Editor’s Note: Radioactive Gavin has collected more than 300 articles on radio and digital music over the past 3 months for Common Frequency. This is the second in a series of seven posts he is contributing, looking back at the end of a rough year in radio.
When Stephen Colbert gave a ‘medal of fear’ to a seven-year old girl at Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, many of us laughed hard at NPR’s expense. And it felt good. If you missed the clip, fast forward to the 49:00 mark.
“Oh no, not NPR,” Colbert jokes. “If their employees attend Jon’s rally, someone might think that NPR is liberal! No one could tell from the free pledge drive hemp-fiber tote bags they use to carry their organic kale roll-ups to their compost parties.”
Of course NPR is a source of timely news reporting on stories like private prison industry connections to Arizona’s SB 1070, and sneaky Senate maneuvering that prevented a potentially 95-5 or 98-2 vote for years.
But recently Ira Glass complained publicly that his colleagues sound like “talking robots.” To make matters worse, liberal satirist Harry Shearer points out these days “the initials stand for nothing.” Even the stuffy Financial Times calls NPR “smug and boring.” Ouch.
Restricting staff attendance to a comedic performance staged at the Washington Monument led to hilarious mockery of NPR and other press outlets. But beyond the related discussion about NPR’s coverage of hate groups, and the snore-inducing arguments about ethics codes, why is the press so scared of what the haters might say?
NPR went right ahead and gave critics all the ammunition they could eat, by firing Juan Williams before the rally even happened.
Before I can get to the most interesting parts of the NPR identity crisis, we should revisit the chain of events surrounding civil rights historian and former journalist Juan Williams.
The plot of NPR vs. Fox News, starring the honest black man and the mean white lady, was never very original. Hindsight being 20/20, it seems public debate was degraded yet again during October by conservative demonology and fake freedom of speech hypocrisy.
First Juan Williams, who is a black news analyst for NPR, makes racist statements to suck up to his other employer Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. Then the civil rights historian and former journalist gets a phone call from NPR informing him he’s been fired. Immediately Newt Gingrich and other conservatives demand an end to public funds for NPR. In the midst of pledge drive season, stations receive calls from “viewers” who promise to stop “watching.”
Next NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller pours gasoline on the fire by ticking off the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Facing the cameras, she jokes Williams should have kept his feelings to himself “his psychiatrist or his publicist, take your pick.” Schiller subsequently apologizes for the way the termination was handled. And now NPR’s Board hires a law firm working the NBC-Comcast merger to lead a review of the dismissal.
The elephants eat up the opportunity to deliver a heaping pile of dung across the broadcast spectrum and the cable TV landscape. Luckily, a few in the press keep their senses despite the stink.
Civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald points out that NPR’s firing of Juan Williams “threatened to delegitimize” all “fear-sustaining, anti-Muslim slander.” With so much of the emphasis of Endless War built up around a foundation of hate and racism, he concludes “there are too many interests served by anti-Muslim fear-mongering to allow that to change.”
Adam Serwer writes in Williams’ old paper the The Washington Post, “It’s clear from the context that Williams wasn’t merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O’Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.”
Indeed the subject had come up on October 18th in the first place because a week earlier Bill O’Reilly’s remarks on The View caused Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg to walk off the set in the middle of his interview.
But hey, at this point you’ve gotta feel sorry for Juan Williams. Sure, first he signed a new $2M contract with Fox News, and now he’s got a book deal. But his new book will “focus on free speech and the growing difficulty in America of speaking out on sensitive topics.” Wouldn’t you hate to try and explain how difficult speaking out can be while banking millions as a commentator?
Plus, the poor guy must have some conflicting voices inside his head, considering his earlier writings on the psychology of hate. “Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me,” wrote Williams in The New Republic back in 1986.
While reading back over so much controversy about NPR throughout the past few months, a key perspective emerged as more interesting than the rest of the pack. Regardless of NPR’s grounds for firing Williams, there is little hope of satisfying The National Review. Their claims about NPR’s left wing leadership hinge on judgements about “abortion-rights groups and environmental activism in particular.”
