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When the best radio isn’t radio

Bill McKibben has an excellent essay – “All Programs Considered” – in the forthcoming New York Review of Books where he asks why radio doesn’t receive the same critical scrutiny as film, books or even television. Most of his piece focuses on public radio in the US, where McKibben feels certain the good stuff is located: “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.” (For those non-US readers out there, lower FM frequencies in the US tend are usually non-commercial, while those above 92 are commercial and advertising-supported.)

McKibben points out that public radio reaches a huge audience – 1 in 10 Americans in any given week – and that NPR’s flagship shows, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” have audiences larger than cable news networks, and challenges the size of national television news programs. A recent Pew Research study suggests that, while radio listenership is following, Americans spend an average of 15 minutes a day listening to radio, which makes it the second-most consumed news medium after television news.

So why don’t we have a culture of reviewing around it, as we do around books or movies?

McKibben’s explanation is that we tend to think of the medium as a utility, a way to take other media – music, sports, news – and bring them to audiences through a particular channel. As such, we may be missing a revolution taking place: the rise of creative new radio programming that’s breaking new ground in news reporting, civic media and storytelling. McKibben goes on to celebrate some of the stars of this new space: Ira Glass and This American Life, Benjamen Walker, the Radio Lab guys, Brooke Gladstone and On the Media, the Sound Opinion fellas…

I think McKibben is actually celebrating two different sides of public radio in his piece. The public radio with huge reach is the one James Fallows celebrates in a recent post for The Atlantic, where he reflects on the firing of Juan Williams. Fallows points out that NPR isn’t the liberal Fox News – as much some commentators want to make it out to be. This public radio – mostly represented by NPR’s flagship shows – is one of the most powerful and constructive forces in contemporary American journalism. As Fallows points out, in an age where foreign bureaus are being cut to the bone, NPR has a fantastic global preference, a dedication to covering complex stories and the willingness to correct mistakes. It’s an incredible service and when I pay membership dues to my local public radio station (okay, not my local radio station, which is run by an egomaniacal station manager who somehow manages to appear as either guest or host on roughly half the shows – I support the NPR station in the next valley – WFCR/WNNZ), that’s what I’m supporting.

What McKibben’s celebrating, primarily, isn’t radio per se – it’s narrative audio content. Here’s the distinction, as I see it. Radio is live, and highly perishable. In Rick Bass’s “Winter: Notes from Montana” (I believe – I’m on the road and don’t have the book in front of me), the author mentions jonesing for NPR, which doesn’t reach his isolated mountain cabin. Friends offer to tape his favorite shows and he turns down the offer, explaining that it would be too painful – the beauty of radio, for him, is that another person, somewhere, is alive and speaking at that very moment.

That’s a powerful and important function of radio. But it’s not what I get from many of my favorite programs. The Memory Palace, perhaps my favorite new “radio program” is a set of miniature, jewel-like historical narratives, many from 19th century American History. It’s hard to imagine them airing on the airwaves… though any radio station that regularly aired these stories would immediately deserve a preset on my car radio. The only connection I can make between them and conventional public radio is that they’re produced by Nate DiMeo, who has reported some excellent stories for APM’s Marketplace. And since they’re stories from the distant past, there’s no apparent urgency to them, other than the urgency of a great story, the desire to know how it turns out.

Programs like The Memory Palace – along with This American Life, Too Much Information, Radio Lab, the Moth and a precious few others – don’t get filed with “radio” in my head – they get filed alongside The New Yorker, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Granta… other places I encounter long narratives that capture my attention and imagination. I don’t see this new form of audio competing with conventional radio. For me, it takes time from film, television series, novels, online essays. (And, in general, it’s not taking away from other media – it’s narrative that I can encounter when I’m doing something that demands my hands, but not the majority of my mind: mowing the lawn, painting a room, driving.)

I think that long-form narrative may be as important, in the long run, as the fact-based reporting, though they’ve got utterly different functions. The power of great narrative is that it can get you to pay attention to people, places and ideas that you had no previous interest in. The classic example of this is This American Life’s “The Giant Pool of Money“, which somehow managed to make America’s mortgage securitization crisis both comprehensible and compelling. The example I like to use is “No Island is an Island“, a story by Jack Hitt about the Pacific island of Nauru, and its improbable role in selling off the assets of the Soviet Union in a newly capitalist Russia. I’d never thought of Nauru before the piece – I know find that I’m strangely attuned to it, and perk up every time I catch the rare mention in the news. (The island is a powerhouse in weightlifting, and Yukio Peter just won a gold for the nation in the recent Commonwealth Games…) I find it wholly unsurprising that Hitt at least as well known as a magazine writer and essayist as he is as a radio producer.

Why does this matter? Business models, for one thing. NPR’s news programs are doing okay through a syndication model – public radio stations raise money to support their operations from their local listeners and a chunk of that money goes to NPR to pay for programs like Morning Edition. The threat to defund public radio in revenge for NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is a pretty weak one – federal funding represents around 2% of NPR’s budget. (Jack Shafer makes the case that this figure is an underestimate, and suggests that the figure may be as high as a quarter of a station’s budget if that station is associated with a university.) The money’s important for some small rural stations, but most are supported through a combination of foundation giving and community support.

That’s not the case for the new programs that McKibben celebrates. In many cases, they have a much larger online audience than a broadcast audience. To support a show like On the Media, I’ve generally had to write checks to WNYC, the station that produces it… which is a little irrational, as I can’t tune in WNYC and have no interest in paying for local NYC news when I don’t live there. Many of these shows now invite podcast listeners to donate a modest amount of money, either online or via a text message. Friend and colleague Doc Searls hopes that users of the Public Radio Tuner iphone application will track how much time they spend listening to these shows and donate through the tools his VRM project is building.

My friend Jake Shapiro is helping gain distribution for these programs through PRX.org, Public Radio Exchange. It’s important work, and I’m thrilled every time I travel in the US and catch one of these rare birds on the air. But I wonder whether there’s a need for a model that recognizes that, increasingly, this content isn’t radio. The problem with this idea, of course, is that there’s little evidence for a model that supports long-form narrative distributed digitally, whether it’s written text or audio. Much as I wish audio narrative would be as common on the airwaves as breaking news, for me, the key idea is whether there’s a way to ensure that producers like Chris Lydon and Ben Walker will continue to produce groundbreaking content, reach an audience and make a living.

3 thoughts on “When the best radio isn’t radio”

  1. Why not mention PRI’s programming, Ethan? The World’s got at least four podcasts now that are as much original content as they are highlights from the radio show.

  2. Sorry, Clark – wasn’t meant as a slight. Gave a talk yesterday and pointed people to The World’s podcasts as an example of audio that points people towards international voices. In this post, I was trying to explore the emergence of a different type of audio than news, and picked the examples that best illustrated that movement for me. The World may complicate that oversimplified picture, as much of the content is highly timely, though it’s often exploring issues at more depth than in conventional newscasting and pointing to other parts of the world.

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