Open University

Two Cheers For Public Radio


by Geoffrey Nunberg
You can think of this as special pleading, but with all respect to
Eric and David, I don't think American public radio needs
a whole lot of defending. On the whole, it does a terrific job of bringing news,
analysis, and cultural commentary to a large and appreciative public. It has developed
new formats of personal journalism--I'm thinking of "This American Life" and
"Soundprint," for example--that have few European equivalents. And while I have a
huge respect for the BBC, for whom I've done some features, I think any American
who regards the beeb with unmixed admiration should be required to spend a month
of mornings listening to "Wake Up to Wogan."

I'll grant you there are plenty of things I wish we did more of here, especially radio
drama and literary readings. True, there are people producing this stuff domestically
(see the
at the site for the Third Coast audio festival that's done out of
Public Radio), but not much of it gets national distribution. Drama doesn't seem to
work well in the American broadcasting context, where the presumptive listenership
consists of people who are sitting in their cars (which is why they call them "driveway
moments") and where broadcasters can't take advantage of an unbroken tradition of
home listening that antedates the advent of television. So most of
our public radio programming has to be morselized in a way that
allows you to consume it in snatches--variety shows like "Prairie
Home Companion," magazine shows like "All Things Considered," or
inteview and talk shows. And you could never expect American
audiences to tune in regularly to hear a show that was delivered in
installments, like the BBC's "The Archers," or "Book at Bedtime."

As for the absence of more "intellectual" programming, I agree
with Eric that this isn't a question of American academics being less
skilled than their British counterparts in speaking to a broader
audience. In our classroom lecture styles, at least, we Americans are
probably more at ease than the Europeans when it comes to striking a
folksy or demotic note, and there's certainly no shortage of American
academics who have been very successful at writing for a general
audience, among them a number of the people who blog right here. But
there are other cultural differences: The fact is that we don't
invest intellectual life with the same national significance it has
had in Europe, and probably for that reason don't make media stars of
our public intellectuals. (The difference between American and
European philosophers, a French friend of mine once observed, is that
"les intéllos français se font baiser.") For better or
worse--I know where my vote goes--we haven't produced many
media figures with the Q-ratings of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Umberto
Eco, or the Clive James types that "Monty Python" used to delight in
sending up. (Well, unless you want to count, like, Carl Sagan.)

But I also agree with David that there are economic and
institutional reasons for the dearth of intellectual programming. As
it happens, my sense is that there's actually something of a glut of
intellectually challenging content available, a lot of it subsidized
by universities and other institutions, but it's hard for it to get
wide exposure. To take one example, the Stanford philosophers John
Perry and Ken Taylor do a very engaging program called "Philosophy
" that runs at
10 a.m. Sunday on KALW in San Francisco. Each
week's broadcast is consecrated to a topic--"mental imagery," "dreaming," "legal
ethics," "philosophy of music," and so on--that Perry and Taylor
cover in "Car Talk"-style banter, interviews and phone-ins, along
with a taped segment called "The 60-Second Philosopher" from Ian
Schoales (Merle Kessler) of "Duck's Breath Mystery Theater" fame.
"Philosophy Talk" has been picked up by a few smaller stations in
California and by Oregon Public Radio, but it would be a tall order
for it to reach anything like broad national distribution. There's
simply too much competition for the time slots on most NPR
affiliates, particularly since most of them are obliged to devote a
large slice of their daily programming to multiple rebroadcasts of
the major news and interview programs and to crowd-pleasers like "Car
Talk," "Prairie Home Companion," and "The Thistle & Shamrock,"
in order to hang onto the kind of audiences that ensure the pledges
will keep rolling in.

The institutional roots of these national differences run very
deep, as Paul Starr has shown in The
Creation of the Media
. But I like to think that as the
proportion of people listening to radio via the Internet and podcasts
grows, it will be easier to aggregate respectable national audiences
for serious intellectual discussion, even if few local stations will
want to broadcast it. Radio plays and the like will be a harder row
to hoe, given the relatively high production costs, but maybe the NEA
or someone will decide to take a stab at supporting this some day. In
the meantime, people desperate for their daily fix of "The
," "Dante Vagante" or France Culture can score it

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