But what about other journalists of color who have worked within the NPR system?
During four years of work for NPR, Kiss the Sky author Farai Chideya saw no evidence of particularly liberal leadership, insisting instead the network is “run by a Beltway cohort.”
Although her African-American issues program was canceled and she no longer works there, Chideya blogged on Huffington Post recently that “this country needs NPR, now more than ever.”
She says they fired Williams for acting as hype man for Bill O’Reilly, the same thing he has been doing for years.
Do I think NPR fired him because he is black? No. Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely. Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races.
It also needs, broadly, a diversity upgrade that doesn’t just focus on numbers, but on protocols for internal communication. Among the revelations in this incident is that the Vice President of News fired Williams by phone without giving him the opportunity to come into the office and discuss it.
In 2009, minorities represented less than 9% of the radio work force despite making up at least 34% of the population. In 2008, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) calculated that minority news employment was statistically almost zero at English language, non-minority owned radio stations.
MMTC co-founder David Honig credits the collapse of minority employment in radio journalism to “word of mouth recruitment from a homogenous workforce.”
Considering the FCC’s own report on the need for diverse broadcast ownership — that the “welfare of the public” requires “the widest dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources” possible — Honig wants stronger equal employment opportunity enforcement.
So would Republican presidential hopefuls agree with him, that a more diverse NPR would be a better use of public funds? Do the elephants care about the quality of news that’s accessible in the peanut gallery?
Or are they grandstanding and whipping up ill-informed Americans into a frenzy in the name of Muslim-bashing? Despite a desperate need to change course in the Middle East, this fall the GOP laughed all the way into office as NPR war reporters joined up with the rest of the subservient national press to please the Pentagon with their favorable coverage.
Listen critically to NPR’s reporting of US foreign policy and you will hear selective storytelling shining favorable light on CIA activities, and so-called experts providing dodgy history lessons on Afghanistan. While popular anchors parrot unsubstantiated claims about Iraq, and others kiss up to conservative politicians, commentators smirk their way through reactionary antagonism of whistle-blowers.
To me, it is no wonder that the anti-Iraq War invasion contingent of NPR’s audience seems so totally placated, four elections later.
It’s debatable whether those at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are in fact willfully misleading their audiences when it comes to funding radio with tax dollars. Either that or they’re afraid of what they don’t understand as usual.
Public radio station revenue is mostly made up of individual and business contributors, with less than 6% coming from direct federal, state and local government funding combined.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds barely 10% of all public radio budgets. NPR itself is funded mostly by member station programming fees and corporate sponsorships, and receives no government funding for operation costs.
Reality may be liberal, as the saying goes, but it’s plausible that at least one hundred million Americans are not. They don’t need Newts or Mama Grizzlies to tell them not to support NPR. Many of them dislike public radio because it sounds like liberal propaganda for an elite educated audience. Public radio executives rarely admit the need to think outside the core, but I’d say plenty of critics are accurate in their assessment.
Not long ago, my Radio Survivor colleague Matthew Lasar pointed out the disgust he felt when he heard Terry Gross and guest Will Ferrell laugh about the poor slobs who buy clothes at Marshall’s and get their hair done at Supercuts. Stay classy, Gross Air.
Feminist Music Geek Alyx Vesey blogged in August that Gross leans heavily on assumption and often attempts to “box interviewees’ responses into preconceived trajectories.” However Vesey and her fellow watchdogs were much more concerned with “sensitive white male condescension” from Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered. “Particularly in his dealings with women and the output of female artists,” she added.
Well, in November Bakari Kitwana wondered aloud on Huffington Post if Terry Gross should go the way of Juan Williams, considering her interview with Jay-Z about his new book Decoded. You decide, couldn’t what Kitwana heard be described as “sensitive white female condescension?”
