"That Show By Those Hipster Know-It-Alls Who Talk About How Fascinating Ordinary People Are"


Around the same time Republican leaders started staging their We're Going To Defund NPR show, The New York Review of Books published a lengthy appreciation of public radio by Bill McKibben. There's a good deal to disagree with in the piece, particularly in the introduction, which praises some of the blandest programs in the noncommercial section of the dial. (Sorry, but if I'm "searching for thoughtful and nonpartisan culture," I'm not going to tune in to The Diane Rehm Show.) But I agree with McKibben's core argument: that ever-cheaper production tools, Internet distribution, and the influence of This American Life have combined to create a new form of public radio. To McKibben, "this is the perfect moment to be a young radiohead. It's like 1960s and 1970s cinema, with auteurs rewriting the rules. New technology lets you make radio programs cheaply: Pro Tools sound-editing software has now replaced much of the equipment used in big, expensive studios. Listening is even cheaper: the iTunes store has thousands of podcasts, including all the ones described here, available for free download in a matter of seconds."

There's a common thread through the shows McKibben describes as a part of this renaissance: Love 'em or hate 'em, hardly any of them are produced or distributed by NPR. It might be easy to miss this if you listen to them on an NPR affiliate, but it's true. This American Life, Studio 360, To the Best of Our Knowledge, and Radio Open Source are produced at local stations and distributed by Public Radio International. Radiolab is produced at a local station and distributed by Public Radio Exchange. Homelands Productions is an independent cooperative. Encounters hails from Alaska Public Radio. Sound Opinions comes from Chicago's WBEZ. Too Much Information is produced at the New Jersey freeform station WFMU, which isn't even an NPR affiliate. The only bona fide NPR efforts in the bunch are Planet Money, Hearing Voices, and Radio Diaries.

And of course, as McKibben notes, many of these programs reach large audiences on the Internet as well as FM. What McKibben sees as a public radio revolution could as easily be described as the Ira Glass wing of the podcast revolution.

Most of those broadcasters enjoy support from the government in one form or another (though not all of them do: WFMU is subsidy-free as well as commercial-free). But they're not a top-down project. They're a decentralized set of shows that seek funds where they can find them, and they could survive if the CPB were fully privatized. They might even do better, if the new CPB decided to spend less of its money on actual stations (which haven't always benefited when the corporation funds them) and more on independent producers. That's certainly the hope some folks have in the public TV world, where the indies constantly complain about being driven to the edges of the system, leading many of them to join the call for cutting the CPB loose.

Bonus reading: There's much more on the CPB, NPR, and the wide world of noncommercial broadcasting outside NPR in my book on the history of radio.

And one more link: The title is explained here.

NEXT: Paul Krugman, the Doctor, Now Trying to Screw Up Another Country

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  1. So who puts together/pays for my favorite public radio show Science Friday (also known as Let’s Talk About a Topic for 20 Minutes Then Pontificate for 5 More on How the Feds Should Spend More Money on My Pet Project, and BTW Global Warming Skeptics are Right Wing Idiots)?

    1. Or as McKibben calls it, “Talk of the Nation, with its much-loved Science Friday edition”? That is both produced & distributed by NPR.

    2. Science Friday is very successful at making interesting topics completely uninteresting. Why they think having some doctor drone on and on about something makes good radio is beyond me.

      1. Every time I turn on NPR, I get the notion that it’s some sort of penance that people do, in order to think of themselves as intellectuals. I find myself, as someone who would ordinarily be interested in some of the topics discussed, turning off any programming other than music.

        Personally, I find it hard to believe that even NPR’s best-known self-important bore, Garrison Keillor, would be known outside his hometown, standing on his own as other comedians have to.

  2. I like early Sunday morning’s Speaking the Faith. Interesting show to an evil atheist such as myself.

    1. The speakers on that show remind me of the episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” where no one could find a candidate for the post of Archbishop who actually believed in God.

  3. Car Talk is the only show on NPR that is even listenable.

    1. If I hadn’t heard advice on it that’s DEAD WRONG, I’d still listen to it…

      A guy called in with a Jeep Cherokee that had a habit of going into a spin when he started off in slippery conditions. The reason for this is that he had an optional limited-slip rear differential that needed servicing (he bought the thing used, probably didn’t know he had the optional diff, and it had the mileage on it when you’d expect to have to service the thing).

