It has been a bad time for the network of a million tote bags. In October, NPR commentator Juan Williams was fired for saying that people in Muslim garb on airplanes frightened him. Earlier this month, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller, caught in James O'Keefe's sting operation, called Republicans "anti-intellectual" and Tea Partiers racist. (Although it soon became clear that O'Keefe had edited his tape to exaggerate Schiller's comments.) Then his non-consanguineous boss Vivian Schiller was forced out. And then House Republicans voted to defund NPR.
I'll leave it to others to decide whether NPR needs better leadership. NPR's own ombudsman makes that case pretty well. But whatever its leadership's failings, NPR itself is not troubled or failing (and I'm not just saying that because I have been an NPR commentator, and on occasional, an unpaid host). To the contrary, NPR is the most resounding media success story of the past 40 years.
There are media companies with greater reach than NPR—and with larger profits, since NPR is a nonprofit. But the Huffington Post and Fox News, to take two examples, are in growing mediums: the web and cable news. NPR, by contrast, has thrived on FM radio during the era in which FM radio has lost audience, not to mention cachet. For the most part, terrestrial radio has become a dreary wasteland, littered with the tumbleweeds of safe, adult-contempo and pop-country playlists, with few local DJs, even fewer local-news operations, and most programming done off-site by consultants and by schmaltzy evening hosts like John Tesh and Delilah. During precisely the years that FM radio has lost the diversity and the free-form progressivism of its 1970s heyday, NPR, which debuted in 1971 with live coverage of Senate hearings on Vietnam, has steadily gotten more adventurous, more popular, better.
Here, it is instructive to compare NPR's history with that of its hideous, ugly televised brother, PBS.
In the mid 1970s, NPR was still fairly inconsequential. It broadcast All Things Considered every afternoon, but otherwise had very little daily programming. Many of its affiliates carried weekend fare like Prairie Home Companion, which debuted in 1974 and is not produced by NPR proper. Most affiliates played classical music during much of the weekday. That was nice, of course—I love classical music and actually regret that most NPR stations now play very little of it—but music is what many of those stations had done before they linked up with NPR, so the network hardly improved their offerings. By 1977, there were about 200 NPR stations. The flagship Morning Edition did not premiere until 1979.
Even then, many NPR stations initially did not carry Morning Edition. The older liberals who are now a core of the NPR audience were in many cases very attached to the jazz, classical, or folk music that they could get only on these small local stations. It was not yet an accepted fact that people wanted to be talked at, even by informed news reporters, every waking hour. I am old enough to remember how many people in Western Massachusetts were despondent when Morning Edition banished our beloved classical show, Morning Pro Musica, which originated in Boston and was hosted by the bass Robert J. Lurtsema, famous for his extremely … long … pauses.
Meanwhile, PBS, also born in 1970, almost immediately learned to fly. It aired lauded children's education shows, like Sesame Street, which had debuted on proto-PBS stations in 1969, and Electric Company, which PBS commissioned and began airing in 1971. It imported good English television, often through its Masterpiece Theater series. In 1971, PBS took over Firing Line, William F. Buckley's combative and exciting interview show. It offered a serious, long-form evening newscast with The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which started in 1975. Like other television networks, PBS did not produce all of its shows, but it had the good sense to air shows like NOVA, which were produced by member stations or independent producers.
Today, it can be difficult to find what ambitious, interesting programming there is on PBS. Earlier this month, I tuned in a few times and was greeted by Antiques Roadshow, a doo-wop concert that I have seen before while channel-surfing, and—several times—the financial advice of Suze Orman. From those glimpses, it seemed that an average evening on PBS had all the intelligence of VH1 and all the youth appeal of CBS.
That may have been an unfair sampling. Last week, for example, I found a NOVA episode about the disaster in Japan; a show about the abuse of queer youth in the juvenile justice system; and a Frontline special about the influence of big money in the NCAA. But even in its best weeks, PBS lacks any sort of coherent sensibility. At a time when the most successful networks have an obvious style—the illicit, pervy edge of Showtime's Weeds and Californication; the fine-grained realism of HBO's best dramas—PBS shows are defined variously by shameless baby-boomer pandering of the self-help or nostalgia variety, by a kind of earnest love of newsy documentaries, or by old-school PBS Anglophilia.
Meanwhile, beyond its intelligent, serious news coverage, NPR—and its member stations, which are free to buy shows not produced by the NPR mothership—have become home to many spectacular radio serials: This American Life, Radiolab, Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered, and the list goes on. There is still a rump of NPR clichés—I have never been particularly moved by Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion, and I refuse to like Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me until they invite me to be a panelist. But those shows are the starting point for NPR in 2011; they aren't the entire product. The network clearly knows that for all the love listeners show Garrison Keillor, NPR at its best is quirky and cerebral, in the style of Ira Glass and Robert Krulwich.