Public Radio Fails Me

This blog post has been percolating for a very long time and now I finally am getting to it. As it turns out, it is more timely than I would have expected considering last night’s forum at MPR in Minneapolis (or at least it was last night two weeks ago when I first started writing this post. It has taken days to get this down.) In the interim, Jeff Jarvis has posted on the ouster of NPR’s CEO.

First, let me provide a little background on myself and public broadcasting. Growing up in Kansas I got a great value from public broadcasting. If it wasn’t for it in the days before cable, I never would have seen Monty Python, the Prisoner, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, I Claudius, All Creatures Great and Small, Fawlty Towers, The Good Neighbors and any number of other programs that I loved and love greatly. Public radio didn’t affect me as much until I moved to Georgia and got access to the programming that we couldn’t receive in rural western Kansas. It didn’t take long to get addicted to Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion. Not long after I graduated college I began contributing to public radio and I have been basically my entire adult life. I’ve been a member of Peach State Public Radio, Oregon Public Brodcasting, South Carolina’s ETV. In Louisiana we actually were a member of two stations: our local station KRVS in Lafayette and also WRKF in Baton Rouge because we listened to the local Cajun programming as well as Prairie Home Companion on WRKF. KRVS was also the flagship station of my syndicated radio show, so they have a place of honor in this list. My independently produced program was on the satellite for two years and when I met public radio people at conferences they were almost universally warm and wonderful people. They treated this kid in his twenties doing a science fiction talk show from Louisiana as a one man operation as their peer, which was a great kindness and much appreciated by me.

All that preface is to point out that I’ve had almost 20 years of support for public radio. I’ve been a listener and someone who ponies up cash for that time. When I say that public radio no longer meets my needs, it is not a casual comment by a disinterested party, it is a cry of despair for someone who has been on the team for his whole adult life and feels the team has let him down. Note too that I’m talking about the NPR(tm) brand, not that of the affiliate stations or their programming. In many cases, I think the locally produced programming is of higher value than the nationally syndicated shows. [Update: For those who want to pick nits, I’m not being careful about distinguishing NPR from PRI from APM. They all have the same problems and same failings. The guy who felt he was really zinging me by pointing out that Prairie Home Companion was APM not NPR truly missed the point by a mile and a half.]

Jarvis was posting in terms of business and political maneuvering, but I’m speaking as a listener and constituent. I think modern day NPR is just dismal. It sucks and no longer matters to me. I’m not talking about one or two programs that aren’t as useful to me as they used to be, I’m talking about the whole slate top to bottom. I’m not 100% sure if NPR has changed anything or if after three and a half years of listening to podcasts all day every day I have developed a taste for the natural voice and a disdain for the artificiality of the NPR voice.

In the early days of podcasting, I was compared favorably to Ira Glass and This American Life a number of times and I always considered it a compliment. Back in 1997 when I first heard the program I was still doing my radio show and I was absolutely blown away by TAL. My first inclination after I picked up my jaw was to figure out what they were doing that was so powerful and try to figure out how to steal that for my program. It felt like powerful human stories with a natural voice and I just loved it. It was fresh and interesting and completely unlike anything on NPR. In fact, it wasn’t on NPR because NPR passed on it, which is why it is syndicated by PRI.

Fast forward a decade. I have a TAL confessions to make. I have only been able to finish two episodes since 2004. [Update: I tried to listen today at 3 PM while in the car, shut it off in disinterest.] I don’t listen regularly and those occasions when I do run across it, I always turn it off in disgust because I find it unlistenable. Even the contributors like Sarah Vowell that I really like seem to be turning in lackluster stuff, painting by the TAL numbers. I can’t stand to listen to Ira Glass’s voice. When I see him on Letterman I just want to slap those hipster glasses and that smug shit-eating grin off of his face. I can’t imagine ever watching the television program on Showtime without shooting my television Elvis style. There was a time when This American Life was the best thing on the radio, now it is not the worst but it is the most disappointing. Add to that the bogusness of how they dealt with the early days of podcasting when they first put up MP3s and Jon Udell rigged up a homebrew RSS feed. They not only made him take it down, but made him take down his mentions of the takedown. That is pure distilled bullshit and whatever lingering goodwill they might have had with me dissipated that day. Even worse than TAL are the knockoffs like The Next Big Thing. Oy vey.

I used to love Prairie Home Companion and now when I listen, it sounds like a sad shell of its former self. I didn’t even care about seeing the film but I did because I love Altman’s work. The elegiac feel of that movie was spot on. The show itself has died some time ago, but like a zombie the animated corpse continues to lurch forward. Like many of these long running NPR programs the formula itself is so well worn that people can do it in their sleep. Thus, they do. I used to enjoy Whadya Know and now it is must skip listening. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

I can’t listen to any of the NPR news programs. They used to, in the early days, provided long form, in-depth coverage of issues because they didn’t have many reporters and couldn’t get out to every press conferences. They adapted to that weakness by focusing their energy on fewer stories but covering them well. I long for those days. Now, when they have reporters all over the place they have become sound bite bogus journalism just like that of every other form of broadcast news, audio or visual. When they do longer form bits, they are almost always at the intersection of the uninteresting and the irrelevant. I remember the day when I was listening to All Things Considered and they did a long exploration of the front porch in America. This is no joke, that is what they aired on the program. It was the opposite of a driveway moment, it was an instant finger to the off button.

