Sometimes NPR programs hit the mark when it comes to wit. Some listeners accuse NPR of being witty only half the time.
An interview with John Waters on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday (Dec. 18, 2004) seems to have that hit-and-miss quality for many listeners.
It's hard to know how to describe John Waters to anyone not familiar with him. He is a filmmaker, stand up comic and Baltimore-iste extraordinaire. He has made his reputation by plumbing (in the literal sense) the depths of American culture. He is not to everyone's taste.
So it was a surprise for many listeners when his new CD of seasonal songs was the ostensible reason for a visit to Waters' Baltimore home with NPR's Scott Simon.
As expected, Waters said a few words rarely uttered on public radio, or if they are, they are usually left to the evening hours when the youngsters aren't in earshot.
I asked Weekend Edition Saturday's Senior Editor Gwen Thompkins if she had any second thoughts about the Waters story:
No second thoughts whatsoever. Christmas is for everybody who chooses to celebrate it. Even John Waters.
As the listeners' advocate, I tend to agree with the complainants. John Waters may be drôle for a lot of people, by using "naughty words" for their shock value. That is not always a good enough reason to put him on the radio — at least on NPR.
Public radio complaints can often border on the prim, but in this case, it was a case of épater les bourgeois for no apparent reason. It may have amused the staff of Weekend Edition Saturday, but it had a less positive effect for many listeners.
'NPR: What Is It Good For?'
This example is a good time (a "teachable moment" as they say in academia) to ask the question: "NPR: What Is It Good For?"
In my slightly younger days, I once asked a wise old journalist who was positively marinated in the culture of public broadcasting: "What the heck are we supposed to be doing?" (I may have used stronger language, but I am assuming this is a family column).
His answer has stayed with me these many years:
'Surprise and Delight'
"We should attempt to do only two things every day," he said. "Surprise and delight.
"Now get back to work."
His words resonate to this day.
Here is what I think he meant and how I have interpreted his words:
'Oh... I Didn't Know That...'
"Surprise" means that we should give the listeners something they didn't already know... something about which they would not have discovered on their own.
It may simply be a momentary epiphany: "Oh. That's interesting. I didn't know that."
It may be shocking: "My God. Did you hear that?"
It can also provoke a sense of outrage. Many of the e-mails I receive are generated by this tone.
"Delight" means making recognizable connections between listeners and NPR. It's a method of giving listeners a sense of place... in their communities, in America and in the world. I rarely get e-mails of complaint about a "delightful" story. Some listeners suspect that NPR is trying to coat the harsh reality of the daily news every time they hear something in the "delight" department.
Too Much 'Surprise?' Or Too Much 'Delight?'
The issue for NPR is how to balance those two qualities.
If NPR only delivered "surprise," there might be a risk of self-righteous monotony to the journalism, although it would also likely create a higher sense of constant moral outrage. Our colleagues at Air America and Pacifica Radio seem to do this a lot.
Providing only "delight" would make NPR sound overly cozy and folkloric. An abundance of profiles of hammered dulcimer players may make the world sound a lot less threatening than it really is.
NPR's genius, it seems to me, is most evident when those two program qualities are in harmony. On most days and on most programs, I think NPR is able to find that balance.
The Broccoli Broadcasting Company: Radio That's Good For You…
I recall overhearing a producer on All Things Considered denounce his program on that day as "well, that's real public radio." He didn't mean it as a compliment. In looking at the lineup of stories, I could see what he meant.
That day, there were a series of reports of woe and personal calamity interspersed with interviews with noted academics. It was entirely "surprising" and unrelievedly grim.
There was no humor in the program and there was nothing delightful in the sense of giving listeners something aurally charming. When that happens, some wags refer to NPR as "broccoli broadcasting" — extremely nutritious radio, but not very tasty.
This gets back to John Waters.
Is there room for Waters on NPR? Most certainly. But how and when remain two critical aspects that, in my opinion, were overlooked when Waters was heard on Weekend Edition Saturday.
Our 'So-Called' Language Use
NPR journalists often resort to the phrase "so-called" in describing something.
Listener Bert Norris notes that the term is used with increasing frequency and often in the wrong context.
I have a couple of challenges for Morning Edition and All Things Considered: Try to get through a whole program without referring to something as "so-called." Invariably, it is used to put forth a low-profile skepticism and seldom used where it might be legit. A couple weeks ago, on Morning Edition, they referred to "so-called Pell grants." Gimme a break, what the heck is "so-called" about Pell grants?
I always thought that to describe something as "so-called," was to imply it was illegitimate... that there was something "Orwellian" about it, such as referring to U.S. military efforts in Vietnam as a "so-called" pacification program.
NPR's reference librarian Kee Malesky (as usual) has the answer:
1. In predicative use (properly without hyphen): Called or designated by that name.
2. In attributive use (hyphened): Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it. So the "Orwellian" sense is actually the second meaning.
On the radio, it's those pesky hyphens every time.