Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Should You Pledge Money to NPR?

A few years back, NPR got into hot water by firing one of its newscasters, Bob Edwards.  The reasons given were pretty specious - they wanted to attract a " younger, hipper"  audience.  So now we have these morning show know-nothings with smirky voices and made-up radio names like "Renee Montagne"  and "Steve Inskeep"  or whatever.... No, I don't think they need my money anymore.  I'm not young and hip... I'm ready for hip replacement!

Recently, there has been a lot of heat and noise about the firing of Juan Williams from NPR.  It  is a classic BAITING game, of course, designed to get everyone riled up for a couple of news cycles. Fox News wants to use this to boost viewership. Conservative media stars flog it for ratings.  NPR posits itself as "embattled by the right" and will no doubt use this issue to raise money.  But really - who really cares?

But it brings to the forefront the unusual nature of public radio and public television in America, and how they have changed over time.  Gone are the days of classical music interrupted by quiet announcers providing you with movement, label, and Köchel numbers.

You may recall the Bob Edwards fiasco a few years back (has it been nearly a decade now?).  Back then, Public Radio was pretty low-key.  Local radio stations played classical music or jazz, hiring local announcers to play the records and do the shows.  But some folks thought that model was a little "old fashioned" and perhaps needed to be updated.

One of the first things they did was fire morning host Bob Edwards, who we enjoyed listening to.  The reason given, by very highly paid NPR executives, was that NPR had to reposition itself for a younger, hipper audience.  So today, we have these smirky announcers who talk as though they are laughing or giggling - and talk down to you.  And they have dumbed down the content quite a bit as well.

A lot of people, including myself, thought this was a bad idea, and stopped donating to public radio.  It got so bad, they brought back Bob Edwards for a fund drive, where he (no doubt hobbled by his contractual obligations) stated that people should not take out their frustrations with his firing by not donating to public radio.  I didn't buy it then, I still don't buy it now.

But firing Bob Edwards was the least of it.  In addition, the political content has gone way up and way left.  The "news" reported on Morning Edition is anything but neutral anymore.  And that is a shame, as you have to "filter" NPR mentally as much as, if not more than, places like Fox News.  At least Fox is up front about its propaganda - they are part of the entertainment division of Fox.

And even the daily music shows and other programming has changed -  dramatically - from the past.  Like I said, in the old days, they'd hire someone locally to spin classical records, interrupting rarely, to tell you what was played and what label it was on.  It was very low key.

Today, we have gushing announcers, like on "Performance Today" or "PT" as they like to call it, turning classical music into a pop phenomenon.  They play bits and pieces of classical music, and then say "Coming up!  A new hit tune from Beethoven!  Stay Tuned!" like it was Casey Kasem's top 40 countdown.  And no bit of classical music can be played without some long-winded "back story" on the composer, the music, the artist, or the venue.  It is Chatty Cathy's classical music show!

Is this a bad thing?  Well ask my friend who was laid-off by his local radio station when they decided to play syndicated shows like "PT" instead of his programming.  It is taking local radio and making it into little more than nationwide franchised radio.  And it sucks, too.  Listening to classical music is no longer relaxing, because you never know when the "PT" guy is going to CUT OFF the music you are listening to and then blather on about some "interesting story" about the cello played in the piece.

Talk radio is also starting to dominate public radio as well.  Some radio stations, such as in Ithaca, New York, are all chatty, being dominated by syndicated talk shows.   For a public radio employee, the biggest ambition you can have is to get syndicated.  Terry Gross was a pioneer in this, with "Fresh Air" and has spawned any number of imitators and wanna-bes with their own catchy show names and tag lines ("We've got a lot to talk about!" or "You're hearing voices!" the latter being somewhat appropo for people living in Ithaca, New York).

So more and more of "Public Radio" is just canned stuff.  Local radio stations just buy these programs (and pay a LOT of money for them) from various program suppliers, such as National Public Radio, American Public Media, etc.

Local radio is basically dead.  If you are going to do a local radio show, you do it only with the hope of becoming nationally syndicated.  Do real local news or local reporting is a dead-end, as no one outside your listening area wants to hear it, and you'll never be the next "Terry Gross".

And then there is the issue of "sponsorships" which has gotten worse and worse.  Basically, they have advertisements on public radio - little 5 to 15 second "spots" at the beginning and end of each show (and often mentioned during the show) thanking the "sponsors" and mentioning their advertising lines or catch-phrases.  And in some instances, they actually place a recorded piece with the sponsor's tag line, music, and jingle.  Maybe it is just me, but that was what television advertising was like, 40 years ago.

And we called them "sponsors" back then, too.

Even the fund drives have sponsors.  The latest gag in Ithaca, New York is that if they can "meet their goal" of $100,000, a number of local contractors (all mentioned by company name, several times) will help Habitat for Humanity build a home for a "family in need."  I guess they think we are all just a little bit stupid.  Are you saying that ACME electrical supply is not going to wire up the Habitat Home (and take a tax deduction and get its name plastered all over the project, literature, and promotions) just because I don't contribute to an unrelated cause?