I tried to listen to Christopher Lydon’s Open Source program. I know his heart was in the right place and his reverence for new media borders on the scary, but I thought the program was far less than the sum of its parts. Even though they worked like crazy to bring in bloggers, to integrate the new media aspects, to take user questions and calls and program suggestions, I never thought it worked. There was too much NPR style DNA in this chimera, which made it stillborn to me. I found Lydon hard to listen to. The make or break show to me was when he had Sonny Rollins on, a guy I love. When he couldn’t make a show that spoke to me out of interviewing Rollins, there was no reason to stick around.

The NPR voice is smug and stilted and has that elitist, know-it-all air. I can’t stand listening anymore. Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation: it doesn’t matter. None of them speak to me in any relevant way, seldom on any subject of interest and never in a voice that isn’t arch and superior. That’s the part that really loses me. I get the sense of superiority from this programming, that they are on a mission to tell me what they think I need to know, at the same time as their relevance to me decreases drastically.

That gets us to the relationship of NPR and their supporters/audience/donors. It has always been a weird relationship because they talk such populist talk about how “we’re all in it together” and “we can’t do it without you.” At the same time, I feel like they have continually pulled away from listening to or even caring about the input from the listeners or the listeners themselves. They need our money but after they get it, they need us to shut up and listen. Even when they say the opposite, their actions betray themselves. Read the live blog from that MPR forum for an example of this dynamic in action. I don’t doubt that the MPR people feel they were doing the right thing but were so disconnected from what it is to interact with their constituents that they can’t even do it without slumming and condescending.

Jeff Jarvis’ post about the internal issues of the NPR leaders touches on something I’ve been discussing since the beginning of the podcast era. When NPR itself podcasts programs, it is a huge channel conflict. They are competing against the local affiliates who, by the way, are the real customer. They are the ones who pay the checks when they pop for $100K/year or whatever it is to broadcast Prairie Home Companion. I always thought the better way to deal with new media was for NPR to have zero podcast feeds themselves. Instead, they should have granted a podcast license to any affiliate who paid the broadcast fees, ie that they could podcast anything they had the right to broadcast. Instead of having a single podcast of Fresh Air, there could be hundreds of them, each branded with a “support our station” message. You could get your podcasts from your local station, or from some distant station with a better feed, or whatever and you could pop a few bucks to whomever. NPR, of course, would never consider that because it is an organization that needs to control. Now they have this centralized service that has even sucked in local programming that gets affiliated. Ultimately, I think that what is likely to happen is that the affiliates lose their patience with the NPR hegemony, drop syndicated programming and go back to creating more local programming. That’s what makes KRVS such a special station, the many hours per week of locally produced Cajun and Zydeco programming. When I lived there, I was much more interested in that than one more hour of some centrally produced music programming. Really, I wish South Carolina produced more programming. I’d rather hear local and regional interviews at 7 PM than Fresh Air.

I think this is indicative of the mindset that I’ve been talking about all along. They want us to be on their side, but they are not on our side. They are not even on their affiliate’s side. They have long since lost their scrappy and scruffy charm and now have more aspirations toward being Clear Channel than the BBC. They talk populist and act elitist. They consider their programming the crown jewels of radio but it has dropped in quality below the threshold of listenability.

Here is the full list of any NPR or NPR type programming in my podcatcher:

  • Garrison Keillor’s Writers’ Almanac
  • KCRW’s Le Show
  • KCRW’s The Treatment
  • WGBH Morning Stories with my friend Tony Kahn

That’s it. There are a few other radio programs in my list, several Subgenius and WREK programs, but no other NPR/PRI/APM programs. There used to be something like 15 in that list, and I’ve pared it down to those four. If Sound and Spirit had a podcast feed, I’d subscribe to it but they don’t.

If NPR can lose me in the new media world, who else can they lose? What value do they add? How can they reclaim their soul? I’ll never forget the session where I heard Tony Kahn, himself a veteran of decades of public radio, give the advice to young broadcasters not to go into radio but to create their own programming on their own channels that they themselves control. That, my friends, says it all. This game is not over, but it’s down to 2 seconds and only a half court shot will send this to overtime. NPR needs to step up fast or they will be stepped over.

Update: People in the comments think they can be clever by putting this back on me. “You stop liking it and you think public radio has changed?” I kind of thought the whole point of my piece was that public radio hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. In a world where we have true interactivity in many ways, the folksy faux interactivity of NPR doesn’t cut it. “Send us money, we’ll tell you what you need to hear and oh, here’s a tote bag.” Of course I have changed out from under it. That’s why public radio doesn’t meet my needs anymore and why listening to these programs I once loved are now like walking barefoot on broken glass.