“To be sure Juan Williams revealed his bias by openly, expressing his personal opinion. Terry Gross didn’t do that. Instead the bias is more subtle and insidious and lurks in the line of questioning,” Kitwana wrote. “And Terry Gross never goes off message.”
In a nearly hour long interview with a self-made record executive mogul and entrepreneur worth at least half a billion, on the occasion of the publication of a book he deems a coming of age story for his generation, the most pressing questions on the table range from insight into drug dealing to why rappers grab their crotches?
Given how pervasive the narrative Jay-Z calls “history re-running its favorite loop” has become, Kitwana says it will take much more than firing journalists like Gross and Williams to purge it from our culture in America.
As the Executive Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting Judy Lewis learned in September, you don’t mess with Gross Air. The beloved daily talk show was reinstated on that affiliate’s schedule after Lewis pulled the plug, following listener complaints over sex talk on the program. Then Lewis was canned instead. (Technically, she resigned.)
Make no mistake, it is very clear that many in my parents’ generation love Terry Gross and the other veteran voice talents. About 1 in 10 Americans tune in at some point every week. Even with the US economy teetering on the brink of collapse and the rest of the radio biz in a tailspin, NPR is experiencing boom times. As Radio Survivor noted one year ago, despite it all, NPR keeps growing.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben’s favorite public radio personality is the wittiest of them all, Ira Glass. McKibben makes Glass the centerpiece of his recent feature for the New York Review of Books, admiring his “commitment to covering the 330 degrees of life that didn’t show up on the newscasts. It’s about life the way most of us experience it, where heartbreak or lunch is as important as stock prices or distant revolutions.”
Back in August, Ira Glass drew knowing applause from a sold-out crowd at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall with the admission he listens to NPR stories thinking, “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.”
“The world they describe is much smaller than the real world,” he continued. They sound like “talking robots. The aesthetics of the language is so stiff.”
The goal for the creator and host of This American Life, is to “add fun, joyfulness and surprise” to stories. According to reports, he noted onstage that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.”
Today NPR is just about the last outfit that hasn’t retrenched and retreated from Marshall McLuhan’s global village but instead has extended its feelers to tap even the faintest faraway dot on the map with a moving story to tell, navigating near-impossible terrain if necessary.
This can lead to borderline self-parody, too many dispatches from remote villages about the dying native craft of flute-making narrated by a correspondent who sounds as if s/he majored in empathy at Deepak Chopra Junior College, a mourning dove with a microphone.
But the beauty of radio is that the ambience of other countries, other cultures, fills the sonic background with no camera eye imposing a single dominant message-image (a close-up of scorched belongings to signify the ravages of war), and no reporter standing in the foreground, colonizing the frame with a face full of concern.
The Financial Times applauds NPR for being “the closest America comes to the BBC.” However, “it is also a bit smug and boring.”
74% of Spot.Us users surveyed in September think public media is higher quality than their commercial counterparts.
So, we get it, masses of college graduates love NPR, even if it is more Wonder Bread than organic kale roll-ups.
Meanwhile, grassroots activists shoot off their mouths about lapdog coverage, journalists of color wonder when their fair share of the workforce will come, while corporate-backed Republicans attack NPR for serving up smooth sounds of sanity, safe for the three-car garages of liberal elites.
For the future of public radio, quite possibly the most important critique of the NPR brand is inaccessibility. Fans of small “d” democracy, libertarians and much of the community radio movement feel the bigger the member station, the more editorially closed off from real people.
Plenty of listeners dedicated to the low end of the FM dial are concerned so-called corporate “persons” have too much influence on the big pubcasters.
For example, one blogger writes, “KBYU should not use the public airwaves to solicit donations from listeners until it first makes complete and regular disclosures of its finances.”
