All Programs Considered: The Value of NPR
While the Right kicks NPR and the rest of us tend to think of it as defined by Morning Edition and All Things Considered and Fresh Air, Bill McKibben (writing before Juan) takes a look at the rest of NPR in The New York Review of Books:
The most important name in that other world is Ira Glass, the inventor of the show This American Life. He learned his craft at the big NPR news shows and slowly developed a powerful style that centered on storytelling. There was a group of others—like Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (known as the Kitchen Sisters), David Isay, and Jay Allison—who had long been producing remarkable programs, including segments for the flagship news shows, extended features, ranging from quirky accounts of family kitchen rituals to politically minded portraits of juvenile prisoners. The best ones came to be called “driveway moments,” because listeners were so hooked that they would linger in their cars to hear the end of a piece even once they’d gotten home. In fact, NPR now packages CD collections of these beloved pieces. But Glass figured out that he could make a weekly hour entirely of this kind of radio, dispensing with traditional news and talk; and since 1995, under the wing of Chicago station WBEZ, that’s what he’s done in This American Life.
A personal favorite:
If there’s a next Ira Glass, it might well be Jad Abumrad, who has teamed with the veteran reporter Robert Krulwich to produce what may be the most- talked-about show of the moment, Radiolab. In an almost comic attempt to make their job hard, the duo take only the most difficult subjects from science and philosophy: “Time,” “Morality,” “Memory and Forgetting,” “Limits.” They’ll usually interview a few experts, but the beauty of the show is the interplay between the hosts, separated by several decades and by sensibility. A musician by background, Abumrad plays with the sound of voices to underscore points, to circle back, to undercut assumptions. “Jad uses a layered, jazzlike metric,” says Krulwich, “creating breadths and spaces and layers of sound that are new. Not new to Tchaikovsky or John Cage, but new to radio.”
Meticulously engineered, the soundtrack often repeats, stutters, returns. The recent show on “Numbers,” for instance, begins with Johnny Cash’s famous song about the last twenty-five minutes of a condemned man’s life and proceeds to an interview of sorts with a thirty-six-day-old baby and a Parisian neuroscientist who has demonstrated the early age at which children acquire numeracy. You can hear how infant brainwaves respond to a picture of eight ducks—and what happens when sixteen suddenly appear.
To those who want to politicize and destroy, I say it’s well-spent public money. Of course, the destroyers have been at it from the start. McKibben again, “Most of the funding for public radio comes from individual listeners and local business underwriters; 10 percent comes from the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a percentage that has declined sharply over the last four decades.”
CORRECTION: Andrew Sullivan’s Chart of the Day finds “NPR does not receive any direct federal funding for operations. Less than 2% of the budget is derived from competitive grants from federally funded groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Certain member stations receive some state and local funding, to the tune of about 5% of their funds. A detailed breakdown complete with audited tax forms is available on their website.”