Good, Gray NPR

(The Nation, May 5, 2005)

In January 2002 National Public Radio launched The Tavis Smiley Show, a daily one-hour magazine program featuring a high-velocity mixture of commentary, reporting and analysis, and hosted by one of the most energetic and ambitious young media personalities in the country. The first new daily program produced at NPR in a generation, The Tavis Smiley Show was directed at an audience poorly served by public radio: African-Americans. According to NPR, it did quite well in terms of ratings. But the honeymoon didn't last: Smiley felt that NPR was not doing enough to promote his program among nonwhite listeners, and his contract negotiations with the network collapsed in late 2004, after which he went on the offensive against NPR. "It is ironic," he informed Time, "that a Republican president has an administration that is more inclusive and more diverse than a so-called liberal-media-elite network."

Smiley directed his firepower at an organization that has accomplished a great deal in recent years. Thanks in part to NPR's comprehensive foreign coverage, its listenership has soared since 9/11: In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, NPR gained (and has kept) nearly 4 million new listeners, and the network's various programs now reach 23 million listeners a week on more than 780 member stations. Morning Edition is now the most listened-to morning show in the country. As the listenership grew, so did the philanthropic largesse: In November 2003 NPR received a stunning $236 million bequest from the estate of Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.

But Smiley ruined the party both by calling attention to the shortcomings of an institution that emerged from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and by underlining the gap between NPR's rhetoric--in this case, about racial inclusion--and reality. The entity that calls itself National Public Radio, he reminded us, is not serving the entire public. "You'd be amazed," he told Salon, "at the number of people of color who do not know what NPR is."

In its journalism and its financial structure, NPR has indeed evolved into a somewhat different entity from what its founders envisioned. On May 3, 1971, it went on the air with the first broadcast of All Things Considered. The program began with a kaleidoscopic account of a major antiwar rally in Washington, DC, at which more than 6,000 people were arrested. "Excuse me," NPR's reporter asked a police sergeant attempting to quell the protests, "Is that a technique? Where the men actually try to drive the motorcycles right into the demonstrators?" Three decades later, rough-edged, in-your-face reportage has largely been supplanted by conventional punditry from the likes of Cokie Roberts, Daniel Schorr and David Brooks, and by consciously mainstream news reporting by correspondents whose voices are often indistinguishable from one another.

To some extent, financial and political pressures help to explain NPR's turn toward mainstream respectability and high-minded professionalism: NPR's founders had every expectation that public funds would cover the budget, but Republican hostility to public broadcasting thwarted those early hopes and dreams. Three decades after its creation, NPR now draws a significant portion of its funding from corporations such as Wal-Mart, Sodexho and Archer Daniels Midland. Likewise, NPR had sound journalistic reasons for turning away from its edgy, countercultural roots. Over the past decade, as media conglomerates dumped public-affairs programming in favor of "infotainment" and tabloid trash, NPR recognized the void and moved to fill it with high-quality news reporting. That news-oriented model, by drawing in listeners hungry for substantial coverage of politics and public affairs, has enabled NPR to thrive: Today, it continues to add correspondents and bureaus at a time when most other major news organizations are trimming them. A fair-minded evaluation must conclude that if NPR has turned its back on some of the values enshrined in its original mission statement, it has also, in other ways and despite enormous political pressure from its detractors, remained true to them as well.

But a price was paid on the road to respectability. With growth and stability has come stodginess, predictability and excessive caution. NPR was founded as an antidote to the mainstream media. Its founders had a unique journalistic and cultural vision that contrasted sharply with the values of establishment publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. As NPR began its transformation into a middle-of-the-road, "hard news" entity in the mid-1970s, some of the founders warned that the experiment could end badly, with NPR sounding like an aural equivalent of The Congressional Record. That didn't happen, but today's NPR does, at times, seem quite empty and soulless, very much like the eminent daily newspapers its executives venerate.

Some NPR veterans are acutely aware of what has been lost since NPR's birth in 1971. "Over the years, we've become much more sober," says Susan Stamberg, who was an early co-host of All Things Considered, and who remains a lively and mischievous presence at NPR today. "We've become the good, gray Times. They've put color on their front page"--Stamberg pauses for her trademark cackle--"but we're upholding the gray. We're not nearly as quirky as we used to be. And I miss it."

NPR came into existence almost accidentally. The 1967 legislation that gave birth to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was intended solely for public television, but a small group of 1950s-era professionals from the world of educational radio managed to slip the phrase "and radio" into the legislation. In doing so, they displeased the power brokers in the new universe of public broadcasting and contributed to their own exclusion from the new public radio entity, which fell into the hands of a younger generation of educational radio managers, a few of whom had direct ties to the 1960s counterculture.

