"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.