NPR AND THE FALLOW TRIUMPH OF PUBLIC RADIO

By Norman Solomon

"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." 

 "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.'"

"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."

     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 is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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