Nprby Michael P. Mccauley
The people who shaped America's public broadcasting system thought it should be "a civilized voice in a civilized community"a clear alternative to commercial broadcasting. This book tells the story of how NPR has tried to embody this idea. Michael P. McCauley describes NPR's evolution from virtual obscurity in the early 1970s, when it was riddled with
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The people who shaped America's public broadcasting system thought it should be "a civilized voice in a civilized community"a clear alternative to commercial broadcasting. This book tells the story of how NPR has tried to embody this idea. Michael P. McCauley describes NPR's evolution from virtual obscurity in the early 1970s, when it was riddled with difficultiespolitical battles, unseasoned leadership, funding problemsto a first-rate broadcast organization.
The book draws on a wealth of primary evidence, including fifty-seven interviews with people who have been central to the NPR story, and it places the network within the historical context of the wider U.S. radio industry. Since the late 1970s, NPR has worked hard to understand the characteristics of its audience. Because of this, its content is now targeted toward its most loyal listenershighly educated baby-boomers, for the most partwho help support their local stations through pledges and fund drives.
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NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio
By Michael P. McCauley
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2005 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA LYCEUM OF THE AIRWAVES
When I first began to study the history of National Public Radio, I did not expect very much in the way of adventure. Given the civilized tone of the stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, I had no reason to think these shows would inspire the same level of passion as a play-off series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Over time, though, I came to realize that NPR's news programs often did stimulate passionate discussions later in the day, whether at home, in the supermarket, at the gym, or in the lobby of a local theater.
William Kling, the president and CEO of Minnesota Public Radio, agrees that NPR reporters can stir up emotion when they do in-depth stories on matters of public controversy: "A commercial network will have that story over in thirty seconds. You're angry about it, but you're onto something else. NPR might spend seven minutes on it, by which time you're apoplectic, you've sent three faxes, and called two congressmen." Radio is an intimate medium, one that stimulates the imagination and helps listeners feel a sense of personal connection with the people whose voices they hear. This is especially true in public radio, says NPR president Kevin Klose:
Radio is a much more open space, the way it is done in the public radio community. There's time for reflection, there's time for consideration, and there's time for people to think as they're driving to or from work, as they're patting the dog, or doing the dishes, or jogging with the headphones in their ears.... "Which way is my compass pointing today? Let me hear some interesting stories about how people's compasses are being set, or how they got reset." ... I think that's what public radio does.
People who work at NPR often speak about "The Driveway Moment," which happens when someone listening to public radio on the way home from work is so captivated by the last story they hear that she or he pulls into the driveway, stays in the car, and listens until the story is over. Pity the spouse, partner, or child who interrupts this experience ... This book is an attempt to understand why NPR holds such powerful appeal for certain listeners. The people who have the strongest affinity for the network's programs are highly educated baby boomers who could easily have been mistaken, at certain points in their lives, for cast members from the ABC television series thirtysomething. America's public radio audience began to grow at an explosive rate in the early 1980s, and that growth was fueled by people who studied or worked at university campuses during the prior two decades. These idealistic boomers were imbued with the mythical American dream and a sense that their childhood communities-safe, prosperous places-could be replicated during their adult years. Many of these dreams were shattered in the 1970s, when the post-World War II economic boom came to a crashing halt. This was a time of unprecedented inflation and unemployment, one that destroyed many Americans' sense of control and direction. Not coincidentally, thirtysomething's characters longed for the innocent days of their youth and craved the sense of idealism and community they felt while in college. It would stretch the imagination to think that NPR News is modeled upon the same themes we can find in thirtysomething. It is not an exaggeration, however, to say that the American public radio industry began to soar when its leaders realized that people who were very much like this program's characters-highly educated, socially conscious, politically active-were most likely to listen to their brand of broadcasting.
The possibility of such a nationwide community of listeners is one of the things that attracted me to public radio and the task of unearthing its history. This interest was a natural outgrowth of my own career in radio, which began in December 1982 with a newswriting job at KQV-AM, a commercial all-news station in Pittsburgh. For the most part, I remained in this line of work, as a reporter, anchor, and news director, until I entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 1989. As it happened, WHA-AM-a leader in the public radio industry and one of the oldest stations in the country-was located in the very same building as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, just two floors above the office I occupied as a teaching assistant. Soon I would meet Jack Mitchell, the director of Wisconsin Public Radio and one of the first producers of All Things Considered. I began a series of conversations with Jack about the ways in which public radio stations were managed and was quickly impressed by the level of sophistication that he and his colleagues demonstrated. Hands down, these people knew their audiences better than any other broadcasters I had met. They were also motivated to serve listeners for reasons that went beyond the profit motive that underpins most of the U.S. radio industry.
