Radio receives little critical attention. Of the various methods for communicating ideas and emotions—books, newspapers, visual art, music, film, television, the Web—radio may be the least discussed, debated, understood. This is likely because it serves largely as a transmission device, a way to take other art forms (songs, sermons) and spread them out into the world. Its other uses can be fairly pedestrian too: ball games and repetitive, if remarkably effective, right-wing commercial talk radio. Rush Limbaugh is the radio ratings champ; according to the industry’s trade journal he reaches 14.25 million listeners in an average week. Sean Hannity, working the same turf, trails him slightly.
But an equally large audience turns to the part of the dial where public radio in its various forms can be found. Public radio claims at least 5 percent of the radio market. National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week. These NPR shows have far larger audiences than the news on cable television; indeed, all four television broadcast networks combined only draw twice as large an audience for their evening newscasts. Morning Edition and All Things Considered are supplemented by well-regarded programs like The World, a BBC coproduction with Boston’s WGBH, and the business broadcast Marketplace—programming produced outside of NPR itself but within the larger world of public radio. In polls, public radio is rated as the most trusted source of news in the nation. The audience for most of its programs dwarfs the number of subscribers to the The New York Times or The New Yorker, or the number of people who read even the biggest best sellers.
About one in ten Americans tune in to public radio each week; if you landed in a spaceship someplace in America searching for thoughtful and nonpartisan culture, your first stop would be the public radio stations that usually show up below 92 on the FM dial. You’d find not just the big news shows but also a variety of call-in shows: national ones, like On Point, The Diane Rehm Show, or Talk of the Nation, with its much-loved Science Friday edition, but also a number of superb local talk programs, with hosts like Leonard Lopate and Brian Lehrer in New York, Michael Krasny in San Francisco, Steve Scher in Seattle, Larry Mantle in L.A.—the list is very long.
These differ from the commercial right-wing shows in that they daily feature guests from a wide spectrum of American political and cultural life: on the morning I’m writing this, for instance, Tom Ashbrook of On Point in Boston spent an hour discussing the rise of social gaming on Facebook, Krasny covered “the troubled construction industry,” and The Leonard Lopate Show examined the current state of the company Google. The sine qua non of these efforts is Terry Gross’s relentlessly intelligent interview show Fresh Air, which is based in Philadelphia, has been running for thirty-five years, is syndicated to more than 450 stations, and claims nearly 4.5 million listeners.
And yet very little gets written about public radio. We have no equivalent of the late and lamented British magazine The Listener, which combined independent commentary with essays and features that had originally been broadcast as radio pieces; even NPR’s own (excellent) journalism forum, On the Media, usually concentrates on television or print. There’s no well-known radio equivalent of the Emmys or the Grammys or the Oscars (or even the Tonys). In a sense, I think, this reflects public radio’s smooth professionalism—it’s gotten so good at its basic task that it’s taken for granted, a kind of information utility.1
I talked recently with Robert Krulwich, who first joined the NPR network just a few years after All Things Considered went on the air in the Nixon era and now cohosts the public radio program Radiolab, and he remembers those days as filled with invention:
Radio was dead—it was top 40. All the smarties were at the Times or The Washington Post, or if you didn’t want to be Woodward and Bernstein you went to work for Walter Cronkite at the Tiffany network. This group of nutty people wandered in and said, let’s do radio. We’ll reinvent it. Jump thirty-five or forty years ahead and where is Walter Cronkite? What happened to The Washington Post? And guess what, the nutty radio people have suddenly emerged as the focus for a huge audience. And now they have a little of the swagger of the Timesmen.
All that success has tended to wash out some of the distinctiveness. Another All Things Considered veteran, former senior editor Brooke Gladstone, who now cohosts On the Media, put it like this:
As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seek to balance the four humors (so as not be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, or melancholy) by blood-letting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.2
In the rest of the public radio world, however, there’s invention underway at an unprecedented pace. Those who restrict their listening to Morning Edition and All Things Considered are well informed—there’s no better news operation in English-language broadcasting. But they are missing a quite different world, one that’s never been richer or, thanks to the Internet, easier to access.
The most important name in that other world is Ira Glass, the inventor of the show This American Life. He learned his craft at the big NPR news shows and slowly developed a powerful style that centered on storytelling. There was a group of others—like Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (known as the Kitchen Sisters), David Isay, and Jay Allison—who had long been producing remarkable programs, including segments for the flagship news shows, extended features, ranging from quirky accounts of family kitchen rituals to politically minded portraits of juvenile prisoners. The best ones came to be called “driveway moments,” because listeners were so hooked that they would linger in their cars to hear the end of a piece even once they’d gotten home. In fact, NPR now packages CD collections of these beloved pieces.
