Listener Keith Denslow from Talala, Okla., has been kind enough to send me a newspaper clipping from The Tulsa World, dated June 23, 1988!
The newspaper is yellowed and a little frayed, but the article makes it perfectly clear that back in 1988, NPR sounded very different than it sounds in 2005. Yet there are some similarities. Reading the article is like looking at a photograph of your younger self -- you recognize the features but oh, those styles!
'National Public Radio -- Network Has Soothing Way with News'
By John Horn -- Orange County Register
Washington -- For those who love news, it is among the most pleasurable ways to begin and finish the day.
Listening to National Public Radio's two daily news programs -- "Morning Edition" at wake-up and "All things Considered" all the way home -- serves as a release from the informational Post-Its that typically pass for radio news.
In a recent "ATC" news series, for example, correspondent Daniel Zwerdling examined Zenith television sets that spontaneously burst into flames; producer Ira Glass, on another "ATC" broadcast, simplified a confusing federal appropriations bill with a "singing" pie chart (each second of chanting equaled $5 billion in pay outs); Anne Garrels has reported about Soviet beauty pageants on "Morning Edition."
"We're offering a little something new for the ear," said Neal Conan, "ATC's" executive producer...
The article goes on to praise NPR while noting that "NPR (and some devoted NPR listeners) admit that the network can be carried away occasionally by its passion for the unusual." It quotes Neal Conan (now host of NPR's Talk of the Nation), in defense of the quirky: "You don't want to be accused of elitism for elitism's sake. But what other standards do you use?"
A Smaller News Organization
Mr. Horn's 1988 article notes that "(NPR's) audiences seem to be enjoying the experience. Morning Edition and All Things Considered attract more than 4 million listeners weekly -- up from 3 million three years ago..." [Today those numbers are closer to 19 million listeners weekly to all of NPR's programs -- news and cultural offerings included -- and more than 25 million if you include Web site visits to www.npr.org].
Then, as now, Robert Siegel co-hosted All Things Considered, but in 1988, it was alongside Renée Montagne (she now co-hosts with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition). Siegel is quoted as saying that the quest for the obscure should not come at the expense of general news coverage: "We're tracking the Hill (in Washington) as well as anybody now. We're very fast throughout the Middle East, Western Europe and we're getting there in Moscow."
Seen as Liberal
And then, as now, the issue of liberal bias was an issue:
NPR has overcome to a certain degree, its reputation for having liberal biases, a common and frequently unsupported criticism of publicly funded broadcasting. "Most letters here say that you are biased to the left," said Siegel, "but there's another kind of letter which says, 'I can no longer stand it. You guys have no spine left. You are a mouthpiece for the Reagan administration...' But I'm prepared to face my maker and say we ran a straight news organization."
The reporter who wrote this was John Horn. He is still a newspaper reporter, now with the Los Angeles Times. I caught up with him as he was stuck in traffic on an L.A. freeway, and asked him how he came to write the story:
I was a young reporter for the Orange County Register and I had been sent on my first traveling assignment to Pittsburgh.... I had to change planes in Washington, D.C., and I convinced my editor to let me do a feature on National Public Radio.
'High Level of Relevancy...'
I asked him: Were you a listener then? His answer:
Yes, I thought NPR had begun to reach a high level of relevancy in the popular culture and I was fascinated by the idiosyncratic nature of what I was hearing. NPR had a kind of kinetic excitement that conveyed a real sense of collegiality. I spent a day following Ira Glass [now host and executive producer of This American Life] around. It was really extraordinary to watch the process of producing radio.
Are you still a listener?
Sure. I'm a big fan of Day to Day. I find the thoughtfulness of NPR's reporting to be still the standard of how broadcast journalism ought to be. I heard an example of how it should be done the other night on All Things Considered. Robert Siegel interviewed two reporters -- one from The Weekly Standard and one from The New Yorker. They analyzed President Bush's speech in a very informative and non-ideological way. And I especially like the hourly newscasts. They are wonderful.
'Polished Is Better'
Any 1988 remnants that still appeal -- or not? Horn's answer:
There are still some idiosyncrasies that, in my opinion, haven't worn very well. It may have worked in 1988, but whenever I hear an interview with an NPR reporter instead of a report, well, it sounds disorganized and not well-produced. My bias as a print reporter is to have a polished product. The interviews with NPR reporters tend to make the reporters appear more important than the story they are covering.
Well, live interviews "from the scene" don't appear to add much to our understanding. Whenever a reporter is asked about the mood on the street, or at an event, he or she is probably the last person to know that. I'd rather wait to hear him or her do a report than just to opine and speculate. It may have worked in 1988, but it doesn't work for me today.
'Something Lost but Something Gained?'
I appreciate John Horn's candor and perspective. The article shows how NPR saw itself in those days at the end of the Cold War and before the Internet. Since then, NPR has gained a larger audience, along with a lot more respectability as a major provider of news.
With respectability comes a seriousness of purpose -- and vice versa -- NPR's serious attention to its mission has garnered more respect, according to a recent Harris survey on the most credible news organizations. According to Harris, public radio and television share first place.
Today, listeners have to strain to hear those quirky remnants. They still exist on NPR news programs, (April Fool's Day is when they really abound), but they aren't as noticeable as before. Other non-news programs such as Car Talk, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, continue to enjoy a high quirk quota.
If NPR news programs have become more serious, so have the times. I am frequently told that listeners have no patience for what they consider "fluff" -- that seems to mean any reports that try to use humor to look at the news from a different or off-beat angle. But in my opinion, the radio experience should also include clever and imaginative attempts to lighten the fare occasionally.
'More Seriousness = Better Radio?'
So if the quirky quotient on NPR is not as audible as it once was, has NPR become too earnest? Perhaps it has, and that is a trade-off whenever an organization matures and achieves respectability. NPR's campus radio days are definitely over.
It's a dilemma: NPR found that its audience grew by being more mainstream. Or did being a more serious news organization attract the new listeners? Does having a larger audience make a news organization behave differently? Or has NPR just gotten older, wiser and less willing to take an occasional risk that might cause some to smile but also might alienate some listeners?
For myself, I miss the occasional oddball audio. Perhaps my reaction is just an outmoded and nostalgic sentiment... a radio indulgence when the news is as unremittingly grim as it is these days.