RadioThey tell us that this month we should be celebrating the 30th anniversary of National Public Radio, but for many of us who love radio, and what it can do, and what it can be --- I'm suspect it won't be much of a celebration. It'll probably be more like a wake.National Public Radio was set up in 1972 as a national, non-commercial radio network that would, in the words of its founding charter, "serve groups whose voices would otherwise go unheard."And for its first few years, it did exactly that. I remember one afternoon, sometime in 1979 or 1980 --- lying in bed, listening to a talk on NPR. It was one of those programs that moves the heart, one that makes chills go up and down the spine --- doing exactly what radio can do best. It was the rebroadcast of a speech that Joan Baez had given to the Washington Press Club. It told of her visit to a children's ward in hospital in Hanoi. It was a gentle, poignant description of what our bombs had done to the young and the helpless and the innocent of Viet-Nam.
I recall thinking to myself that at last we had a national network that would give us, for a change, the truth about some aspects of America besides pop music and five minute newscasts and ads. I also remember thinking that the work that many of us did in setting up alternative radio stations in the 1960s and 1970s had finally been vindicated, and that a new form of lively, involved radio would soon be commonplace.
It came and it went so quickly --- that promise. If you listen to NPR now on any one of the 605 public stations in this country, you will wonder what all the excitement was about. And you can forget all that stuff about "voices would otherwise go unheard." In the place of programs for the wondering and the curious (not to say the poor and the needy) --- you get those endless, mindless jazz programs, and word-games on the order of "Says You!" and "Wait, Wait --- Don't Tell Me," and the daily advertisement for The American Oligopolistic Way and Corporate Socialism called "Marketplace," all brought to you by Archer-Daniels-Midland and General Electric and Exxon and Texaco and New York Life. Oh yes, there's also the insulting patter of a couple of guys who think my car is so important that I want to hear about it for two hours every Saturday.
Poor NPR. Emasculated. Lost its nuts. And at such a young age. They say it happened sometime in the 90s, with Congress insisting that NPR become self-supporting. But that's not it. The balls of great American radio were stolen away not by Newt Gingrich but disappeared in the early days when it was decided that public broadcasting would be built on the commercial model. Instead of the wondrous shit-kicking experimental radio coming out of England (the BBC) and Canada (the CBC) and France (RDF) and Japan (NHK) --- it was decided that NPR would look be a gussied-up NBC, CBS, ABC. And soon enough, it began to follow their rules: don't rock the boat; don't get the natives up in arms; don't question the system; and most of all --- don't mess with the sponsors. Thus, NPR.
There have been many over the years who tried to change American radio. In the first years of KPFA Lew Hill created an impeccable American version of the BBC. There were community radio stations that opened the doors (and their microphones) to anyone who had something to say. Even now there are a few radio crazies around and about called pirates --- those nut cases who start broadcasting on a whim until the federal marshalls turn up with shotguns and convince them to turn off their transmitters. But none of these had the funding and quasi-governmental backing of NPR.
Where did it go wrong? For $100,000,000 a year, a quarter-million dollars a day, we get "The Savvy Traveler" and "Along for the Ride" and "Only a Game." It's only a game, right? And that hundred mil. Where does it come from, where does it all go? As they said in "Chinatown," if you want to know why everything is so weird, follow the money. 2% of NPR's budget comes from the feds, 55% from member stations. The rest? Mostly foundations and Archer-
Daniels- Midland, Exxon, GE etc etc. So many bucks invested in maintaining the status quo. Don't rock the boat.
Every now and again I think that it's all a delusion --- that something important and alive is happening out there in radioland --- that I just don't know where to look. Maybe they do it when I am asleep. I tune into "All Things Considered" and I hear bits and bites of news that I could get on any of the commercial stations, an extended review of rock records --- rock! --- or a mini-interview with someone in Washington who will appear next weekend on "Meet the Press." I hear a light-hearted feature on fashions, another (another!) peek at the stock-market, and a one-minute review of books. And I then know that NPR has gone the way that Devo used to sing about. They've devolved. The promise made to us so long ago is long forgotten.
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Go onto Part II
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