.

    Good observations about the writing style (in the text story). NPR is widely admired for this, by both print and Web journalists.

    This was a good story choice for “Beyond Radio” (example: additional “details from the FAA on how NextGen will be able to verify signals”). Not only is there an embedded video, but also there’s a link to hacker Brad Haines’s PowerPoint from a hackers conference!

  2. P.S. Usually people recommend that we should not use more than 10 tags. It ‘s kind of spammy.

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