Well, worry not, because the Habitat house is safe - they raised the $100,000 for the public radio station.  Whew!  That was a close one!  That homeless family would have been cold this winter if not for that.

Of course, it is all a gag.  The people helping the Habitat home (getting free publicity out of the deal) no doubt paid the radio station a sponsorship fee, which in turn got them more free publicity in politically-correct Ithaca.  The lame tie-in to fund raising (a variation on "give us this money or we'll shoot this dog") was really transparent.  People don't volunteer for Habitat for Humanity only so you will donate to public radio.  It makes no sense.  And worse, is assumes we are stupid.

"Well, honey, they only raised $90,000 for the public radio fund drive.  Looks like I'm off the hook for putting a free roof on that Habitat house!"

No one thinks that way.  It was a silly stunt - stupid, actually.

Of course, they need these "sponsors" (advertisers) to pay the big bucks for these syndicated shows.  In theory, the operating budget is supposed to come from "listeners like you" - but have you noticed how the fund drives are getting shorter and shorter every year - and fewer and fewer?  They don't need your money anymore - they get "sponsors" to advertise on the shows and they pay.

And where does this money go?  Since more and more content is syndicated, the local stations merely pay for the cost of their transmitter, a few local (low-paid) employees, and then the rest goes to national networks and programs suppliers, so that they can "buy" the programming, such as Prairie Home Companion, Morning Edition, Performance Today, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! and Car Talk.  And of course, those canned programs have their own sponsors as well.

The syndication model is great - for the syndicators.  The programmers and "stars" of these shows can rake in a LOT of dough, as can the executives for these organizations that make these brilliant conference-room decisions like firing Bob Edwards or insinuating Juan Williams in insane.

As NPR itself reported, its CEO made over 1.3 million dollars, which is a lot of money to run a "non-profit" organization.  Other public radio executives make obscene money as well.   As I noted in my Organizations - Helping You or Helping Themselves? posting, many "nonprofit" organizations like this end up being wildly profitable - for the people who run them.

And while the CEOs at the top of the public radio heap make millions, the local affiliates struggle to pay any wages at all to their employees.  Many public radio stations are run out of college campuses, where they get free labor from students, or pay them very little.  Other stations pay very little to the Engineers or local talent, often hiring one Engineer to run multiple stations simultaneously.  And it shows, in terms of quality.  In Brunswick, Georgia and in Ithaca, New York, our local public radio stations go off the air for minutes or even hours at a time.  In Brunswick, sometimes the program will come out of the right speaker, and whatever the Engineer is listening to on his iPod comes out of the left.  It is pretty sad, really.

While WHYY in Philadelphia might have "Fresh Air", we often end up with "Dead Air".

And I guess that's why I stopped giving money to "public radio."  They aren't "public" anymore, but rather a lucrative way for a few people to make a whole lot of money, while dumbing down and syndicating content.  And of course, many people like this drivel - listening to Garrison Keillor attempt to sing, for example. Or Click and Clack going "Haw Haw!" on Car Talk.    They have taken something that wasn't slick, wasn't commercial, wasn't like - well, like everything else on radio - and packaged it and made into the equivalent of Public Radio Fast Food.

I still listen to public radio, usually late at night, when they go back to some local person playing classical or jazz at the local station.  I like that part of it.  But increasingly even then, they will play re-runs of "PT" at three in the morning.  While nice classical music can help you drift off to sleep, the chatty "PT" will just annoy the snot out of you, waking you right back up.

And maybe this new generation of idiots who do nothing all day but text and twitter - and consider that "work" - actually like this new, slicked-up, chatty formula.  To them, public radio is just left-wing radio, and its roots as a non-commerical alternative are clouded.

And many folks donate money to public radio as a political statement - like supporting a political party.

Which brings us to the bottom line, here.  If public radio is no longer really "public" - but merely a syndicated de facto network of highly paid performers and executives, advancing a political agenda - do they really need public funds to operate?  Perhaps we should cut to the chase and just call it what it is - a network.  Call the "sponsors" what they are - advertisers - and set it up as a for-profit deal and be done with it.  Sell it off and make it another network just like any other.

Or perhaps - just perhaps - we as citizens should reclaim OUR public radio and get rid of these canned programs and millionaire executives and turn it back into the local radio phenomenon it started out as.

Perhaps.  But I doubt it.  Too many Americans like the canned programs.  They think Car Talk is funny and that Garrison Keillor is witty, and that Renee Montagne is informative. And they think this, because the changes came about so gradually, or they grew up knowing nothing else.

But it was not always this way.  We lost something, along the line.  And the new alternative they are pushing on us, well, I'm not paying for it!

And I'm still waiting for that damn tote bag!