NPR and the Fallow Triumph of Public Radio
A triumphant story about National Public Radio appeared in late March on the front page of Current, the main newspaper of the public-broadcasting industry. "NPR Lands Most Listeners Ever," the headline announced, over a summary of the latest Arbitron figures: "NPR programs reached 19.5 million listeners a week last fall, and member stations drew a record 28.7 million listeners. One in seven Americans age 25 or older listens to an NPR member station each week."
Network officials are exultant about the impressive numbers. "This demonstrates that NPR is a leading source for news, information and entertainment in America," says Ken Stern, executive vice president. By far, the biggest audiences have been tuning into NPR's two weekday drive-time news programs, with an average of 1.87 million people listening during any 15-minute period of "Morning Edition" and a 2.22 million average for "All Things Considered."
For a pair of shows with combined airtime of 20 hours between Monday and Friday, that's a very wide reach to a whole lot of ears. "The data seem to validate a systemwide trend toward adding more news and talk programming at stations," Current reports. Overall, "public radio has steadily gained audience for years, even as commercial radio lost ground."
For listeners interested in news and politics, "public radio" is an obvious choice, while commercial radio slides deeper into an abyss of mediocrity and corrosive gunk. Boosted by the bipartisan telecommunications "reform" law of 1996, just a few conglomerates now own several thousand stations nationwide between them. Tour the dial and you'll hear a narrow play list of corporate-filtered music, heavily right-wing and mean-spirited talk shows (Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus, Dr. Laura...), scant news, and barrages of commercials that extend from mildly unpleasant to awful.
NPR has plenty of time for news on the air. Yet, as public radio's dominant network, NPR has largely reneged on the promise of public broadcasting that stirred hopes 35 years ago with release of the Carnegie Commission Report, which declared that public broadcasting should "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard." In 2002, for the most part, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" provide a voice for the same political, economic and military interests that are heard, ad nauseam, via other major media.
A key factor is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where everyone on the board of directors has been nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The nonprofit agency doles out federal funds to public radio and TV stations. "With its hand on the till," notes David Barsamian, a longtime independent radio producer, CPB "wields considerable power and influence over public broadcasting."
In his new book "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting," Barsamian points out similarities between the top execs currently running CPB and NPR: "Robert T. Coonrod has been the president and CEO of the CPB since 1997. Prior to joining CPB, Coonrod was deputy managing director of the Voice of America," operated by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, "NPR's president and CEO Kevin Klose served as the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Radio and Television Marti."
At NPR News, the diversity of perspectives in reportage and analysis is particularly limited on subjects like U.S. foreign policy and nitty-gritty economic power. Whatever fine journalism airs on NPR -- and there definitely is some -- gets dwarfed by mountains of conformist stenography for the powerful, with routine reliance on official sources.
The preponderance of deference to government outlooks has combined with outsized programming impacts of corporate donors that "underwrite" -- and, in some cases, literally make possible -- specific shows. Private money is a big determinant of what's on "public" broadcasting.
Major companies "have a huge investment in the economy and can use their economic power to leverage program content," writes Barsamian, producer of the national weekly public-affairs program "Alternative Radio" since the mid-1980s. "Independent producers who approach PBS and NPR for airtime get a much warmer reception when they have an underwriting package in hand. Overwhelmingly, programs that will attract and please corporate underwriters and, crucially, won't rock the ideological boat, get access to the airwaves."
But dozens of community-based noncommercial stations, with much smaller budgets, are striving to bring vibrant news and public affairs to listeners without mainlining the fare pumped out by National Public Radio every day. Those stations deserve our support.
At the same time, we should vigorously critique and challenge what comes under the heading of "NPR News." Victory in the quest for ratings is not what public broadcasting is supposed to be about.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.