Chief among them was Bill Siemering, who ran WBFO at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Under Siemering, WBFO provided coverage of the campus antiwar movement and the student strikes that were broken up by the police. But Siemering was interested in the world beyond the university: He set up a storefront studio in Buffalo's ghetto and encouraged local residents to learn the art of radio. He viewed public radio as a grassroots, bottom-up, somewhat anarchistic phenomenon.

It was Siemering who wrote NPR's original mission statement in 1970, which called for "some hard news, but the primary emphasis would be on interpretation, investigative reporting on public affairs, the world of ideas and the arts." NPR's mission statement was not a radical document but a liberal and populist one. And the founders had every desire to serve an alternative audience: "urban areas with sizeable nonwhite audiences," "student groups studying ecology," "groups with distinct lifestyles and interests not now served by electronic media." Siemering's document was something of a blueprint for NPR in its first decade, but as the years went by, management lost interest in it. Not long ago, outside archivists requested the document from NPR headquarters, but no copy could be found.

The first broadcast of All Things Considered led with the segment about the protest rally, followed by a zesty array of stories: a roundtable discussion with reporters from the Christian Science Monitor, which segued into a reading of two antiwar poems from the era of World War I; a dispatch from a barber shop in Iowa whose proprietor was reeling from lost income as more men chose to wear their hair long; a portrait of a nurse turned heroin addict; and, finally, a discussion between Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, about the merits and shortcomings of drug abuse.

That quirky mix more or less characterized NPR through the mid-1970s, when the arrival of president Frank Mankiewicz laid the groundwork for NPR's transformation into something much closer to a "hard news" organization. Mankiewicz brought financial resources and visibility to NPR, but he also brought conventional journalistic practices--for example, editors. Until 1975 or so, reporters at NPR had worked on their own, with minimal supervision and editorial guidance.

Of the changes ushered in by Mankiewicz, Jack Mitchell, in his new book, Listener Supported, writes, "Gone was the notion, so central to the thinking of the first NPR board, of public radio as the people's instrument. The vox populi became the voice of the best professionals." Some of those professionals--Nina Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer--had close ties to the Washington establishment. They were the sort of "coolly objective journalists" Siemering and his colleagues had hoped would steer clear of NPR. But Wertheimer & Co. were more or less in control by the time NPR collapsed financially in 1983.

That crisis resulted from financial incompetence and cuts in funding for public broadcasting, which hit public radio especially hard. Rescue came in the form of a substantial loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and from a vigorous fundraising drive by NPR's member stations. (Owing to the decentralized nature of public radio in the United States, the stations have a major say in how NPR does business. NPR itself owns no stations; it merely produces and distributes programming for the member stations. Some, like WNYC in New York and WBEZ in Chicago, produce programming that is regarded by many as often superior to NPR's.) Out of the crisis arose a new NPR--leaner, better managed, more news-oriented, more enamored of audience research and more eager to demonstrate to the world that it was no longer an alternative or countercultural institution.

Indeed, NPR executives had reason to be concerned about the network's image in Washington. Richard Nixon loathed public broadcasting, and nominated the ultraconservative industrialist Joseph Coors to the CPB board. Financially, public radio did well in the Ford and Carter years, but the arrival of Ronald Reagan led, in 1983, to a 20 percent reduction in the federal appropriation for public broadcasting. By the mid-1980s, NPR, still on shaky financial footing, was under pressure from political actors like the Heritage Foundation and The New Republic, which published a much-discussed attack on the network in 1986 by Fred Barnes, wherein he claimed that NPR had an inherent bias against conservatives and a reflexive sympathy for left-wing movements in Central America. Writing in Mother Jones in 1987, Laurence Zuckerman chronicled a series of newsroom conflicts over US intervention in Grenada and Nicaragua, conflicts that helped to determine the network's overall political direction in the Reagan era. At one point State Department officials complained that an All Things Considered segment was too critical of the US-backed contra rebels. Then-news director Robert Siegel, according to Mother Jones, invited those officials to lunch and concluded that the piece was indeed problematic. Gary Covino, who produced the controversial segment, told Mother Jones, "The way [Siegel] handled this story sent the message spoken and unspoken that this was not the kind of stuff NPR should be doing.... Many people picked it up very quickly and began censoring themselves."

