Study: Americans Reading Less Than They Used To A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts reveals that Americans are reading less frequently and less proficiently. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and award-winning poet, talks about the new report, "To Read or Not to Read."
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Study: Americans Reading Less Than They Used To

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Reading has seen better days. Television, the Internet, movies and video games have all taken time away from one of our oldest pastimes. A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled, "To Read or Not to Read" reveals that Americans are reading less and less well.

The report links the decline in voluntary reading among teens and young adults to poorer performance in school. And whereas advanced readers are more likely to engage in civic participation and enjoy greater advantages in the workplace, people who read rarely or not at all report fewer opportunities for career growth, and are not as engaged in civic life.

The report raises questions about the role of reading in a world full of digital distractions, and what, if anything, can be done to get people to pick up more books. Tell us, how much leisure time do you spend reading on average? Have you experienced a waning interest in books and reading? What's taken its place? And do you feel like something's lost?

Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the hour, whatever happened to that $100 laptop? But first: to read or not to read? And we begin with Dana Gioia. He is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also an award-winning poet.

Welcome to Studio 3A. It's good to have you with us.

Mr. DANA GIOIA (Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts; Award-Winning Poet): Oh, it's delightful to be here.

NEARY: Now, let's - if you could just give us a couple of summary points from the NEA report. And I think we should also explain that it's really a kind of compilation of a number of different studies coming from a number of different sources.

Mr. GIOIA: Yes. "To Read or Not to Read" is the most comprehensive and complete survey of American reading at the moment. What we've done is we've taken about a number of reports that are huge, reliable, national reports and we put them together to get a portrait of reading from elementary school up through old age - leisure time, school, its economic impact, its cultural impact, et cetera, et cetera.

So it is the most comprehensive report ever done. What this report shows is a couple of things. The good news is that we seem to be doing a better job than ever before of teaching elementary school kids to read. That's terrific. You see the scores, you know, in elementary school, they're excellent.

The scores, however, begin to flatten out at the age of 13. And once we get into the teenage and young adult years, there is a calamitous universal falling off of reading. And as Americans read less, they read less well. As they read less well, they do less well in school, in the job market and in civic life.

NEARY: So the scores, you say - reading scores are falling off because kids, young adults are reading less.

Mr. GIOIA: Well, you know, statistical study can't always show you why, but it can measure exactly what's going on. And I think it seems very clear if you see a group of students reading less than they did five, ten, twenty years ago, and they're doing less in a directly linear fashion that it is that there is cause and effect there. There was a linear relationship between how much someone reads for pleasure and how well they do on reading comprehension.

NEARY: Yeah. And we're not just talking about fiction now.

Mr. GIOIA: No, no, we're talking - yeah.

NEARY: And I know that you had a previous report, where they dealt mostly with literature.

Mr. GIOIA: Yeah. What we tried to do is to take all of the best data that exists in the United States. Now, the astonishing thing is if you've taken so many reports and you put them together, you would expect some of the numbers to disagree.

Mr. GIOIA: Every piece of data is consistent in showing this decline and showing the consequences of the decline. I would venture the judgment that the drop off in reading is now one of the most serious social and economic issues in the United States. It's not really just a cultural issue anymore. It has enormous economic and political consequences.

NEARY: Why do you say that? Why such a serious social and economic issue at all?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, what's interesting - I mean, first of all, we have to recognize something that no one seems to want to admit in public. One out of every three American kids drops out of high school. We're losing a significant portion of the new generation. And if you look at readers versus non-readers, you'll see that people that read do better academically, they do better in the job market and they do better in civic life.

Employers now list reading and writing ability as their major problems for new hires. If you go to people that read below basic, 55 percent of them are unemployed. As we enter a much more complicated economy and society, reading is one of the way people develop, essentially, their ability to learn.

NEARY: What about adults? We're talking about young - what's happening in the adult community?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, I wish I could say that adults were setting a good example for youth. What is true is that the older you are, the more likely you are to read regularly. And generally, the - you're able to read better.

However, every group of Americans is reading less than they did 10 and 20 years ago, and most of them are reading less well. The most interesting one is that young adults, 18 to 35, have gone from the people who read the most in society to the people - the adults who read the least.

NEARY: So if this is a generational thing, at least in part a generational thing, isn't it also at least in part, the fact that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be technologically literate, that you are more likely to be on the Internet and just have so many other kinds of things competing for reading?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, absolutely. I mean, you know, that it - you know, it is true. Now, the interesting thing is that readers and non-readers do exactly the same thing, with the exception of reading. People that read a lot are on the Internet, they watch television, they listen to radio, they have, you know, iPods, they do instant messaging.

The difference is they keep it in balance. But what we're seeing - and this is the most, I think, interesting single finding is that the first generation of Americans who have been raised with all of these electronic media, read significantly less than they did before. They read less well than they did before. And in general, their academic completion rates are lower.

NEARY: So your message to a parent might be something like - I'm now interpreting - you know, not…

Mr. GIOIA: Feel free to interpret.

