by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 5, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- At a time when newspapers, news magazines and tv news programs are all seeing their audiences erode, there is one exception: National 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 650 member stations around the country aren't large in number compared to commercial broadcasting -- but it is an audience that's loyal, literate and culturally 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 subject he wrote about in his recent book "About Town: The New Yorker and the World 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 degrees (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 professionals, They are twice as likely to buy books, 5.7 times more likely to read The New York Times and 6.3 times more likely to read The New Yorker.
In other words, public radio listeners are an elite, educated group of people that advertisers drool over. This is both the key and the bane of NPR's existence -- because this elite now provides more than 90 percent of public radio'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 regularly, 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 magazines 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 words of Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy -- "evolved into the preferred 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 coverage 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 know 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 shortwave radio.
Unfortunately, this service is relegated to the overnight hours -- I just happen to hear it because I'm up every day at 3:30 a.m. But in listening to programs from top international broadcasters such as Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, Channel Africa and Japan's NHK, I find the quality, 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 international 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 commercial broadcast lobby.
The politicians and the broadcast lobby that gives lavishly to them don't want to see publicly funded broadcasting. They have succeeded 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 to make up for the lost government funding. The underwriter credits in NPR andPRI programs have gotten longer in recent years and sound more and more like commercials.
The Carnegie Commission issued a report in 1967 that became the Magna Carta for public broadcasting in the U.S. The report said that public broadcasting programming "should serve as a forum for controversy and debate" and "provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard."
But instead of the programs that you hear on the public broadcasters in Germany, Canada, Britain or the Netherlands -- diverse news, public affairs and entertainment programs that cover a wide spectrum of views and tastes -- public broadcasters in America are left to do the programming that commercial 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 status quo.
The programming is rarely adventurous. Even the long form reports that 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.
And 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 orbit. And in terms of sheer guts, there is nothing on the NPR schedule that compares to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" on Pacifica Radio.
Truth is, NPR also doesn't want truly public radio. After all, they signed 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 affluent 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 the 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).