But Glass figured out that he could make a weekly hour entirely of this kind of radio, dispensing with traditional news and talk; and since 1995, under the wing of Chicago station WBEZ, that’s what he’s done in This American Life. “During the early days, Ira would always say, ‘I just put a piece on our show that was rejected by All Things Considered.’ He was really proud of that,” recalls Torey Malatia, president of WBEZ. The pieces were often long—sometimes one would fill an entire hour. And they sounded odd: Glass himself doesn’t exactly have a Bob Edwards radio voice, but some of the people who joined his ensemble (the wonderful Sarah Vowell, Joe Richman, Scott Carrier, and others) wouldn’t even have gotten an interview at the smallest commercial radio station. What they shared, besides wit and intelligence, was a commitment to covering the 330 degrees of life that didn’t show up on the newscasts. It’s about life the way most of us experience it, where heartbreak or lunch is as important as stock prices or distant revolutions.
In Robert Krulwich’s account, “Ira comes along and says, ‘Why don’t I cover things that don’t involve governors?’” In its first year This American Life did shows on themes like “Simulated Worlds,” which included a nineteen-minute segment where Glass took the University of Chicago medievalist Michael Camille to dinner at a restaurant in a fake castle called Medieval Times, where you ate with your hands and watched jousting contests. (Camille concludes, with the generous spirit that usually marks the show, that “despite inaccuracies the restaurant captures something essential and interesting about the Middle Ages.”) Right from the start, word spread quickly, especially since the launch of the program more or less coincided with the ability of the Internet to spread audio files, albeit slowly and clunkily at first. The program shows no sign of weariness fifteen years later. This past season has a classic hour-long report on the life of a rest stop along the New York State Thruway and an account of a Chinese man who spends every weekend talking suicides off a high bridge near Nanjing. “It turned a lot of people my age and younger on to radio,” I was told by a prominent young producer. “Now young people come to the radio with the idea that it’s cool. ‘Cool’ and ‘radio’ in the same sentence is a whole new phenomenon.”
Glass himself is more modest, but he does note that a generation has grown up listening to the show, which means that when new interns arrive it no longer takes a year to train them. “Now they get it right away,” Glass told me. “They understand it’s unlike the old public radio reporting where characters weren’t characters. They get that we need arc, emotions. That’s now not a crazy thing.”
The years since have seen a cascade of new work emerging, some of it confined to a single radio station but all of it available quite easily via podcast. You can hear much of the best on shows like Studio 360 (which covers culture from Iranian rock and roll to novelist Gary Shteyngart to a convention of black banjo players in rural North Carolina) or Hearing Voices (tour a mosque, visit the Crow Reservation), or in NPR features like Radio Diaries, or in documentaries from Homelands Productions about the daily grind of work for people ranging from a thirteen-year-old Bangladeshi in a shipbreaking yard to a low-end Bulgarian nightclub singer.
It’s not all about or by newly minted hipster urbanites. Wisconsin Public Radio has for many years produced and syndicated the low-key and in-depth To the Best of Our Knowledge, and from Alaska comes from the remarkable Encounters, which is mostly just nature writer Richard Nelson out in the Alaskan wild with a microphone. Radio Open Source features the passionate radio veteran Christopher Lydon in conversation with a variety of contemporary intellectuals, among them David Bromwich, Nicholas Carr, and the psychologist Paul Bloom.3 “There’s a small world of heartfelt passionate people trying to do big work,” says Julie Shapiro, who runs the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a yearly gathering of the audio tribe in Chicago. Her Third Coast colleague Gwen Macsai hosts Re:sound, an ear-opening weekly show of the best material from around the English-speaking world: a recent show on “water,” for instance, featured the story of an Adriatic ocean liner turned into a Toronto restaurant and an “audio composition featuring bell buoys recorded while kayaking in Portland Harbor.” You can listen to people starting out at Transom.org, a website designed to teach newcomers and showcase their work, and if your local radio station doesn’t air much of this material, you can assemble your own listening schedule quite easily at PRX.org, the Public Radio Exchange, which serves as a middleman for independent producers and local stations. The sheer abundance of programming will stun you—dozens of new shows are uploaded every day, most of them owing at least a little to the aesthetic unleashed by This American Life.
1 Taken for granted, but not always understood. Though listeners often refer to their "NPR station," in fact public radio licenses are usually held by a college. The individual stations buy programming from a variety of sources, including National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and other smaller consortiums. Most of the funding for public radio comes from individual listeners and local business underwriters; 10 percent comes from the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a percentage that has declined sharply over the last four decades. ↩
2 Quoted in an essay in a new book from Duke's Center for Documentary Studies: Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). ↩
3 I should note that as the author of thirteen books I've appeared on many of the shows described here; that indeed they've been the intellectual oases amid the desert that is a book tour. ↩
Taken for granted, but not always understood. Though listeners often refer to their “NPR station,” in fact public radio licenses are usually held by a college. The individual stations buy programming from a variety of sources, including National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and other smaller consortiums. Most of the funding for public radio comes from individual listeners and local business underwriters; 10 percent comes from the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a percentage that has declined sharply over the last four decades. ↩
Quoted in an essay in a new book from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies: Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). ↩
I should note that as the author of thirteen books I’ve appeared on many of the shows described here; that indeed they’ve been the intellectual oases amid the desert that is a book tour. ↩