Misinterpreting Greg

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

airplay anywhere.

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

pipe dreams.

This entry was posted in Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Misinterpreting Greg

  1. Michelle says:

    I like Car Talk. Is Teachout implying it’s unworthy of publicly funded radio? It’s completely educational and entertaining at the same time, who else is going to explain how to skip gears when driving older cars or problem solve buying a new transmition. I think it’s facinating stuff, and I don’t even own a car!

  2. tim says:

    I hope the Kroc money doesn’t impact their news coverage of McD’s, mcjobs, mcmansions, etc. Even unconsciously.

  3. Sporkadelic says:

    Michelle, I remember when car care shows were a fixture of local AM radio. Most stations ran them on Saturdays (no, the idea didn’t originate with Car Talk.) I’d guess shows like this still exist, but now they have to compete with a nationally marketed product. (They’ve also been crowded out to some extent by conservative talk programming.) Sure, Car Talk is vastly entertaining, but isn’t the purpose of public radio to offer something that’s not available from commercial broadcasters?

  4. Sporkadelic says:

    Felix, do I understand you to say that commercial radio news programs generally lean right? Not *commentary* but *news*? I’ve heard reasonably balanced newscasts, local and network, even on stations that do little else but right-wing talk. On NPR, though, it seems to me it’s the other way around: the news leans left, but the commentary does include conservative and libertarian voices.

  5. Felix says:

    Good points, Spork. You’re probably right that commercial local radio stations have relatively good walls between news and commentary. But although their newscasts might be balanced, they’re a bit like local television news, in that they simply don’t have the time or the money to produce high-quality, in-depth features, documentaries or even virtually anything in the way of original reporting. In terms of news, there really is very little duplication between its news offerings and those of rival radio stations.

Comments are closed.