Artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow and I looked at the same story and drew very different conclusions. We both took note of a Boston Globe editorial occasioned by Joan Kroc’s $200 million bequest to National Public Radio. Here’s what the Globe said NPR should do (among other things) with the money:
Bring back music and culture programming. NPR’s news reports are thoughtful and compelling. Its talk shows are topical and a nice way to bring listeners into conversations. And “Car Talk” is great entertainment. But occasionally all this talk is wearying. Balance could be provided by music shows and radio documentaries.
Here’s what I said in response:
If National Public Radio doesn’t seize this opportunity to restore and revive the cultural programming that once made it genuinely “public” in its appeal, it will prove beyond doubt that it’s no longer a “public” radio network, but the purely commercial, ratings-driven talk-radio shop that many listeners reasonably suspect it of having become–and I don’t see that such an enterprise deserves to be subsidized by public monies. A radio network that does nothing more than follow the ratings should be required to live and die by them.
And here’s what Greg said:
But as anyone who’s actually studied this subject knows, public radio listeners overwhelmingly don’t want music. They want talk. The Globe‘s editors are free to have their own desires, but it’s just silly for them to lecture public radio, as if their own opinion had to be right. At least they should learn why public radio makes the choices that it does.
Greg’s a smart guy. Are our views therefore somehow compatible? Not really–but I’m not so sure we’re talking about the same thing, either.
Greg is writing about NPR from a cultural populist’s point of view. Recognizing that the network’s ratings for music programs have become microscopically small in recent years, he thinks NPR should acknowledge and accept that fact and go from there. If NPR’s listeners want talk, they should have it, and that’s that.
The difference between us–as I understand it, and I may be misinterpreting Greg–is that I don’t start from the assumption that National Public Radio has an a priori obligation to exist, and thus should ensure its survival by any means necessary, even if that means scrapping musical and other cultural programming in favor of Car Talk. NPR is not a profit-making corporation. It is, or claims to be, a “public” entity, and it is subsidized in part by public monies and in-kind equivalents. Public entities exist to serve the public–but not in the same way as commercial corporations. The whole point of subsidizing a radio network is to ensure that it will do things that commercial broadcasters won’t do. In fact, there’s no other point to NPR.
Sir John Reith, the man who for all intents and purposes started the BBC, used to say that its job was to give the public “something a bit better than what it thinks it wants.” (I’m quoting from memory, but that’s fairly close to what he said.) In the case of the BBC–and, once upon a not-so-distant time, NPR and PBS–that meant a significant presence for the fine arts. Now it doesn’t. But in the absence of such programming, how can NPR and PBS justify their public subsidies? I like Car Talk, but in what possible way can it be said to constitute a kind of programming not otherwise available through non-subsidized broadcast outlets?
Here’s where I agree with Greg: if NPR’s listeners won’t listen to the cultural programs it does broadcast, then NPR should change those programs, or create new and better ones. Nor do I think that public radio stations need necessarily broadcast hour upon hour of talk-free music. (I don’t listen to classical music on the radio. That’s why I have a stereo and a large collection of CDs.) But I take it absolutely for granted that a significant part of NPR’s air time–maybe even most of it–should be devoted to cultural programming. Specifically, I think NPR has a far greater responsibility to cover the arts than to cover the news. Other people do that, and do it well. Between them, Big Media and the new media provide 24/7 news coverage in every imaginable flavor. In what way does NPR’s news department do something that isn’t already being done?
Let me be clear about this. I don’t object to the existence of All Things Considered, or even Car Talk, so long as these shows are part of a larger, more varied package of programming that makes a concerted effort to do things the commercial media can’t or won’t do. If nobody listens to fine-arts programs, then of course there’s no point in broadcasting them. But that’s a false alternative, a straw man constructed by NPR to justify the gutting of its cultural programming. Do them creatively, do them imaginatively, do them with an ear toward appealing to more than a handful of listeners–but do them. Sure, some of those shows, maybe most of them, will draw far fewer listeners than All Things Considered and Car Talk. Repeat after me: That’s the point. Such programming is the only thing that justifies the continued existence of NPR as a subsidized public entity.
UPDATE: Felix Salmon
thinks I’m all wet. I think he’s being a little bit too cute–way too cute, actually–in claiming that my criticism of NPR has a hidden ideological agenda. Considering that I’ve done a few gazillion on-air commentaries for NPR’s Performance Today (and would be doing another one tomorrow if my schedule permitted), I think perhaps my motives are rather purer than Felix thinks. But he’s a smart guy, too, so you ought to go see what he says and make up your own mind….