NPR's coverage of the 1991 Gulf War marked the network's arrival into the media big leagues. With a million dollars from CPB and the member stations, NPR for the first time sent a team of its own correspondents to cover a war from the field. In the 1990s, as profit-hungry television and radio stations retreated from in-depth reporting on politics and public affairs, NPR endeavored to take over that role. It did so with considerable integrity and professionalism. Awards were racked up; new foreign and domestic bureaus were created. Educated listeners gravitated toward NPR in times of political ferment and, with few options available to them for serious news, stayed for the long haul. By the mid-1990s, NPR was finally in possession of the professional recognition it had long desired. "NPR does a really rich mix of reporting and coverage of the United States," says Martin Turner, who heads the BBC's Washington office. "It's a pretty high standard."

By and large, and with key exceptions, NPR's critics fall into three groups. There is little doubt that NPR is most concerned about the first, and most vocal, group: political conservatives. In 1994 Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans put public broadcasting on the chopping block, vowing to "zero it out" of the federal budget. The effort backfired, as viewers and listeners besieged Congress with calls and letters defending public radio and TV. Gingrich & Co. lost the battle to choke off public funds to NPR, but they probably emerged victorious in a larger quest: to anchor NPR in the political center. In a 1995 conversation with University of Maine professor Michael McCauley, who has written an authoritative new book, NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio, Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media admitted that he felt NPR aired less objectionable material in the 1990s than it did in the 1980s, when AIM first began to assail the network on ideological grounds. These days, Newt Gingrich himself is full of praise for NPR: "Either it is a lot less on the left," he remarked in 2003, "or I have mellowed." (NPR itself trumpets the Gingrich turnaround in its press packet as "an amusing fact.")

The second camp of critics consists of people who object to the way in which NPR has ceded political space to the likes of Barnes, Irvine, Gingrich and Pat Buchanan (who once dubbed NPR "an upholstered little playpen of our Chablis-and-brie set"). These critics see NPR as too mainstream, too spineless and timid, too deferential to power. They point to a revolving door between the US government and NPR (president Kevin Klose, for example, was formerly the head of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Martí and TV Martí); they lament the narrow range of political opinion on NPR (no current NPR commentator, they note, has the progressive credentials of the late Michael Harrington, who had a regular slot on NPR in the 1980s); and they point to NPR's campaign against low-power radio stations [see Rick Karr].

One does sense a creeping caution and conservatism at NPR over the past decade. In 1994 it engaged death-row inmate (and former WHYY radio reporter) Mumia Abu-Jamal to do a series of brief commentaries on prison life and the death penalty but soon reversed itself in the wake of a vigorous campaign from Senator Bob Dole and Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police ("A sterling parable for the new, mature NPR" was James Ledbetter's ironic description of the Abu-Jamal fiasco in his book Made Possible By...). In 1995 Andrei Codrescu, one of the few really pungent voices left on NPR, produced a commentary about Armageddon that drew 40,000 complaints from the Christian Coalition. To Codrescu's apparent dismay, NPR rushed to apologize for his segment, after which NPR executives informed Current, a trade newspaper, that they would step up their policing of the daily commentaries. In 2000 TV Guide and Current reported that NPR had allowed three officers from a specialized propaganda unit of the US Army based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to intern at its news programs over a nine-month period. At the time an NPR executive called the decision "a real goof."

Since 9/11 NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, has devoted a number of his columns at to the network's coverage of the Bush Administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's perhaps too early for a definitive assessment of NPR's reporting on these subjects, but what's clear is that quite a few listeners are dissatisfied with the coverage of George W. Bush and his foreign policy. Consider a recent missive from Richard Steinman, a research scientist at Columbia University. On the weekend of March 19, 2005, Steinman turned on his radio, looking for coverage of the demonstrations that marked the second anniversary of the Iraq War. In a subsequent letter to Dvorkin, Steinman recounted NPR's programming choices that weekend: "a 'patriotic,' feel-good West Point piece; sports fans' feelings toward a baseball player (yes, steroids); more feel-good filler about an Iraqi-American painter and her use of color; Bantu Refugees Adjust to New Lives in America. Quote from the story: 'we give the government of America the high five'; Army Chefs Battle for Best-Dish Honors; a singing physics professor."

NPR executives bristle at the implication that the programming is frivolous. "It is easy," says vice president of news and information Bruce Drake, "to carve out one small period or point of coverage and use it as a foundation for this kind of criticism--but it wholly ignores the large body of work that NPR has done over the last two years." Drake has a point: Much of NPR's Iraq reportage has indeed been of high quality, and he has the awards (including a Peabody) to prove it.