      The Tappet Brothers’ answer? You should only use 4WD when you are stuck, and put the vehicle back into 2WD as soon as you are driving again! Doing is not only terrible, potentially hazardous, advice in the snow, but it’s a dead wrong diagnosis of the problem.

      Message sent to them about it, no response.

      Even that show gets no respect from me, any more.

  4. Radio, other than WBAL in Bal’mer and occasionally WTOP (all news) in DC, is dead to me.

    MP3, satellite and Pandora/Slacker/ is all I need.

  5. WEVL in Memphis is a great station and is (or was when I still lived there) an all volunteer station.

    1. Radio Evil. That is the best call sign ever.

        1. Radio evil is cooler, unless you are ten. Then yours wins out Jessee.

      1. How about my local rock station: KOMA?

  6. There are other things like this that may appear to be gov’t-subsidized, but it’s hard to say for sure that they are. I coach children’s football, and we use a NYC park field for our practice and game field. The organiz’n does pay for a permit, but Parks Dept. permits are pretty cheap and it’s hard to say whether you’re getting a below-market price when gov’t dominates a field like that so there’s not much competition. Not just anyone can get a parks permit for a given space at any time (in NYC or anywhere else), but from what I know of teams that get them, tenure seems to operate there.

    1. I should mention that we’ve been priced out of indoor practice space at a public HS the organiz’n used to use.

    2. This land is your land,
      This land is my land…

  7. I get all my favorite public radio shows (none of them produced by NPR) by podcast. Every time I try NPR these days, freakin’ Prarie Home Companion is on. Every interesting show on public tv or radio is perfectly capable of making it without being subsidized.

    1. Who ever found that show funny? And further, isn’t it really just a vehicle for a bunch of big city douches to make fun of people from small towns? What if someone did a show like that and called it “Ghetto home companion”. The NPR crowd would have a stroke.

      1. isn’t it really just a vehicle for a bunch of big city douches to make fun of people from small towns?

        No. You may be thinking of Hee-Haw.

        1. Wasn’t the iconic image of Hee-Haw a buck-toothed donkey? Maybe Hee-Haw was a subtle dig at Democrat voters?

        2. No. Hee-Haw was small town people making fun of themselves. There is a difference. And Hee-Haw had Buck Owes who had more talent than everyone who has ever appeared on PHC combined.

          1. Apparently you’ve never listened to Prairie Home Companion. It is, in fact, a horrifically earnest show. It doesn’t mock all small town people – it praises the small town intelligentsia, who are smarter than the proles, and have more character than the people who run away to cities. This is why it is beloved by school teachers in small towns in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, in my experience. Also the musical guests are actually fairly talented if you like that sort of music.

            1. vanya,

              Never interupt John when he starts one of his diatribes against “them spechifyin’ city slicker ‘cosmotarians'”. He’ll never forgive you.

            2. I have listened to it. And the whole premise is that everyone in small towns but a few elite observers are proles. It is just horrifically bad and unfunny.

              1. Well, we agree on the “unfunny” part. It’s not as condescending to small town folk as, say, SNL or your typical network sitcom, I will defend it to that extent.

      2. I was very shocked when I moved to Minnesota to find the locals yucking it up to PHC. They don’t seem to get that they are laughing at them, not with them.

        1. No – you apparently don’t understand dry Nordic humor. PHC is laughing with them at you.

          1. Trust me, I’ve listened to hours upon hours of PHC (my father-in-law is a big fan). It isn’t dry Nordic humor; it is condescension with a wink.

            There is a reason Keillor tried (and failed) to move the show to New York.

      3. What if someone did a show like that and called it “Ghetto home companion”.

        You mean every thing that Tyler Perry has ever done?

        1. Tyler is pretty funny. And he doesn’t get a lot of love from NPR.

          1. Whether or not you like the comedy, John, you should acknowledge that the show airs some good music.

            Also, just for the record: A Prairie Home Companion isn’t produced or distributed by NPR either.

            1. Some of the best musical performances I’ve ever heard have been duets with Garrison and some talented person.

            2. Whenever I hear music on the show (in passing, when I forget that the button on the left side of my car radio doesn’t always equal classical or Celtic music) it has been crap. Perhaps if I listened more, I’d hear some of the good music, but there’s just too high of a risk that I’d have already chosen to kill myself before the music came on. Nope, listening to PHC is too risky.

