"National Private Radio" and "Who are you calling a corporate shill?"

by Lorenzo Milam and Jim Russell

Published July 3, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read Lorenzo Milam's "National Private Radio"

Read Jim Russell's "Who are you calling a corporate shill?"

Milam's tirade against NPR is valid in its concern about the influence of corporations on media content. Still, what's odd about his article, which trumpets the value of well-researched journalism, is that he fails to cite any concrete example where corporate influence has altered the content of a specific program. Instead, his particular criticisms of programming and content seem to be more the result of his personal predilection for "serious" subjects -- opera, Shakespeare, Chaucer (!) -- over more contemporary ones. One of the things I appreciate about NPR is the fact that they attempt to address issues as diverse as rock music, car repair and sports from a viewpoint that is substantially different from the typical mass-media program (e.g., compare "Only a Game" to the usual testosterone-enhanced drivel of sports radio). Perhaps Milam is forgetting the "public" part of public radio, and that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with programming that is sometimes just plain entertaining.

-- Brent Stringfellow

Lorenzo Milam levels two charges against public radio. Any regular listener can hear that public radio is indeed guilty of the first charge -- that anodyne reporting and an increasing volume of local TV news like "human interest" stories are replacing interesting and challenging journalism. Milam's second charge -- that public radio avoids covering subjects harmful to its sponsors -- is plausible but remains conjecture.

Strangely enough, Jim Russell responds to a different charge altogether, defending the increasing advertising in public broadcasting. It's as if he guiltily responds, "I didn't eat any cookies" when his mother asks, "Did you spill grape juice on the carpet?"

-- Mark Stenglein

Living so close to Canada has enabled me to enjoy listening to CBC Radio One and Radio Two for over 35 years. The writer of your article is correct in his assessment of NPR's plight. What he fails to emphasize is that as a programming service and not a public broadcaster it has been up to the local stations to rebroadcast the programs offered by NPR. The result is "boutique" programming, where programs are created with sponsors in mind. The more money from sponsors, the greater the likelihood the stations will buy it.

The CBC owns and operates the stations that carry its programming. Their programs are developed in its regional programming centers for distribution on a nationwide basis.

I, for one, am looking forward to using the Internet, satellite and Eureka 147 broadcasting delivery systems (IBOC is junk) to permit me to listen to the CBC and other fine public broadcasters at any time. I have recently discovered the Internet broadcasts of BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. Most interesting! I only wish that Radio 4 was transmitted at 28 kbps instead of 8 kbps.

-- Richard Chelekis

NPR provides me with the strongest coverage of world events I've been able to find, including stories about places no one else covers. Added to that incredible news coverage is the literature I find on PRI's "This American Life" and the ethnic perspective I get on "Latino USA," the interviews I get on "All Things Considered," and the to-the-point financial news on "Marketplace" -- programming that is worth my yearly contributions. While Mr. Milam puts down "Car Talk" and "The Savvy Traveler," there are plenty of people I know who appreciate that. I wasn't born when NPR started, but I do feel that NPR gives me something that I cannot get anywhere else. And since he can afford an international band radio, he is free to listen to something else -- or to start a radio program that he feels is better. If it is, I'll listen. But until then, NPR is the best there is, and I'm grateful it's here.

-- Tanya Melendez

Your dual articles on the changes in public radio came at an opportune time. Here in Washington, one of our public radio stations has banished its daily bluegrass programming to late night weekends in favor of additional hours of "All Things Considered" and other news/talk programs. I am not a fan of bluegrass; however, I believe that it's an underexposed genre that is perfect for public radio. During the bluegrass hours, I could tune to our other public radio station for "All Things Considered." Now, both stations program the same NPR shows, at more or less the same time. Diversity is gone, and competition reigns.

-- Gene Cowan

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a countercultural classic: Lorenzo Milam's "Sex and Broadcasting," a book that is not simply a principled and impassioned plea for the public's right to the public's airwaves, but also among the funniest and most irreverent pieces of American literature yet written. So it is vaguely disconcerting to see Milam in his righteous anger about the state of public radio crankily denouncing "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "Car Talk" and any other NPR program that aspires to humor. Surely in Milam's public radio universe there is room for some laughter amid the gut-wrenching accounts of Auschwitz and Selma and the scholarly disquisitions about jazz classics.

Still, Milam has a point, and one that is feebly rebutted by the understandably defensive "Marketplace" founder Jim Russell. Russell begs the central question when he defends his program's relationship to General Electric, so intimate that GE's jingle is part of the "Marketplace" theme music, by pointing out that the program covers GE as it does any other big company. That, in fact, is the problem: The very premise of Marketplace, that greed is good and that the daily doings of humanity should be assessed on public radio according to how competing greed impulses have vindicated themselves, is profoundly depressing, the more so because it goes unstated and thus unexamined. Marketplace plays a jaunty "We're in the Money" tune every time the markets rise, but it never dares to ask who "we" are and whether "we" deserve the lucre.

The rise of public radio and the attendant commodification of public radio programming are best assessed in the context of American radio in its entirety. The wholesale giveaway of the nation's airwaves, such that two corporate giants now dominate commercial radio, has made commercial radio unlistenable by anyone but the rabidly right wing or the seeker of audio anesthesia. If public radio has gone mainstream, it is to fill a vacuum in the center of the culture that used to be occupied by full-service commercial AM stations. Lorenzo Milam and every other American should be cranky about this and then rededicate ourselves to finding something on the radio to laugh about.

-- Donald Maurice Kreis

I'm not a huge fan of NPR, but it serves an important role, walking the tightrope by being mainstream enough to attract a significant audience but not so mainstream that it is worthless garbage like almost all of today's commercial radio.

The problem isn't that NPR isn't edgy, eclectic and anti-commercial enough, it's that micro-radio has been squashed. Low-power radio is the ideal outlet for radical, brilliant, unique programming that is too far out even for NPR. If these stations were out there, no one would need to complain about NPR not filling this role.

As it is, seemingly the only hope for the time being is that pioneers interested in developing this type of programming turn to Internet radio. This isn't a perfect solution, since it is only accessible to people with Internet connections (and mostly only to those with broadband connections), but since the airwaves really aren't an option, that's about all that's left. There are some interesting, eclectic voices that are starting to develop in places like Shoutcast, but they mostly fly below the radar. Over the next few years, we'll see if they can develop into the alternative radio we need.

-- Andrew Norris

"Emasculated," "lost its nuts" and "balls of great American radio"? Gimme a break. Public radio is sadly lacking in both guts and integrity, but it has nothing to do with testicles (or their lack thereof). Come on, it's the 21st century for crissake. Time to give the patriarchal metaphors a rest. R.I.P.

Thanks for an otherwise good piece. National Private Radio, indeed.

-- Karyn Quinlan

By Salon Staff

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