i'm one of the loathsome 90 percent -- one of the nine out of 10 listeners who don't contribute to National Public Radio. That statistic was bandied about ad nauseam during NPR's latest on-air fund-raiser, now mercifully ended.
Usually, it's easy enough to spin the dial for a few minutes while the fund-raising glad-handers take over. This time I was riveted: The tactics NPR used went so far beyond anything I'd ever heard public broadcasters resort to that I was dying to hear what they'd do next. I've come to expect these fund-raisers to be self-congratulatory and self-righteous, with on-air personalities making endless dire predictions about what awaits us on the airwaves if we don't contribute, like Cassandra possessed by the soul of Newton Minow. But this was worse, much worse. I'm sure that the Massachusetts highways are much safer now that I'm no longer driving around with my jaw hanging open, staring at the car radio instead of watching the road.
The first appeal that nearly had me slamming on the brakes was a man-and/or-woman-on-the-streets piece featuring Ira Glass, who'd managed to buttonhole a woman coming out of a gourmet coffee shop. After she described her coffee (which sounded like something out of "L.A. Story," in which a table of trendies order things like double half-caf skim mocha cappuccino) and 'fessed up what she'd paid for it (three bucks), Glass cut to the chase. He asked the woman if she was an NPR listener (yes) and if she contributed (well, you guessed it).
Having revealed this poor woman as a self-centered hypocrite content to suck down top-of-the-line java while people in Sheboygan have to depend on Dan Rather for their news, Glass went to work, making full use of a talent for guilt-inducement that would have done Mrs. Portnoy proud. Why haven't you contributed, he asked, what would it take? The action then shifted back to the studio, where Glass (after asking us if this is what NPR has to resort to in order to pull money from gourmet coffee drinkers), announced proudly that the woman had called in to pledge $50. Yeah, I thought, and there are tourists in New York who get taken by three-card monte scams.
Because what is this if not a sophisticated grift, a way of squeezing money out of people who've been put in a vulnerable position? This fund-raiser revealed that NPR has become quite adept at targeting their listeners' most sensitive spots -- liberal guilt and paranoia about corporations. Time and again, I heard the personalities on my NPR affiliate (WBUR in Boston) pitch like some unholy combination of Jerry Lewis and Noam Chomsky. Their news broadcasts aren't beholden to commercial interests; shouldn't you help to pick up the tab?
And as I listened more, it became clear that there was another force NPR listeners had to be protected from: the great unwashed. "Think of what the alternatives are," one fund-raiser intoned ominously, "think of what else you could be listening to -- Limbaugh or Stern." And then, to the accompaniment of self-satisfied chuckles from his fellow fund-raisers, "We'll make you a promise: Pledge now and you won't hear Howard Stern on NPR." (Damn. It might liven up Garrison Keillor if he took part in "The Lesbian Dating Game.") Apparently, no one at National Public Radio realizes that it might just be a little hypocritical to make fun of what the public likes to listen to.
But this fund-raiser was about anything but the public. It was an invitation to join an elite little clique and look down on anybody too cheap to pony up the membership fee. NPR has embraced a tactic similar to that of moviegoers who frequent only the art houses and rock fans who brand anything on the charts a sellout. It's an easy equation of the commercial with crap. And it's harder to disprove in NPR's case, since NPR is probably the best non-print news source in the country. Listen to its detailed reports enough, and it's harder to be satisfied with the networks' "Reader's Digest" versions.
They're not infallible, though. In the past month, "All Things Considered" has started to live up to its title. There seems to be nothing too inane for consideration. How else to explain the report on the late Deng Xiao-Ping's enthusiasm for bridge? There followed (I swear I'm not making this up) a five-minute interview with the American bridge champ who helped coach China's bridge team. (Great. And I bet Stalin was a bitch at canasta.)
And when rapper Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, instead of getting a journalist who could discuss his music or what he meant in the hip-hop community -- say, Nelson George, or Toure, who did a stunning piece on the murder in the "Village Voice" -- NPR got itself a Nation of Islam minister, who, after Tupac Shakur's killing, had organized "A Hip Hop Day of Atonement." It was something of a master stroke. NPR got someone to talk about the scourge of gangsta rap -- and someone who couldn't be accused of being racist, because he is himself black.
Of course, much of NPR fund-raising amounts to someone asking us to judge what the programming is worth to us against what we can afford, and to contribute accordingly, and that's fine. But when Ira Glass (to illustrate the low percentage of listeners who pay) calls up various companies and asks if he can get 10 of their products or services while only paying for one, the analogy doesn't wash. NPR needs listeners to contribute, but when you choose to operate as it does, you're taking a chance that they won't. And you should accept that without resorting to guilt-making or elitism.
The fact is, it's not anybody's civic duty to contribute to NPR. NPR has chosen an approach much like Alfalfa's in the "Our Gang" comedy "Pay As You Exit." Unsure whether anyone would want to see the gang's production of "Romeo and Juliet," Alfalfa offered the audience the chance to pay if they liked what they saw. When NPR provides something as entertaining as Buckwheat's Juliet, I'll be the first one to pop up, like Buckwheat in the balcony scene, and declare "Heah I is!"