On Valentine's Day, NPR's All Things Considered ran a two-and-a-half-minute segment about Justin Bieber fans gone wild. When the teen star lost at the Grammys to Esperanza Spalding, a few of Bieber's aggrieved minions defaced the jazz singer's Wikipedia entry, changing Spalding's middle name to "Quesadilla" and telling her to "go die in a hole." ATC anchor Michele Norris talked about the incident with Linda Holmes, the network's pop culture blogger. Norris sounded amused. As close listeners of NPR know, the hosts draw on a wide vocal range to signal a story's emotional tone; Norris and her colleagues can go from sounding alarmed to intrigued to positively delighted over the course of a two-hour show. For the Bieber segment, Norris' tone said, We understand this is a light story, but you know what, we've just heard about protests in Egypt and the apocalyptic federal budget, so why don't we take a break with Justin Bieber before getting on to that piece about poverty in America?
Not all listeners got the message. "Was it really necessary to spend any time, even four minutes, on one account of teenagers being mean to people online?" wrote a listener from Olympia, Wash. "I hope ATC isn't turning into a tabloid!" tsk-tsked someone else. Another Valentine's story—a three-minute piece about Mattel's new marketing campaign for Ken and Barbie—elicited yet more anger. "For a few seconds, I felt my ears were deceiving me on two fronts," said a guy from Beverly Hills. "One, that I was hearing an April Fool-type story when I thought it was Valentine's Day. And second, that my radio had somehow mysteriously changed from NPR to a commercial channel."
I'm an NPR groupie. I listen to public radio for several hours a day—more often than I watch TV, more often than I do actual work. There's only one thing I hate about my daily companion: my fellow listeners. Not all of them—just the ones who write in to complain whenever anything related to pop music, celebrities, technology, or other subjects that appeal to people under 40 comes across their precious wireless.
For proof that NPR letter-writers are the stodgiest, whiniest, most self-importantly insufferable snobs of all time, just search through the network's archives, which records the letters that All Things Considered and other NPR shows read on-air once or twice a week. Among the many, many topics that listeners have deemed off-limits for NPR, you'll find blogging ("another example of the slow decline of our once-educated society"); Tiger Woods ("what a waste of my time"); the National Enquirer (NPR's citing it as a source "shook me to the core"); adulterous Gov. Mark Sanford ("Can't NPR reporters find more important events going on in the world?"); comedians Adam Carolla and Mo Rocca; the rapper Waka Flocka Flame ("For this, I donate part of my precious pension?"); Twitter ("the CB radio of our era—just as much hype, just as much lasting impact"); Bristol Palin ("The only thing this story provoked me to do was change the station"); Levi Johnston ("We do not care about this subject"); Mel Gibson ("Shame on the producers of ATC for allowing such a scrape at the very bottom of the barrel"); heavy metal legend Dio ("You didn't have to do it just because he died recently"); e-books (they can't compare to "the smell of new paper"); the iPad ("a foolish waste of time"); the thought of children using the iPad ("Hopefully, this will be followed up by an uplifting story about the great things that are happening to children in the realm of outdoor play and unhooking from screen time"); and, perennially, sports. "You can't mention sports without someone saying, 'Why are you covering sports—it's just a bunch of Neanderthals, it's just a bunch of fascists!' " says NPR sports correspondent (and Slate sports podcast " Hang Up and Listen" panelist) Mike Pesca.
For many years, I ignored such letters. I'm 32, but I generally share the sensibilities of folks much older than myself—I watch NewsHour and go to bed at 9:30—so I'm used to encountering people who frown on anything produced after 1981. I blew my top, though, when I heard listeners' responses to Michael Jackson's death. NPR ran several fine pieces about Jackson, my favorite being a segment in which fans around the world sang their own versions of Jackson's hits. The report was sweet, touching, and a creative use of the network's far-flung correspondents—NPR at its best. The letter-writers hated it. All Things Considered devoted two spots to complaints from listeners who thought that Jackson's death—the biggest pop culture news of 2009—was inconsequential. "Et tu, NPR? I thought you would offer a safe refuge from the barrage of Michael Jackson coverage on every other media outlet, but alas, no," said a woman from Pennsylvania. What about "Uyghur unrest in China, fighting in Mogadishu and dozens of deaths in Afghanistan?" wrote another listener. Clearly not given to hyperbole, he added, "If Jackson had lived in ancient Rome, would Nero have moonwalked while his city burned?"
Since then, I've grown to hate these listeners. Oh, I hate them, hate them, hate them. Every time one of their narrow-minded, classist letters makes it on the air, I contemplate burning my tote bag in protest. The problem, for me, isn't just that some people don't like some things NPR covers. It's that these reflexively snobby pseudo-intellectuals see NPR as their own—a refuge from the mad world outside, a "safe," high-minded palace that should never be sullied by anything more outré than James Taylor (whom, of course, they love). Not only do these letter-writers perpetuate the worst caricature of public radio, but their views don't track with what you actually hear on the air. Over the years, public radio fans have heard Terry Gross interview Gene Simmons and Ira Glass confess his love for Howard Stern.
If these snoots love public radio as much as I do, then one of us must be missing the boat about what public radio is supposed to be about. Is it me, or them?
It's them. Over the last couple of weeks I've spoken to several people who work at NPR and elsewhere in public radio, as well as people who've studied the public radio audience. After all these conversations, I've concluded that the letter-writers' views don't represent most of us who listen to public radio. Their correspondence is the product of a psychology particular to public radio—since they spend so much time with the radio, and because they even donate to keep it alive, they believe it should reflect their high-brow passions.