Yet listeners like Steinman are correct to ask searching questions about NPR and Iraq, especially since some of the network's luminaries have not been shy about expressing their own views on that subject. In October 2002 political correspondent Mara Liasson, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, assailed two Democratic Congressmen for traveling to Iraq. "These guys are a disgrace," she said. "Look, everybody knows it's...Politics 101 that you don't go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies and the President of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don't know, resign." In the same vein, Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon--who was an antiwar activist at the University of Chicago in the Vietnam era--wrote a swaggering essay for the Wall Street Journal editorial page on October 11, 2001, titled "Even Pacifists Must Support This War," and, in a March 2003 speech in Seattle, he reportedly expressed support for the US invasion of Iraq.

A third group of critics takes issue not so much with NPR's political orientation but with its monotonal sound quality; its often bland and homogeneous programming; its lack of aural experimentation; and its diminished cultural coverage--which, they note, was an integral part of NPR's founding mission. These critics, many of whom work in the world of public radio, lament that on the road to becoming a "primary news provider" NPR has neglected its original mission to provide a wide array of top-notch, eclectic cultural programming. (They note, as evidence of NPR's bias against innovative, artistic fare, that the network turned down two of public radio's most popular programs--Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and Ira Glass's This American Life, both of which found a home at rival distributors.)

"The notion that we are turning away from culture is not correct," says Klose, who cites programs like Performance Today, Jazz Profiles and a recent eight-part series on the state of regional theater as evidence of NPR's cultural vitality. Klose is right: Valuable cultural fare continues to flow from NPR. But the numbers show that news is clearly seen as more important: In 2002 NPR spent $41 million on news and information, and only $7 million on cultural and entertainment programming.

"The NPR drone" is how some staffers describe the network's overall sound, and many NPR watchers concur with that description. "If you listen to a lot of NPR," Brian Montopoli averred in The Washington Monthly in 2003, "you realize how similar it all sounds: no matter who is talking, or what they are talking about." Writing in the New York Times in 1998, Greil Marcus took blistering aim at NPR's leading hosts and newscasters, and wondered why, year after year, their work imparts a sense of "boredom with the world."

Klose takes issue with the notion that NPR is bland, detached and formulaic: "I think it's an urban myth," he says. "It's an armchair cavil that has no basis in fact." But at least one distinguished former NPR employee has a view closer to that of the critics. Two years ago Robert Krulwich, who many consider to be the network's finest correspondent from the late 1970s and early '80s, issued a blunt critique of NPR's programming--and, by implication, its audience--at a staff retreat. According to the notes of a staff member who was present at the talk, Krulwich made the following points:

Politesse. NPR desires to be polite, to maintain dignity. It doesn't challenge its sources or interviewees. There is room for reporters to stiffen when they hear a lie and poke back.
Scared of audience. The habits of your audience shouldn't be your habit. NPR writes too much for our expected listeners. We should disturb the audience occasionally. Tell them what they don't already know and what they don't want to hear.
No joy. A mature organization grows accustomed to itself. NPR has lost the willingness to play. You don't hear much that makes you laugh or as many tears. Too much in the mind. NPR needs more people who scream, suffer; people who are playing.

Might the Kroc money, by providing NPR with a solid financial cushion, pave the way for more quirky, spontaneous and risky programming? Says Susan Stamberg: "The Kroc money, actually, will probably reduce the quirk level even more, because with it we can pay for more and more sober reporters out in the field."

One subject on which the critics agree is that NPR can do much more to reach nonwhite listeners. In the 1980s audience research data urged public radio stations to concentrate on a specific type of well-educated, self-motivated individual. According to Jack Mitchell's Listener Supported, that data boiled down to the following: "success for public radio meant having great appeal to a subset of the population and none at all to the vast majority of the population." This helps to explain why nine out of ten NPR listeners are white. And these facts form the backdrop to Tavis Smiley's dispute with NPR. (It has to be said that the reasons behind Smiley's divorce from NPR remain murky: On one side is his assertion that NPR wasn't doing enough to promote the show. But NPR, which rushed to create a new black-oriented show hosted by Ed Gordon, claims that Smiley insisted on a $3 million promotional budget for his show, when its entire advertising budget is less than $200,000.)

In any case, some station managers saw Smiley's show as a vital bridge to nonwhite audiences, and they regret its disappearance from NPR's airwaves. One station manager in a major metropolitan market recalls a series of focus groups composed of African-American and Hispanic adults who had never before listened to public radio. He notes that they reacted indifferently to nearly all of the programming on his station--except for Smiley's show, whose energy and verve fully captured their attention.

"There is a belief out there that NPR has no interest in reaching African-Americans and Hispanics," says Maxie Jackson, program director of WETA in Washington, DC. "I don't believe that. I firmly believe that they would love to increase the audience of people of color for public radio programming. That is also true of Public Radio International and the other program suppliers. The problem lies in the fact that none of them have the research, the research budget, the marketing expertise and the communication strategy expertise to do that.... The biggest and fundamental issue at hand here is that none of these organizations have reached out to people of color in the past. None of them know how to do it."