In early 1996, stuck between limited-term student jobs, I began to wonder if the WPR newsroom could use the services of another radio journalist. When I asked Jack Mitchell if there was anything I could do for him, a series of discussions ensued that resulted in my being hired as a news anchor and reporter a few months later. Besides reading the news and running the audio console for WPR's seventeen-station Ideas Network, I reported on a wide variety of topics-from medical news to politics, from education to the environment-and produced my stories within a format that allowed much more air time than any of my former employers did. I also had the opportunity to interact with WPR's staff, management, and board of directors about my research on public radio-in effect, to analyze a company while working for it. I left Madison in July 1997 to prepare for a faculty position at the University of Maine but continued to admire Wisconsin Public Radio from afar. I often use it as a yardstick to measure how good public radio can be, especially in terms of its capacity to deliver multiple program streams (e.g., separate "Ideas" and "News and Classical" networks) to people who live in the very same community. My wife Judy and I continue to support WPR and listen to some of its fine programs on the Web.
Throughout graduate school, I read everything I could get my hands on about public radio-in newspapers, popular journals and academic volumes-on the bet that this industry would provide a fitting series of topics for a career in academic research. In the beginning, I was content to read straightforward, descriptive accounts of NPR, a network whose thoughtful long-form programs transcended the least-common-denominator feel of commercial radio. Once again, I had little idea that the public's reaction to this new kind of radio, largely unknown before the late 1970s, would be so passionate and, at times, polarized. Some people adored NPR, while others seemed to despise it. Since the U.S. public radio industry then received, and still receives, a portion of its funding from the federal government, politicians, pundits, and activists of various stripes often questioned whether NPR was "doing its job." This was especially interesting for me, since each person's conception about what the network's job actually was bore some resemblance to that person's preexisting social, political, and economic views. Some conservatives, for example, claimed that NPR was a "little Havana on the Potomac," while critics on the left thought it had abandoned its essential role as a change agent in American society. Why were so many people arguing about NPR, a network whose programs I had barely heard of? Was public radio really worth arguing about to this extent? The answers to these questions were not as simple as you might think.
Members of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television-a group anointed by Lyndon Johnson for the purpose of dreaming up the contemporary public broadcasting system-thought the industry should be "a civilized voice in a civilized community," one that would "arouse our dreams [and] satisfy our hunger for beauty." In short, public broadcasting would become "our Lyceum, our Chataqua, our Minsky's and our Camelot." We can find many examples, over the years, of NPR programs that have lived up to this ideal: for example, Robert Montiegel's documentary portraits of leading twentieth-century intellectuals, a thirteen-part radio adaptation of Star Wars, and hundreds of sparkling performances on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Many of NPR's news and information programs have also been memorable, from live broadcasts of Senate hearings on the Vietnam War; to the expert political and legal reporting of Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts, and Nina Totenberg; to award-winning coverage of the Persian Gulf wars and the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The fact that NPR has succeeded to this extent is nothing less than amazing, given the manner in which it was born and raised.
Over the years, many people have criticized the network for targeting its programs almost exclusively to an audience of upscale baby boomers. Those who take this position seem to long, instead, for a national broadcaster that could offer meaningful programs for people from all socioeconomic and cultural groups-including those that are not well-served by the dominant commercial broadcasting system. This brand of public service broadcasting is common in Western Europe where most national systems, like the BBC, are funded by a license fee that is tied to the purchase of television or radio sets. By virtue of paying this fee, each European citizen has typically donated between $36 and $136 per year toward his or her national broadcasting system (compare that to a little more than one dollar's worth of federal support for each U.S. citizen). The BBC operates eight television networks, ten radio networks, more than fifty local radio and TV stations, and a forty-three-language worldwide news and information service. It also produces musical performances and children's programs and provides digital platforms for the integration of a wide variety of audio, video, and textual content. Britain's national broadcaster provides both popular programs and minority shows, with, as one observer puts it, "the former being the majority's reward for helping to fund the latter."
