Wednesday, February 07, 2007

NPR News, Dave Winer, Elgar, etc.

Dave Winer thinks National Public Radio needs to do more listener-driven programming - his example is "This I believe"-type podcasting.

I thank the stars every time it occurs to me that Winer does not program anything on NPR.

Doc says he's thinking about how NPR can get more funding.

I don't believe Dave's "solutions" go to the heart of the matter. And it's unclear where Doc wants to go with his question. I've been thinking about NPR's trajectory for a while, having listened fairly continuously since the early 70s, when its major news formats began taking form.

Over time, NPR has developed chattery, abrasive noise. This, plus it's fallen victim to the self-enclosed feedback loop of playing to the audience that fills its coffers.

I have asked myself repeatedly, "Why can't I stand to listen to this anymore?" The institutional memory of news quality is still there, but etiolated. There are numerous bright spots -- hosts Steve Inskeep, Renee Montaigne, Melissa Block and a good number of their beat reporters (to wit: Alex Chadwick, Elizabeth Arnold, John Burnett, Ira Flatow, David Folkenflik, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Bob Garfield, David Greene, Richard Harris, Schor, John McChesney, Christopher Joyce, Peter Overby, Sylvia Poggioli, John Ydstie, Daniel Zwerdling and others I'm overlooking) are obviously gifted news people.

What's gone wrong, I feel, lies in two areas:

1. The whole news institution over there seems to have some sort of inferiority complex. It's into nice. Nice was not really a major attribute in Bob Edwards' day. The one guy I will always stop everything to listen to is Dan Schor - and he's not into nice either. I'm talking about that nice white man persona you hear in voices like Neil Conan's (Talk of the Nation), or, with more shtick, in Scott Simon - reducing the world to whatever quirky, daffy, whimsical, or asininely topical round hole the square peg of their MisterRogerserian sensibilities attempts to penetrate.

NPR still does important stories. But as Juan Williams' recent interview with Bush made all too clear, they are cowed by the bad cess in Washington. By the upsuckage that thugs with power require. By the lost funding they have actually experienced, along with having to endure a codpiece like Kenneth Tomlinson, a former creature of the Readers' Digest, a friend of Rove and a lackey to NeoCon interests within the current administration. This sort of looney intimidation could bother anyone who has to function in D.C.

NPR's tiredness, timorousness and decadence manifest through attitude, sensibility, style. Serious reporting of news, with fewer chirpy personae and more substance, would be a nice start.

2. The second problem has less to do with NPR news than with the system of public broadcast stations that carry its news programming. In particular, it's the demented media mindset of the people running those stations.

I've listened in various parts of the country, and some are more flexible than others. I'll stick to the broadcast adminstrators and on-air voices I hear in Florida: These people act as though they invented some nifty cube wallpaper called "Classical Music from Bach to Beethoven with a Spritz of Mussorgsky." It's a kind of ClearChannelized, NPR-in-a-box format: hire dudes who know nearly nothing about classical music, randomly select inoffensive violin-heavy aural cliches that give us the warm fuzzies about how Classically Fine we are -- more Pinot Grigio, dear -- and the money pours in.

A while back I wrote to NPR concerning this very thing. Here's a snip of what was actually rather a long tirade, which brought a sincere reply from Bill Marimow, who was then the ombudsman:
My beef is not with the national news shows. It's with the way in which your local stations -- at least those in the Southwest Florida region -- abdicate any effort to attract younger listeners. Indeed, the quality of the news programming makes this abdication all the more incomprehensible.

Let me offer some context for my observations:

1. Music is the badge of the heart, the lifeblood of the soul. The fact that these Florida stations play little but Elgar, Mozart, Copeland and Beethoven tells younger listeners in the clearest terms: This is not for you.

2. Your demographic will be mostly dead in 20 years. Most of the people who listen to your unoriginal classical and "jazz" programming are over the age of 70.


You're afraid of your listeners. You seem to think we are reactionary types who will countenance a "This I Believe" segment from a 14-year-old so long as it doesn't mention Eminem. You believe you are making more than a token gesture towards youth when one of your music critics reviews some esoteric pop group that no one has ever heard of.

You are losing your hearing -- beginning with your programmers.

Among other good things, Bill Marimow said in his reply: "I've just begun my tenure as NPR's ombudsman, and once I get under way with my column, I plan to address some of the questions you've raised about attracting a younger audience." Alas, he's moved on.

To perorate en bref:

Wall-to-wall classical music sends the most potent signal possible to kids (and to others outside the NPR whitebread demographic). It says: "This is no place to be, no place we want you to be. Come back when your hair is white and you're sporting a cummerbund."

In standing upon formulaic music programming and the sort of audience success that it so far has known, in taking no imaginative risks, public broadcasting is dooming itself to dwindling audience share. By 2027, they'll be fortunate if thirteen non-senile geezers tune in to hear the thirty-five-thousandth rendering of "Pomp and Circumstance." How many times can one stand to hear the Jupiter, anyway? And I love Mozart, so that's not it.

NPR: You've tried to make the honey predictable and to artificially sweeten the truth. That's poison. Don't worry about the format of fundraising. Worry about attracting a greater diversity of listeners with music they can love and news they can trust.


Blogger Joseph Duemer said...

Tom, I agree with your critique. I guess I'm lucky, though, because up here in the frozen wilds of northern New York, we have WSLU aka North Country Public Radio, which runs original music shows every afternoon -- not one of them classical. We've got jazz, world beat, blues, oldies, & an eclectic show or two at other times of the day. We also have a real local news department that does, you know, reporting & all that journalism stuff. And all this in a demographic area where there are more trees than people. Check out the feed at -- suggest that the program directors at your local stations give the feed a listen, too. And by the way, the demographic here is fairly conservative, though I'd say tending away from red state toward purple.

2/07/2007 10:42 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

Thanks Joe. Your note reminds me of something I meant to toss into the rant - first, that yes, there are already public stations that are losing the tuxedos, and second, that the Tampa indie station, WMNF, supplies everything that NPR lacks - superb music of nearly every stripe, Democracy Now and local news, live events and community talk. It's a superb station that offers something of the flavor of WBAI, at least how BAI was back in the day. Their feed is worth checking out.

2/07/2007 8:38 PM  

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