It’s the battle of the ArtsJournal bloggers! Taking a perfectly good Boston
Globe editorial as their jumping-off point, Terry
Teachout and Greg
Sandow came to different conclusions about what National Public Radio (NPR)
can and should do with its $200 million windfall from Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald’s
founder Ray Kroc. Now Teachout has responded to Sandow directly, in an interesting
piece which addresses the whole raison d’être of what Teachout
calls "public entities".
Here’s Teachout today:
The difference between us—as I understand it, and I may be misinterpreting
Greg—is that I don’t start from the assumption that National Public
Radio has an a priori obligation to exist, and thus should ensure
its survival by any means necessary, even if that means scrapping musical
and other cultural programming in favor of Car Talk… The whole point of
subsidizing a radio network is to ensure that it will do things that commercial
broadcasters won’t do.
Well, of course he’s misinterpreting Greg. It’s a cute piece of rhetoric:
by spending most of his time expounding on Lord Reith and the role of a public-service
broadcaster in an otherwise commercial medium, Teachout essentially is saying
that the main difference between himself and Sandow is on the question of whether
NPR should compete at all with commercial radio stations.
In reality, I’m sure that the one thing that Sandow, Teachout and the Boston
Globe editorial board can all agree on is that NPR should do things which aren’t
already done elsewhere. Teachout thinks this means more cultural programming,
the Globe thinks it means more documentaries, and Sandow thinks it means the
kind of popular music (whole Neil Young album, for instance) which don’t get
Teachout, meanwhile, is slyly pushing his reactionary views with a studied
nonchalance. Let’s say you want to persuade people that B. One way would be
to attack B directly, looking at the arguments for an against. Another way,
however, is to present a syllogism saying "A, and B, therefore C",
and then spend most of your time concentrating on A. Since you just throw in
B at that point, your readers are likely to assume that it’s relatively uncontroversial.
Here’s the genuinely controversial (and wrong) part of Teachout’s essay:
Between them, Big Media and the new media provide 24/7 news coverage in every
imaginable flavor. In what way does NPR’s news department do something that
isn’t already being done?
In other words, there’s no point in having loads of news on NPR, since there’s
already loads of news everywhere else and NPR, by definition, shouldn’t replicate
what you can get from FoxNews on the telly.
This is erroneous on two counts. For one thing, radio news is a very different
animal to news in print, on television, or online. Radio news is usually consumed
by people actively engaged in something else – driving, say, or ironing.
That means that it can give its listeners news in more depth than they get from
other news sources: while the average news consumer might not devote a full
10 minutes of their time to a TV news item or a newspaper feature, they don’t
mind listening to the radio for 10 minutes while stuck in a traffic jam.
Consequently, radio also has the ability to draw people in to subjects they
never knew were interesting. Most of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of
suddenly realising that we’ve been listening intently to a story about Bolivian
sewerage systems or Wisconsin filing-cabinet manufacturers – the sort
of subjects which would never make the television news, would never be sought
out on the internet, and which would be glossed over with one glance at the
headline in a newspaper. To paraphrase Reith’s formulation once again, radio
is uniquely placed to give us the news we didn’t know we wanted, and therefore
cannot be replaced with other news sources.
There are other great advantages to radio news as well: for one thing, it can
pull together expert commentary over the phone if needs must, since it doesn’t
need to set up cameras. That means it has access to a much deeper pool than
television, and that it can be more immediately responsive to events. It’s not
reliant on visuals in the way that TV is, and it doesn’t ignore other newspapers’
scoops in the way that print can. It’s also very fast: it can be faster than
the wires on reporting big local news first.
So Teachout is wrong to cite "Big Media and the new media" as reasons
not to support NPR’s news efforts. But even if he restricted himself to radio
news – which there is a lot of – he would still be wrong. For NPR
provides not only a different political slant to most other news programs –
it’s left where they’re right – but also a range of features and documentaries
which are expensive to produce and therefore nonexistent elsewhere on the radio
A similar argument can be put forward against Teachout’s dismissal of Car Talk
and All Things Considered. While commercial radio stations do have talk-based
shows which are superficially similar, they have very little, if anything, of
comparable quality. Teachout says that NPR’s talk-based shows cannot "justify
the continued existence of NPR as a subsidized public entity," on the grounds,
it would seem (he’s not entirely clear on this) that commercial stations have
talk-based shows too. Would he treat music-based shows in a similar manner?
No: he would differentiate between the high-production-value programming he
would like to see, and the lowest-common-denominator stuff churned out by the
likes of Clear Channel Communications.
I suspect that Teachout is, in this case, simply a curmudgeonly old right-winger
who objects in principle to NPR’s lefty programming getting public subsidy.
He’s just using a new approach to achieve an old end: rather than complain about
bias (yawn), he simply says that having any news at all on NPR constitutes a
dereliction of its public-service mandate. I’m not buying it.
I also note that Teachout has no ideas at all when it comes to addressing Sandow’s
point that the public – the very people NPR exists to serve – have
no desire for the kind of cultural programming that Teachout so desperately
desires. Here’s all he has to say on the subject:
Here’s where I agree with Greg: if NPR’s listeners won’t
listen to the cultural programs it does broadcast, then NPR should change
those programs, or create new and better ones. Do them creatively, do them
imaginatively, do them with an ear toward appealing to more than a handful
of listeners—but do them.
Surely Teachout is not so naive as to think that some magical injection of
creativity and imagination is going to start sending the audiences for such
programs soaring. Very creative and imaginative people have been working for
many years on precisely this problem, with no visible success. Of all the things
which Kroc’s $200 million could be put towards, a desperate attempt to buy widespread
popularity for cultural programming would probably be the most quixotic. This
money represents an enormous opportunity for NPR; it shouldn’t be wasted on