We’re told we should be celebrating the 30th anniversary of National Public Radio this month, but for many of us who love radio, and what it can do, and what it can be, I 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, noncommercial 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 lying in bed, listening to a talk on NPR one afternoon, sometime in 1979 or 1980. It was one of those programs that move the heart, that make chills go up and down one’s spine — doing exactly what radio does best. It was the rebroadcast of a speech that Joan Baez gave to the Washington Press Club, which told of her visit to a children’s ward in a 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 Vietnam.
I recall thinking to myself that at last we had a national network that would give us something besides pop music, 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 went so quickly — that promise. If you listen to the programs on NPR, Public Radio International or any of the 605 public stations in this country, you might wonder what all the excitement was about. For sure, you can forget all that stuff about “voices [that] would otherwise go unheard.” In the place of programs for the wondering and the curious (not to say the poor and the needy), we have those endless, mindless jazz programs, quiz games on the order of “Says You!” and “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and the daily advertisement for the wonders of 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.
And if you ask whatever happened to those wonderful programs from before, the ones that could change us and move us, the response concerns money: “We’ve got to pay the bills. You don’t know how expensive it is to do radio.” People always say that.
Actually, I do know how expensive it is to do radio. My first station, a public station in Seattle — put on the air long before NPR and PRI — had an annual operating budget of $25,000. Admittedly, that was in 1965 dollars. Admittedly, we had two paid employees and a huge volunteer staff. But with that $25,000 we did some astounding programming — stuff that would turn your head around: live drama, live chamber music, music from all over the world, wonderful and diverse commentary. And those were the years of the civil rights struggle. We had tapes from Jackson and Birmingham and Selma, soul-wrenching tapes about what was going on in the streets, put together (and paid for) by volunteers who not only were talented but cared about radio and cared, deeply, about what we put on the air.
“We have the listeners now.” People always tell us that, too. “In the past decade,” NPR says, “we’ve doubled our listenership.” But 22,000,000 listeners is not the point. It only confirms Milam’s first law of broadcasting: Double the income, double the listenership and the programming gets more stupid.
Poor NPR. Emasculated, lost its nuts, and at such a young age. They say it happened sometime in the ’90s, when Congress insisted that NPR become self-supporting. But that’s not it. The balls of great American radio were not stolen 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 looking to the wondrous, shit-kicking experimental radio coming out of England (BBC), Canada (CBC), France (RDF) and Japan (NHK), it was decided that NPR would be a gussied-up version of NBC, CBS and ABC. And soon enough, NPR 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, 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. Two percent of NPR’s budget comes from the feds, and 55 percent or so from its member stations. Most of the rest comes from corporate sponsors and foundations.
Every now and again I think that it’s all a delusion — that something important and alive is happening out there in radio land and that I just don’t know where to look. Maybe they do it when I’m asleep. Even when I tune in to the much-vaunted “All Things Considered,” I hear an extended review of rock records (rock!), another (another!) peek at the stock market and a one-minute review of books. The promises made to us long ago are long forgotten.
Ten years ago I got a C-band satellite receiver and started listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. network. Now that’s radio. Great classical and ethnic music. A wonderful jazz program in which the producer actually does some serious homework on the masters, mixing interviews and biography and music: Bix Beiderbecke, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. Talks — serious talks — on politics and science and art and literature: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Yeats, T.S. Eliot. Instead of one-minute book reviews, a full half-hour of serious interviews with an author. And, oh yes, radio dramas, commissioned by the CBC, performed as high art.
One of those dramas came into my bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, back in 1991 or 1992. It was called “Grasshopper Hill.” I was lying in bed reading while listening idly to the radio. Then I stopped reading. The protagonist had been caught by the Nazis and put in a concentration camp. At the end of the war, he emigrated to Vancouver and ended up teaching in a college there. He was describing to another teacher, his lover, what it was like.
He didn’t want to tell her everything, but she insisted, so he told her about being in the camp, working during the day in the storehouse for eyeglasses and hair and jewels they called “Canada.” Canada was paradise for working prisoners, the one place where you could have everything, especially food, taken from the new victims — food that, sometimes, you had to kill for.
As he talked his anger, bitter and mocking, became very clear. He had seen too much. No matter how hard she tried, there would always be that between them. He had seen too much there, in that other Canada. Love, any love, could never reach him.
In slightly more than an hour, I learned more than I could ever want to about what it was like to be in Auschwitz — what it did to the soul, to one’s humanity, to the ability to be touched. It was a radio drama that could and did change one’s view of the world, of what we laughingly call “Western civilization.”
I subsequently contacted the CBC and finally found someone who had helped make the program. I talked her into making a copy for me (which was highly illegal). I then made several copies and sent two to NPR — one to its president, another to Susan Stamberg (whom I had met a couple of times). I also sent a copy to my local PBS station. I asked all of them to listen to the tapes and try to figure out a way to get them broadcast. I thought “Grasshopper Hill” was that important.
I don’t have to tell you what came of it all. I was an innocent. I was still thinking of the NPR we had back in the beginning — the radio network that had been set up to give voices to those who had been voiceless for so long. At least, I thought, they would respond to my request and thank me for trying.
It’s very simple, really. All you have to remember is that early on, public radio was just that — for the public. But then, somehow, while we weren’t looking, they privatized it — gave it to those who have far more say-so than you or I, turned it over to people who have a distaste for controversy and challenge and complicated issues.
Public radio has become very, very private — a National Private Radio owned lock, stock and barrel by those who have all the chips.
Until those times, twice a year, when they crank up the money-begging machine and tell us that we’re listening to public radio. National Public Radio. Yours and mine. To support. Until the goal is met.