I’m a media geek, hence my nom de internet. And I pretty much have always been, ever since I recognized that there were people, organizations and companies behind the shows I saw on TV and listened to on the radio. I remember reading Billboard and Radio and Electronics in the library while still in elementary school. I always read the paper’s TV supplement and radio listings (yeah, papers once had those) so I would know channels had what shows and what stations played what music — even stuff I had no interest in (as a result, for years I thought Get Smart was an educational program until I actually watched it).
I always wanted to understand how all this mass media got made, who was making it and what machinations affected what we could watch and listen to. That’s what fueled my interest in radio, why I got into college radio, and why I learned video production. I spent some time in graduate school studying the political economy of the media, only to realize being a professor wasn’t so much for me. I produced a weekly radio show exploring both the policy and grassroots angles of media for seven years, and now I blog here about radio.
And, really, until I got out of college I always felt a little bit alone in my interest in the behind-the-scenes of broadcast media, rather than being interested in the shows and programs themselves, like normal people. Graduate school and the rebirth of academic consciousness about media ownership and control in the 1990s showed me that I wasn’t so strange, at least in this interest. At the same time, aside from the short-lived Brill’s Content, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of a mass media publication or program that consistently looked at media that wasn’t intended for a strictly academic or industry audience.
Then I heard NPR’s On the Media. I’m not sure when that first happened–the program went national in 2001, but I think it was a few years before my local affiliate picked it up. Anyway, I recall initially being skeptical of the premise, expecting the program to sound like a radio version of a local media column, covering the coming and going of various executives and on-air talent, reviewing new program line-ups, ratings and the like.
In a manifesto for the program, co-host Brooke Gladstone explains that one of the reasons why she abandoned the typical media beat was that,
I would be asked to do a three-and-a-half minute piece every time Tina Brown passed wind (or so it seemed to me.) I wasn’t interested in that, and I lived in one of the half-dozen zip codes where people genuinely cared about Tina Brown [former New Yorker editor-in-chief].
Instead, she writes that,
I wanted to show how the media sausage is made.
That explains why when I actually heard it, I was pleasantly surprised.
As someone who produced a weekly program that attempted to be critical of the media establishment, I can say that On the Media is more establishment than not, but still critical. At the same time, OTM stands out from a lot of other public radio programming in that Gladstone and co-host Bob Garfield clearly have a point of view, and aren’t afraid to call “bullshit” when they see it.
As employees of NPR and WNYC, the nation’s largest public station, the staff of OTM are themselves part of the media mainstream, yet I think they manage to make the most of their insider status to nevertheless raise serious questions of ethics, truth, and even sometimes, justice. To me, they are credible when they do this because the staff of OTM is also willing to cop to their own oversights, mistakes and prejudices. One of my favorite episodes is from 2003, which they called “Pulling Back the Curtain,” in which they explain and demonstrate how editing, and editing decisions, result in the show you hear each week.
For my taste they focus too much on fine points of journalistic practice and propriety, whereas I would prefer a more systemic analysis of the media system, ownership and the effects of the profit motive. I recognize there’s a need to stay topical, but their frequent analyses of how the print and electronic press covered a particular news story, again, seems more like inside baseball than a more trenchant investigation into why the press chooses to report the way it does.
Still, those are actually minor quibbles with a program that provides more consistent reportage, analysis and criticism of our media system than anything else in broadcast. Sure, FAIR’s Counterpsin does a good job of picking apart mainstream news coverage every week from a progressive perspective, and programs like Democracy Now do frequent analysis of the mainstream media from a social justice point of view. Nevertheless OTM is on the case every week, and through its more conventional public radio approach to reporting often provides a few opinions that I might not otherwise have considered. For instance, I found their show on the music industry last year to be truly informative and penetrating, despite the fact I consider myself pretty deeply into the topic.
OTM’s approach is definitely one of tough love. The staff doesn’t want the mainstream media to collapse and die out. I believe they just want it to be better, and provide greater service to an informed public
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