Last week I received a letter in the mail from Iowa Public Radio asking for a donation. It has caused me to do some deep reflection on what media means to me and my family. Which should be supported and how much if at all. These are some of the thoughts that have been rolling in my mind and are not meant to be any sort of a precise history of NPR or IPR. Cloudy ruminations, that is all
I have been a listener to public radio since the early 1970s. I am not even sure when the WSUI became part of the National Public Radio network. Surely it was sometime around then. I had been an occasional listener to WSUI previously. We used to listen to Saturday morning comedy shows, occasional lectures and debates and believe it or not the best broadcast of Hawkeye football games. So when they moved over to NPR, I probably turned the radio on expecting one show and was pleasantly surprised.
I was raised with a radio in my ear and still have a radio on almost constantly day and night. In the early 70s NPR was a delicious change from commercial radio which was mostly crap and still is. Intelligent and thorough with an emphasis on truth. Stories were truly in depth and had a broad range. In an era before the internet this was one of the best places to keep up with what was going on and one of the few places to hear different views.
But that was then and this is now. Where once NPR was cutting edge these days they have been neutered. Where once stories were delved into deeply, today many stories are only given a neutered cursory mention. Of course in recent years there have been many other sources for news and information have sprung up. NPR more than held its own against cable news. Actually, NPR was the voice of sanity in the tower of babble that was and is cable news.
Sometime in the 1990s things changed dramatically. Where once public radio was allowed to do its own thing in pursuit of truth, in the 90s public radio became yet another pawn in the political wars fostered by Republicans looking to control any and all messages with little concern for truth. At the same time what was once a wonderfully diverse and I believe responsive set of public radio stations in Iowa began a process of shedding their individual identities to become a less responsive group called Iowa Public Radio.
The move to IPR was somewhat understandable. Republican wars on money for endeavors like public radio caused funding to be less stable and reliable. So like many companies, similar work within an organization was centralized thus cutting budgets. Sadly, much of the local flavor was lost in the process. Slowly the debates and lectures disappeared.
Along with budget cuts from Republican congresses came threats of total cutoff of funds. I can’t honestly say for sure that NPR was intimidated, but I could notice a change in the way stories were presented. The “he said, she said” type of stories that were the staple of cable news began to appear more frequently on NPR. There was less emphasis on drilling down and much more emphasis on “hearing both sides.” NPR had and still has a patina of ferreting out the truth. Thus when opinions that had once been thought extreme started to air on NPR it helped make the more extreme acceptable because NPR (with its reputation for truth) carried it.
I have a memory that may be wrong but somehow it is implanted in my brain. Driving to work one morning the news on NPR announced that Bob Edwards was leaving Morning Edition. Edwards had birthed Morning Edition. He was a newsman who could get to the very core of an issue and expose hypocrisy in just a couple of well fought out questions. Edwards had been there just short of 25 years. His loss would be huge. But there must have been good reason for NPR to make such a move.
Not sure of all the details, but from what I can remember Bob Edwards had stepped on some important toes during his interviews. He was replaced by Steve Innskeep. For me this was like trading in the cadillac to get a pinto. Innskeep was then and is now cheerful and bubbly. Deep he is not.
From that point there seems to have been a continuous slow downward spiral. Seems that a couple of NPR chairs have stepped down under pressure from some in congress over the past many years. With each change like this NPR seems to be more neutered and their news and stories become more bland. Often their stories seem to be incomplete, as if there are certain lines they can’t cross.
Let me say again if I haven’t made this clear, these are my thoughts on donating to NPR and not meant to be a precise history. Just my thoughts.
So now I have gone to having a radio in every room tuned to NPR to one in the bathroom and the kitchen. I have radio on in whatever room I am in so when in the kitchen preparing food the radio is on. But where once I would turn the sound up so I could hear it throughout the house, I now turn it off when I am done. Ten to fifteen minutes a pop, not hours on end like it used to be. Often I turn the computer on and listen to that instead. NPR and IPR are no longer the go to media. They now sit somewhere around fifth or sixth choice on the computer. They are still the top choice, really the only choice, on terrestrial radio, but honestly sometimes I just leave it off anymore.
Another thing that is greatly bothersome is the penchant to go to right wing sources as commentators. In the last month they have had experts such as Mike Gallagher and Erik Erikson as commentators. In my experience these are two of America’s most vile right wingers. They were given the patina of NPR approval. The Heritage Foundation is often gleaned for an expert on many subjects with only a description of “think tank” to describe Heritage. Douglas Holtz-Eakin is often called on for economic commentary. He was John McCain’s economic advisor. The NPR political commentator is Fox News Contributor Mara Liaison.
In contrast I can’t remember hearing any voices from the left commenting lately. Paul Krugman? Joe Stiglitz? Thom Hartmann? Since I seldom listen for long periods anymore maybe I have missed them. But I often start arguing with my radio if I listen too long these days. Often you can hear me say “tell the rest of the story,” as I did when a Chuck Grassley clip was played without comment where he stated that congress never considered a SCOTUS nominee for a lame duck president.
Lots of people want my money these days. I doubt very much that the paltry amount I can afford now would hold any sway with IPR. I do feel a little guilty, sort of like the feelings one has for an ex-spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. You wish them well, maybe don’t mind seeing them now and then. But they seem to be headed in a different direction than when we were young and happy. The ways of the world have changed ouyr mutual outlooks and, well, I just can’t support it when others are in much more need.