The editor of a free daily email series called LUV News, Jack Balkwill, was quoted on the excellent Keep Public Radio Public website in November, writing:
Corporate sponsors include the taxpayer-bailed-out General Motors, Citibank, and Bank of America. Others include Citgo Oil, Mastercard, Visa, BP Oil, Dow Chemical, and Fox Broadcasting.
Throughout the day, NPR’s programs: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, The Diane Rehm Show and others invite guests from the corporate funded think tanks to opine. These people are clearly paid to sell out the American public. Transnational corporations get sycophancy in return for their investments to the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, Cato Institute and so forth, and what they expect is obedience to their philosophy of lower corporate taxes and higher corporate welfare, at any cost to the public interest.
When legendary Simpsons voice actor Harry Shearer, host of Le Show on KCRW, found out NPR wouldn’t cover his new feature-length documentary on either of the network’s two flagship news programs, he set out to buy underwriting announcements instead. But NPR’s legal department ruled he couldn’t use the words “documentary about why New Orleans flooded” in his spots, so he fumed on Huffington Post that at NPR the initials stand for nothing.
If NPR doesn’t stand for National Public Radio anymore, what does it stand for?
In an Op-Ed during the Williams fiasco, former NPR foreign editor and current KPCC Pasadena news director Paul Glickman offers this simple answer: “NPR is the premier broadcast news organization in America.” And he’s right.
Well over 30 million Americans tune into their local NPR member stations every week, and the plan is to grow audience numbers to 50 million people over the coming decade.
NPR’s own research shows millions more Americans would, too, if public radio becomes more lively and less serious. Researchers found the perception of inaccessibility to be the greatest barrier to entry.
“Inherently, news and information is NPR’s sweet spot, and understanding how that was unfolding in the world of news and information was the primary goal of this study,” vice president of programming Margaret Low Smith told Current in September.
News consumers from various demographic groups feel excluded. Confirming comments from Ira Glass, the summary proposes a more conversational tone in news delivery. “There is an appetite for… people sounding more like real people.” Sorry Host Whisperer, but your days may be numbered.
Of course a mix of digital strategies could help increase public access. No doubt streams and podcasts will continue driving listenership. In July, NPR’s Facebook page surpassed one million fans. In September they launched a handsome Tumblr blog, stripped-down and appealing to visual learners like me.
They’re also finding that Twitter data lets NPR glimpse a “future of app-loving news junkies.” Facebook and Twitter combined now account for 7-8 percent of traffic to NPR.org, an amount that has doubled in the last year, according to Nieman Journalism Lab.
That’s just the beginning. Digital initiatives include PBCore, the new internal API for NPR news gatherers, iPad optimization, projects with silly acronyms like PMP and AAPP, even a new team of comment police for NPR’s web platforms.
The Argo Network, which aims to cover 12 distinct topics in 12 hyper-local newsrooms is a cool idea. Plus, how does adding reporters to all 50 statehouse beats sound? Open Society Foundations put up the seed money for that project, called Impact of Government.
One of the biggest dreams is significant investment in more than 300 new positions for reporters and editors in top markets. Despite a budget calling for unnecessarily bloated salaries, when I consider the news crisis we’re facing nationwide, I say bring ’em on.
“This is public media’s moment,” Libby Reinish of Free Press wrote in October. “We must rebuild the charred remnants left behind by commercial media’s slash-and-burn tactics, and we need all hands on deck in order to raise a new foundation for American journalism in its place.”
Keep in mind, her article on NewPublicMedia.org was about the Prometheus Radio Project’s barnraising with community radio station WGXC in upstate New York. But “Building a Radio Station, Building a Movement” was also a reminder about the blueprint (.pdf) Free Press has envisioned.
Bringing together all our public interest journalism resources — including community radio and NPR, cable access and PBS, nonprofit startups and independent bloggers — means thinking critically about the “premier broadcast news organization” in America. Keeping track of what the public’s biggest news network is up to can help all of us move forward from this identity crisis.
I agree with Farai Chideya that Americans need a more robust, more diverse NPR. What do you think?
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