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NPR Under the Gun

elitist, snobby, condescending and annoying, NPR - under attack by the Republicans - is still the best thing on the air

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 07, 1995.

Public Radio faces a Republican world with its back to the wall. The threatened cut off of federal funding has suddenly panicked broadcasters in radio and TV who find commercials repulsive but mordant begging something of a turn on. Even those of us addicted to public radio share the hollow feeling that its golden era is over and the piper has his hand out.

On CBS’ 60 Minutes, the stars of National Public Radio did not shine last Sunday when interviewed by Dan Rather. They don’t get it. They actually think a regressive taxation is feasible and fair in order to produce programs for the few and well educated. The hypocrisy of public radio - long whispered, seldom dwelt upon - is that it is community supported but only at guilt and gun point. If public radio ceased broadcasting today, the vast majority of America would never notice, much less care.

It’s too bad, for NPR and stations like KGNU provide more genuinely interesting and positive people stories than Charles Kuralt ever did and far more than any reactionary television news team trying to ingratiate itself with conservative corporate sponsors. Why, then, is public radio labeled elitist and snobby by the Republicans and - worse - why does it stick? Why is that the reason above all others that burns through the conflict? I’ll tell you. NPR is snobby and it continues to view the typical American as an anthropological curiosity: insane, sentimental, worth a chuckle and a pat on the head. And even in its genuinely touching pieces the broadcasting nuts don’t fall far from the tree, which is an aged East Coast Oak of old money and professional liberalism. Let me define a professional liberal: that’s someone who would adopt a minority group infant and raise it, but never leave the child alone in the house because he’ll steal.

It’s a shame that NPR is going away, so pruned it will be unrecognizable, a shame because it is so unnecessary. NPR never made an effort to market itself to the communities it talked about. It consoled itself with symphonic music leavened with acceptable ethnicity like bluegrass music and gospel. And it never made an effort to reach beyond ethnic yuppiedom, or much beyond New York.

NPR has been a lightening rod for conservatives, anti-Semites, anti-intellectual and religious zealots, which I consider a sign of good taste but which may not be good journalism. What is happening to National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and all except KGNU because of its wiser-than-me stewardship was clearly seen a decade ago, and no effort was made to cultivate a new base. Even Mark Russell suddenly says well, maybe a few commercials if it comes to it. The problem here is attitude. NPR doesn’t really want to be popular. It wants to be snobby and the fake or over pronounced accents of Sylvia Pajole and others only highlights the problem. For example, NPR has no trouble putting on Car Talk, but why has it turned down Rush Limbaugh or others like him?

The great change in broadcasting in the last decade has been in conservative talk radio and our supposed national communities; our national public communities of the air never noticed, denied it, got huffy and so face oblivion. Shameful, shortsighted stewardship.