          2. Tyler is pretty funny.

            That you have the tastes of a middle-aged, church-hen black woman doesn’t surprise me.

      4. The only good thing about Prairie Home Companion is that it inspired the title of the Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra record, “Prairie Home Invasion.”

  8. Subsidies for radio shows are like hate crime laws – they only affect the cases that shouldn’t be affected.

    1. *I meant to reply to Apple’s post.

  9. This is ridiculous. They make their money off asking you for it.

  10. I want to punch Ira Glass in the face, repeatedly.

    1. Ira would soundly take you out before you even finished missing with your first punch.

      Ira is awesome. His show is awesome. The work he does with Planet Money is awesome.

      1. What sort of trantric, atheist, vegan yoga would he apply to effectively “take me out”, I wonder

        1. all of them

      2. +1. This American Life is a great program with interesting stories about interesting people and I feel zero remorse about donating to them.

        There’s nothing un-libertarian with liking and donating to a public radio station that produces programs that you enjoy. It’s the ultimate in voluntary transaction. What isn’t is making other people who may not feel the way you do about it pay for it through their taxes.

  11. Apparently he’s back-pedaling:

    This book really pissed me off. He actually advocates setting a limit to scientific research in medicine that will radically change how long we live and how healthy we are.

    From the excerpts I’ve read he essentially says, “I’m good, no need to change a thing”. He should try to sell that to all of the sick and starving poor across the globe.

    Of course advances in communication are awesome, him being a writer an all. He’s a giant douche.

  12. Pirate stations should come back.

    1. Who said they were ever gone?

  13. They’re a decentralized set of shows that seek funds where they can find them, and they could survive if the CPB were fully privatized.

    This is always something that amuses me. Whenever this subject comes up the NPR people emphasize how little money they really get from the gov’t. If that is the case, why not just give it up and run a few more “corporate sponsorship” non-ads?

    1. Yeah, there is an old saying: “Put up or shut up.”

  14. Awesome – reason makes an O.C reference

  15. Without Schickle Mix, the whole enterprise is pointless.

    1. Isn’t that PRI too?

  16. Meh.

    I commented in an earlier thread – I listen to lots of NPR shows. I do like This American Life if only because there’s not a whole lot else on to listen to on Sunday morning.

    I spend most of my weekends working on projects around the house or in my garage or workshop. The NPR shows make a decent background. Yeah, This American Life is mostly whiny, hand-wringing far-left liberals, but as I said in my prior comment on this topic, you know that’s what you’re gonna get. Get past that, and the stories they do are just about people and all their warts and faults and usually are very interesting.

    Same thing with PHC. Garrison Keillor is annoying with his incessant Bush- and Republican-bashing, and the smug assumption that anyone “smart enough” to be listening to his show obviously must be a loyal Dem faithful, but still I find some of their bits funny and the musical guests often are quite good. Again, just something to listen to while puttering around in the workshop.

    I can’t get all fired up about NPR, given that these days you’ve got so many AM, FM, Satellite and Internet radio stations to choose from.

    From what I’ve heard and read, since only about 2-3% of NPR’s funding comes from federal tax money, it seems to me they should be able to manage without it. Heck, they pretty much already do commercials, although they call them “corporate sponsorhip opportunities”.

    1. I have to agree with that; “you know what you’re going to get, so either tune in or don’t.”

      Someone should check out the Kaspar Hauser (the comedy troupe, not the guy) This American Life parody.

      And finally, the Best Show on WFMU lives up to its name.

      1. When was that? Did Scharpling have Hauser on?

  17. NPR is good for an image of trash in France.…..r-7th-week

  18. I tuned into Diane Rehm’s show the day after Juan Williams got fired. She sounded really upset.

  19. The bottom line is that these organizations get part of their funding through government coercion. For me, that fact overrides any discussion of the type of programming they provide.

    I have no problem with whiny, leftist smarm having a place on the radio dial. Just don’t ask me to pay for it…or for whiny right-wing smarm, either.

    1. It’s hard to identify sizable organiz’ns that don’t get part of their funding thru gov’t coercion, pretty much anywhere in the world.

      1. Pretty much every private business in America that doesn’t take on government contracts qualifies.

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