This is a very different broadcasting system from the one that America's public radio audience enjoys. In recent years, the amount of federal money earmarked for public radio has dwindled to about 14 percent of the industry's annual budget (33 percent if you include money from state and local governments); income from private sources such as pledge drives and corporate underwriting accounts for a little more than half of the funding mix. Given the heavy influence of these "listener-sensitive" funds, America's public radio system must, as a matter of survival, focus its programming and fund-raising efforts on the highly educated thirtysomething (now fiftysomething) audience that covets its programs most. It is tempting to charge, as some critics have, that NPR's financial maturation has moved the enterprise away from its funky, alternative roots and closer to the pedestrian fare of commercial radio. But, as we shall see, American public broadcasting grew up in a political culture that actually precluded most of the funk that is supposedly missing. NPR's liberal critics may also be waxing nostalgic for a kind of radio format that, for the most part, no longer exists-and has not existed for several decades. Starting in the mid-to-late 1920s, when commercial networks and their star performers became a national phenomenon, radio was a full-service medium whose local stations often provided something for everyone. But this picture began to change by the mid-1950s when, for the first time, more than half of all American households had television sets. Commercial TV, with its comedy shows, anthology dramas, and entertainment spectaculars, quickly became the country's full-service medium of choice. In order to survive, radio stations had to specialize, to move toward niche-market formats that would serve some people very well and others not at all.
Such was the fate of public radio in the United States. Born in the early 1970s, the industry lacked the coherent strategy for universal public ser-vice that its European counterparts had from the very beginning. NPR was founded because the federal government made a relatively modest sum of money available for building a ragtag collection of educational radio and TV stations into a national system-one that would hardly be formidable by commercial standards. Compared to Europe's national broadcasters, the U.S. public radio system has no unified sense of purpose, no firm guidelines about the kind of service that networks or local stations should provide to citizens and communities. The development of NPR's civilized voice happened through trial and error-or, in the words of one long-time employee, after an initial "period of sacrificial audiences." About a decade after the network's founding, its managers began to better understand how many people were listening, which kinds of people were listening, and why they chose to listen at any given time. Audience research helped public radio fuse its programs more snugly to the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the people who tuned in (and pledged their financial support) most often. The central insight to be gleaned from NPR's history, then, is not that its programs are politically biased or aesthetically tilted in one way or the other or that the network could do a much better job than it has of serving each and every American. The most noteworthy thing about this organization (and the wider public radio industry) is the remarkable job that a few talented and dedicated broadcasters have done in playing the hand they were dealt. Born of humble circumstances, NPR has blossomed into a civilized voice which serves its listeners better than any other network could.
This book traces the history of noncommercial radio in the United States from its roots in the educational radio stations of the early twentieth century, to the creation of a modern public broadcasting system, to NPR's development as a primary purveyor of high quality news, information, and cultural programming. Nonprofit educational stations, most of them owned by colleges and universities, were the pioneering institutions of American radio; more than 200 of them were licensed in the 1920s. But many of these stations began to languish just a few years after signing on, as university administrators failed to see the usefulness of radio beyond the sheer novelty of music and human voices that somehow, invisibly, flew into and out of speaker boxes. Regulatory decisions in Washington, pressure from would-be commercial broadcasters, and the Great Depression also took their toll, forcing more than 75 percent of these stations off the air by 1933.
Chapter 2 covers the development of nonprofit radio from its meager beginnings through NPR's first two years of existence. As commercial radio entered its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, educational and other nonprofit broadcasters fought for their very lives. The Ford Foundation kept them going through the late 1960s, when Washington politicians were finally persuaded to bankroll the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which later begat NPR and PBS). Public radio and television, as this newly revitalized form of broadcasting was called, promised to give us much more than classroom lectures, book recitations, and "your favorite classical music hits." But the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 contained precious little money for ensuring that local stations were up to the task or for molding them into a functional nationwide system. This was unfortunate, since just prior to NPR's formation, only 16 percent of America's noncommercial radio stations were deemed strong enough to warrant federal support. The story of public radio's early years leads, finally, to NPR's birth in March 1970 and to the care it received from two influential "parents"-Donald Quayle, its first president, and William Siemering, its first program director. These men literally brought the network to life, yet their awkward, uncomfortable dialogue did little to further the discussion about what it should do for local stations and their listeners.
Excerpted from NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio by Michael P. McCauley Copyright © 2005 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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