Recently, the topic of National Public Radio has been abuzzing in these parts.
When I moved to the USA from Canada a few years ago, I looked forward to being able to listen to NPR. The rave reviews I had heard! "Car Talk"? Out of control!
Canada has a completely different public radio system-- the CBC-- that I regarded at the time with disdain. (Now, thinking back on its openness to leftist political perspectives, I really miss it). In the early days of our long-distance international courtship, when Femme Feral menaced Baltimore with her exquisite fabulousness, and I did my affluent despairing in Toronto, visits to my sweetheart were made even sweeter by the "exotic" NPR programming I could finally listen to. I really loved the Charm City public radio that I would hear in FF's tricked-out CRV.
I mean this totally sincerely... there were great public affairs shows, the awesome basso porfundo tag team of Diane Rehm and Daniel Schorr, and excellent local interest African American programs. There were also some of the best bluegrass and old-time shows I have ever heard, something for which the Baltimore/DC public radio was famous before the suits at NPR decided to axe music programming in favor of its now endless cavalcade of effete adenoidal pencilnecks. (But you can still find incredible NPR-affiliated old-time music programming online if you look hard enough, like Dick Spottswood's awesome weekly show on WAMU, free to listen to! Go to: http://www.wamu.org/programs/ds/)
Ironically, the best TV depiction of the horrorshow that NPR has become is on HBO's The Wire, set in Baltimore. Two of the African American drug dealers are riding in a van, heading out of Baltimore on an errand. Suddenly, the hip-hop radio station they are listening to starts cutting out, and the younger of the two, Bodie, starts to complain that the radio is broken. Having never left inner-city Baltimore, he is unaware that radio stations change outside the city limits. Frantic to find something to listen to, he twists the dials until he finds a clear signal... and lands on a particularly nauseating Garrison Keillor monologue from A Prairie Home Companion. The camera lingers for a moment on his face, and captures his sense of incomprehension and alientation.
I can really relate to Bodie! The world depicted by NPR is remote not just from inner-city African Americans, but to everybody who is not a white, middle-class, property-owning, two-party system loving, university-educated, Sunday Times crossword-attempting, L.L. Bean catalogue-ordering, Norah Jones-digging professional. The mainstream media tends to think that all of America either fits this demographic, or desires to, or is a mindless hillbillly who votes for Bush and goes on dates with his sister.
I cannot tell you all how much I hate this cultural construct.... what a betrayal it is of democratic, populist principles, what an odious example it is of the arrogance and hubris of middlebrow intellectuals. Public radio-- owned by the public and responsible, in theory to all Americans-- obviously should not serve only the tiny slice of citizens who work with their brains, are not subject to the arbitrary whims of management, and summer in the Hamptons. NPR would make you think, just like any small town newspaper owned and controlled by the local Chamber of Commerce, that the only local history worth knowing is that of the annual rubber-band ball rolling contest. That the proper posture towards the powerful is deference and submission. That cooptation of public space and the disappearing commons by petroleum corporations, union-busting big box megaexploiters, and the ethanol lobby is just fine so long as a few palms get greased.
Like a row of delightful fisherman figurines in a quaint New England tourist trap, NPR invites only one rational response: fuck you.
For real good online radio, Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! really rocks! (www.democracynow.org).