On Native Ground: PUBLIC RADIO WAITS FOR A GREAT LEAP FORWARD =
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- At a time when newspapers, news magazines and tv news=
programs are all seeing their audiences erode, there is one exception: Nat= ional Public Radio.
NPR celebrates its 30th birthday this month and has the enviable status = of being the only national network that has seen its audience increase over= the past 20 years. The 8-10 million people who regularly listen to NPR's 6= 50 member stations around the country aren't large in number compared to co= mmercial broadcasting -- but it is an audience that's loyal, literate and c= ulturally engaged.
Ben Yagoda, in the May issue of Brill's Content, came up with the right= description of the NPR audience when he compared it to the readers of The = New Yorker during its heyday from the late 1940s to the early 1980s (a subj= ect he wrote about in his recent book "About Town: The New Yorker and the W= orld It Made.")
The parallel between the two is apt. Yagoda found that, according to NPR= 's audience research, about two-thirds of NPR's listeners have college degr= ees (compared to 23 percent of the nation at large) and their median income= is double the national average. They are twice as likely to be professiona= ls, They are twice as likely to buy books, 5.7 times more likely to read Th= e New York Times and 6.3 times more likely to read The New Yorker.
In ano= ther words, public radio listeners are an elite, educated group of people t= hat advertisers drool over. This is both the key and the bane of NPR's exis= tence -- because this elite now provides more than 90 percent of public rad= io's funding, so this elite gets catered to at the expense of everyone else= .
Yes, I know that many consider NPR a national treasure. I listen regular= ly, too. But NPR only looks good because everyone else is so bad. They are = the petunia in the dung heap. Commercial radio and tv is dismal, and as the= pace of daily life keeps accelerating, people find that newspapers and mag= azines take too much time. By dint of being about the last place in America= where one can find serious news and cultural programming, NPR -- in the wo= rds of Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy -- "evolved into the preferr= ed medium for a generation that works long hours, spends considerable time = commuting with the car radio on, and lacks the time and energy to read."
= A regular listener of NPR's "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and= "Fresh Air" and Public Radio International's (PRI) programs "Marketplace" = and "The World" hears more in-depth and varied news and current affairs cov= erage than you can get from most daily U.S. newspapers. And as one of those= time-pressed folks who has to spend nearly two hours each day commuting to= work, I appreciate having access to great news programming. But I also kno= w what I'm not hearing.
I've grown to love the "World Radio Network," NPR's culling of the best= news programs from the world's public broadcasters (except the BBC, which = is distributed in the U.S. by PRI). It's the next best thing to having a sh= ortwave radio. Unfortunately, this service is relegated to the overnight ho= urs -- I just happen to hear it because I'm up every day at 3:30 a.m. But i= n listening to programs from top international broadcasters such as Deutsch= e Welle, Radio Netherlands, Channel Africa and Japan's NHK, I find the qual= ity, creativity and variety of the reports frequently surpass NPR's stuff.
While NPR is fairly serious, there still is a sizable amount of fluff on= "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." By comparison, the internat= ional broadcasters (especially the BBC) have news programs are fluff-free, = and contain far more international news. Compare the BBC's "Newshour" to a = typical hour of "All Things Considered" and you'll see what I mean.
That = leads to part two of the argument of why catering to an elite has hurt NPR.= What the world's other public broadcasters have that NPR doesn't is robust= government support and minimal interference from politicians and the comme= rcial broadcast lobby. The politicians and the broadcast lobby that gives l= avishly to them don't want to see publicly funded broadcasting. They have s= ucceeded over the past two decades in almost completely cutting off federal= funds for NPR and PBS. Instead of public broadcasting, we have a privately= funded, non-profit system.
This means longer pledge drives and more corporate underwriting tomake u= p for the lost government funding. The underwriter credits in NPR andPRI pr= ograms have gotten longer in recent years and sound more and morelike comme= rcials.
The Carnegie Commission issued a report in 1967 that became theMagna Car= ta for public broadcasting in the U.S. The report said that publicbroadcast= ing programming "should serve as a forum for controversy anddebate" and "pr= ovide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard." Butinstead of the = programs that you hear on the public broadcasters inGermany, Canada, Britai= n or the Netherlands -- diverse news, public affairsand entertainment progr= ams that cover a wide spectrum of views and tastes -- public broadcasters i= n America are left to do the programming thatcommercial broadcasters can't = make money on.
Once again, this isn't to totally knock NPR. It's just that its range is= narrow. The people who appear on NPR's news programs rarely veer from the = center of the political spectrum. The reporting rarely challenges the statu= s quo. The programming is rarely adventurous. Even the long form reports th= at made NPR's reputation in its early days are gone, because the demands to= have more interruptions for underwriting credits have left no time for 25 = uninterrupted minutes to cover a topic during its flagship news programs. A= nd some of the best reports on NPR in recent years have come from American = Radio Works, a separate documentary unit that works outside of the NPR orbi= t. And in terms of sheer guts, there is nothing on the NPR schedule that co= mpares to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" on Pacifica Radio.
Truth is, NPR also doesn't want truly public radio. After all, they sign= ed on to the campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters to crush = an FCC proposal to create low-power community radio stations. NPR's idea of= community radio is their hand-picked group of stations that serve an afflu= ent audience that will write big checks to keep everyone happy.
Until that fine day comes when we have a fully-funded, fully-autonomous,= fully-public broadcasting system that is capable of creatingdiverse, edgy,= groundbreaking and challenging programing (a cross between Pacifica and th= e BBC, perhaps?), we're stuck with the semi-realized version of this that's= NPR. Maybe someday we'll get the rest of the loaf.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 = years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).