Critics who wish to see NPR move in a more progressive direction are likely to be disappointed. At the moment, NPR's center of gravity is in the middle of the spectrum. Twenty-eight percent of NPR listeners, according to an internal document, consider themselves either "very conservative" or "somewhat conservative." Thirty-two percent defined themselves as "somewhat liberal" or "very liberal." But 29 percent chose the category "middle of the road." Given this data, NPR executives will no doubt play it safe in the years to come.

Indeed, the economic structure of public radio more or less guarantees a centrist editorial formula. Less than 2 percent of NPR's budget consists of funds from the taxpayer-funded CPB. (In the 1970s NPR received 90 percent of its budget from the CPB.) But the member stations, which in some sense "own" NPR, and on which NPR relies for much of its additional revenue, receive a hefty 12.7 percent of their budget from the CPB. To compensate for diminishing federal support, NPR has been forced to rely on corporations and foundations. In 2002, the last year for which data are easily accessible, NPR accepted $250,000 or more from each of the following corporate "underwriters": Procter & Gamble, Sodexho, Microsoft, Saab, Citibank and the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. Wal-Mart became an underwriter in 2004. Both NPR and Wal-Mart refuse to disclose the dollar amount. A public radio system that is substantially dependent on corporations will not, in all likelihood, produce a new generation of I.F. Stones, Jessica Mitfords and Sy Hershes to investigate chicanery in corporate America.

If it is relatively easy to discern NPR's (and public radio's) aversion to political risk-taking, it's somewhat more difficult to explain its resistance to freshening up its programming along the lines suggested by critics who crave innovative, sound-rich fare. NPR staffers interviewed for this article point a finger at NPR management in general and two sober executives in particular: Bruce Drake, the vice president of news and information, and Barbara Rehm, managing editor. Before coming to NPR, Drake worked at the New York Daily News for twenty-one years. Rehm is a ten-year veteran of the Daily News, after which she spent four years in the early 1990s at Voice of America. Staffers describe them as bureaucrats who possess a narrow political and cultural imagination. For years Drake has opposed the creation of an investigative unit, and NPR is currently without one.

Last May NPR hired, as a second managing editor, the highly regarded editor of the Baltimore Sun, Bill Marimow, who was fired from the newspaper after he raised one too many complaints about the Tribune Company's inexorable quest for high quarterly profits at its Baltimore property. Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for stories about police brutality, has overseen the creation of a number of new beats and staff positions, and he is pushing his reporters to do more investigative reporting and hard-hitting journalism. His main accomplishment so far is an award-winning series by Daniel Zwerdling that documented brutality against immigrants at New Jersey detention facilities. But NPR sources anticipate future discord between Drake and Marimow.

Regardless of what Marimow does, NPR's political reporting will undoubtedly remain relatively bland and cautious. But in a rapidly changing media landscape, it's not at all obvious that a play-it-safe editorial formula will enable NPR to prosper. The average listener is 50 years old and white. Down the road, will younger listeners embrace the polite reporting model that NPR currently adheres to? Possibly. But it's also possible that they will opt for tastier, more opinionated fare on the Internet or satellite radio, especially now that "podcasting," a way of posting audio content online, allows listeners to create their own radio menus.

One way, perhaps, for NPR to confront the challenge is by re-examining the values of its original mission statement, which called for interpretation (in contrast to strict adherence to "hard news" reporting), artistic innovation and gutsy investigative reporting. That approach points toward a journalism that pokes back at lies with outrage and indignation, and programming that is pungent, offbeat and passionate--qualities that NPR's competitors, Public Radio International and American Public Media, have brought to bear with outfits like the American RadioWorks documentary unit, and shows like Marketplace, This American Life, To the Point and The World (and as independent producers David Isay and Joe Richman have done on NPR itself).

What might fresher programming sound like? Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, who is one of NPR's more incisive critics, points to an All Things Considered documentary by Noah Adams on the origins of the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome." "As he traced the roots of the song," Dvorkin explains, "and how it so powerfully affected people, the documentary went live to Spelman College in Atlanta, where the school choir performed it straight into All Things Considered on Martin Luther King's birthday.... It showed the true power of radio and NPR at its best."

But change won't be easy, according to Bill Buzenberg, who was vice president of news and information at NPR from 1990 to 1997 and is now senior vice president of news at American Public Media. "NPR has a fear of doing kick-ass journalism at the highest level," he says. "They're not hungry enough."