Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Will NPR Save Radio?

The jury is still out on the future of broadcast radio. If it is to survive, it will be NPR that saves it. That's right, after years of neo-conservative efforts to kill public anything, especially public broadcasting; NPR has emerged stronger, re-organized and increasingly relevant to popular culture on all levels. Which, of course, makes it much more threatening to the man.

I live and work in rural America, and I've got three different public radio services - all produced by a single, multi-state NPR affiliate - to chose from. Two FM stations: one a classical station, the other dubbed "Rhythm & News;" and, one AM station dubbed "News & Information." Talk about a broad range of specialized programming. Like many of my peers and colleagues, I wake up to "Morning Edition," and spend at least an hour every afternoon tuned in to "All Things Considered." And yes, I sometimes hang in my car long after I've parked just to hear the end of one of ATC's in-depth stories. Hasn't everyone?

NPR keeps me current in so many ways, like a regular screen refresh. I hear edgy, new music while many listen to oldies-but-moldies. I catch the BBC's World Service News. I laugh with Harry Scherer every week. His "apologies of the week" bit is one of the best regular radio installments in broadcast history. There are live shows like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Today" and "Talk of the Nation;" "Car Talk," and, well you know. Right?

Like the PBS TV broadcast service, NPR has recently updated its on-air personalities. While PBS is struggling with the transition, NPR has sailed through seamlessly. The service's new voices are already welcome additions to the family. And NPR blazes so many new trails, like their creative use of "sound" in all of their broadcasts. Their quirky, thematic and obviously very carefully selected musical interludes between stories have become so popular they have spawned their own series of CDs. Most NPR stories, especially those filed by field reporters, include a lot of the ambient sound that surrounds their many subjects - by design. They just get it. Their audio essays, like "This I believe," are another way that producers make their programming engaging and interactive. The recent NPR "Oral History Project" convoy even made it to southern Oregon and recorded the detailed stories of some of our most storied local veterans and orchardists. This is radio that touches our lives and tells our stories.

NPR member stations also provide valuable local programming. They are a resource to community- and arts-groups who seek to get their messages and events heralded to their local patrons. And they are an invaluable communications link in times of disaster or local emergency. Outstanding national programming, multiple services, comprehensive local coverage...that's what great radio is all about.

As I write, the administration is making yet one more run at the funding for public broadcasting. The federal government already provides the smallest amount of support among civilized, developed nations for this service that helps sustain an informed public and thus promotes democracy. Though minimal, that support is mission-critical. I've already signed a petition and contacted my congressman. I urge readers to tell their legislators to safeguard and preserve our public broadcasting resources. It really is a very small investment for such an enormous return. So NPR may save radio, but only if we save NPR.

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