The Public Radio

Few posts stir as much interest as those taking NPR itself to task for what public radio is becoming and what changes NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have wrought in the public’s name. Criticism generally falls within — but is not limited to — several general categories.

  • The homogenization of programming content — specifically, the headlong rush to find the music most appealing to the least common denominator in radio listener. Following the dictates of god Arbitron, a shaky system by its own estimation, stations in major markets such as Boston and Austin have abandoned any pretense of exploring the reaches of music to embrace the latest fancy, Triple A radio. This in concert with commercial radio’s similar frantic struggle to reverse heavy losses (and flat growth in public radio), as chronicled herein and elsewhere
  • The profligate squandering of $50 million in public funds dispensed to aid in the proliferation of the junk science HD radio (advanced by its monopoly overlord, iBiquity) — a cause in which NPR Labs played a complicit, and questionable, part (along with industry giants and investors) in gaining government imprimatur. The attendant weight on local budgets in licensing, programming, maintenance, and the like (aside from what had to be discarded to afford the change), with little or no discernible return on investment, redounded only to the ostensible benefit of NPR and its ilk in programs sold to populate the dead air. At the same time, many of our public stations refuse to divulge how they spend public moneys, whether taxpayer dollars or those hustled in semiannual pledge drives.
  • A perceived drift rightward in politics, accompanied by reliance on wisdom gleaned from corporate hegemony and the militarist bent in government — Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.

Matthew Murrey’s blog NPR Check, here, and his many outside links are a good source for this final point. But also particularly trenchant is his recent post on education, where he states, “In its education coverage, NPR consistently ignores the negative effects of poverty on student outcomes — and instead opts for the corporatist focus on ‘effective teachers,'” as well as his attacks on the “new” methodologies reported as in vogue that similarly discount the socioeconomic effects on education (and that, he says, were in use in 1987 when he was working on a masters in education at the University of Iowa).

As one correspondent points out, these criticisms of public radio are not new, citing this 1992 article, “Why public radio isn’t — and what you can do,” written for Whole Earth Review by Rachel Anne Goodman, which begins with this prescient observation:

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you felt like you were the “public” in public radio? Seldom, you say? Now there’s a new trend that may remove you for good. Once seen as immune to market speculation and rapid swings in format, public radio has gone commercial in its thinking. The programming will soon follow, and the biggest losers in this battle for dollars will be us, the listening audience.

Rachel’s observations 18 years ago have an all too familiar ring to them. How many of them apply to your station today?

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to find signs of public radio’s current direction. Just take a look at the audience descriptions in this year’s Broadcasting Yearbook. For every one that says “ethnic/cultural” or “diverse,” there are three that read, “target audience: |upwardly mobile, educated youth,’ |upscale, affluent, societally conscious,’ |25-50 urban professionals,’ |educated adults.'”…

There is a new move toward single-format public radio stations. WHYY in Philadelphia used to have news, classical, folk, blues, jazz, and local public-affairs programming. One day the program director called in the on-air volunteers and told them their services would no longer be needed. The station went to an all-news format, relying heavily on satellite feeds from NPR and augmenting it with local news and talk. The trend caught on at KPBS in San Diego, which went all news/talk in winter 1990….

Most public radio stations will defend their narrow programming in terms of the current economy. True, budget crunches on the state level are affecting the university funding that is the life-blood of these public stations. While the economic arguments are real, they are also self-created. Stations have become increasingly autocratic in their staffing, and have enlarged their staffs to accommodate the increased paperwork. They have replaced volunteers with paid announcers, citing the need for “oversight” of air sound. The most popular programs tend to come from NPR or APR (American Public Radio), and are the most expensive….

A critical document came out of NPR in 1986 — the Audience-building Task Force Report. With the goal of doubling public radio’s audience by the year 1990, it advised “professionalizing” the sound by eliminating programs where “each person selects program material on the basis of personal taste.” Commercial audience research from Hagen Media Research in Washington is also being circulated around NPR stations. It reveals that “talent” (read: local-human-being announcer) just isn’t important to listeners….

One public station I worked for told me I couldn’t read a lost-dog announcement that was called in because it made us sound too “provincial.” Soon after, they dropped the bluegrass programming because the rural audience it attracted “wasn’t educated and upscale enough” and didn’t “fit our mission statement.” This station serves a largely rural audience. Public-radio program directors have misread their core audience in much the same way presidential candidates have alienated voters. As with election speeches, during fundraisers they claim to give listeners a voice in programming decisions which does not actually exist. As in our two-party system, listeners must choose from a tiny menu of programs when they vote with their pledge dollars. More “audience research” is being done these days to determine the needs of listeners. However, the Arbitron rating service used by many stations measures the average number of people who listen to existing programs, not audience needs.

All in all, a good read and ominous in its implications for what still lies ahead. There’s also information about how some citizen groups then organized to fight the trend.

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One Response

  1. […] in public funds dispensed to aid in the proliferation of the junk science HD radio, as mentioned here, and the attendant beggaring by bean counters of local budgets in blind obeisance. Then […]

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