NEARY: …necessarily do you have to forbid them from computer time or from TV time or from iPod time, but make sure that they're also reading at the same time.

Mr. GIOIA: Absolutely. I mean, the Internet is the most powerful tool of communication probably since the phonetic alphabet. The problem is that it alone, you know, will not save the world. It has to be kept in balance. So, what parents really need to do is to guide their children in this and make sure that they - in gaining one thing, they do not lose something else.

NEARY: We're talking with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts about the new NEA study about the decline in reading in this country.

We're going to take a call now. We are going to go to Carmela(ph), and Carmela is calling from New York.

Hi, Carmela.

CARMELA (Caller): Hi. I was just listening. I'm sort of changing what I was going to say a little bit. It's interesting that the speaker was saying that parents need to guide their children into reading. I'm an elementary school teacher, and I taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade.

And what I have found amazing is that there are many parents who admit themselves that they don't enjoy reading, and that they find it difficult to encourage their children to read because of that. And I really do think modeling is most of it. I mean, telling your child to read is one thing, but demonstrating in the home that it's an activity that is enjoyable and worthwhile and valuable is completely different. And I find a lot of my students find reading to be a chore.

And the other thing that's scary to me as an adult and a reader is that lots of teachers also admit privately that they don't enjoy reading. And that to me is a really scary thing for the future.

NEARY: Dana Gioia?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, first of all, Carmela, let me say that you are my hero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIOIA: You're - or heroine. You are one of the people that according to this study who is really making a difference right now in teaching these fourth and fifth graders to read better than they did in the past. You're absolutely right. Modeling behavior — if you look at the reasons why kids read, here's that - the first reason is their parents or grandparents read to them. The second is that their parents say, get out of here. I'm reading a book. They see their parents or grandparents reading.

There's another really interesting statistic in this report, which is that there is a direct, linear relationship between how many books there are in a household and how well the kids do, not just in reading but in science and civics and history scores. And this does not have to do with income. If you factor out income and education of the parents, the presence of books in a home greatly increases the children's chance of success in school.

CARMELA: It's interesting that you're saying that because I actually came - my own background was one of, not poverty but certainly not being very well-off.

Mr. GIOIA: Are you an Italian-American?

CARMELA: Yes, I am.

Mr. GIOIA: So am I, and I know exactly the kind of household you're talking about.

CARMELA: Oh, yeah. We did not - we could not afford to purchase books by any means, but my mother used to take us to the library on a weekly basis, and it was something my brother and myself looked forward to. And we used to just pile on the books. And we saw my mother read. My father was not a reader. But the fact that my mother read kind of bumped off on us. And we actually sit around as a family and my father would grumble and - to do what he could with the newspaper and the three of us would sit around and we read the books that we'd gotten from the library.

Mr. GIOIA: But your dad at least read a newspaper.

NEARY: Right. When - there used to be more newspapers to read. Carmela, thanks so much for calling in.

CARMELA: Thank you very much.

NEARY: You know, I'm from New York, and there used to be something like, you know, seven newspapers a day or something, you know, that would come through my house. I mean, there…

Mr. GIOIA: Morning, afternoon and evening.

NEARY: …aren't even - I mean, really, the world has changed so much. I have an e-mail here that I want to read you, and we may have to get part of the answer at least after we take a short break. But, this is from Susan(ph) in Tucson, Arizona. She says people using the Internet are reading all the time, just not books or the traditional concept of reading. The question is how to engage them in reading the traditional medium or media, but they do read, or they wouldn't be able to use a new media that they do?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, I think Susan is partially right. What we seem to see - now, once again, this is a hypothesis - is that people on the Internet are reading headlines, captions, one or two sentences. The notion of reading as a sustained, linear, active attention seems to be less apparent than the Internet.

Now, I have to say that the reading that we're measuring in this report now includes Internet reading. And so the fact is that kids reading on the Internet seem to read less well than kids did five, 10, 20 years ago.

NEARY: And so, presumably if they're reporting reading an hour even, let's say - that's an optimistic report - but let's say an hour or two a day, that hour or two may have been spent reading online, not reading a book.

Mr. GIOIA: Yes, although the average teenager now reads seven to eight minutes a day while watching television two and a half hours a day.

NEARY: All right then. We're talking about America's reading habits with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. If you want to join our discussion, the number is 800-989-8255.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

A bit later in the show, we'll talk with a man behind the $100 laptops for developing countries and find out why that program hasn't lived up to its promise - at least so far.

Right now, we're talking about the report from the National Endowment for the Arts that shows fewer Americans are reading, especially young people. On a side note, other surveys consistently show that women read more books than men, especially fiction. You can read more about what's behind the so-called fiction gap at our Web site npr.org/talk.

Right now, Dana Gioia is with us. He is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. And before we bring in our second guest, I just want to ask you something quickly, because we were just talking with a teacher about kids and reading. And do you think that either parents or teachers should make kids read on a daily basis? Should it be a homework assignment?

Mr. GIOIA: Well, I think homework does help kids to learn things. So yes, I do believe that parents and teachers should encourage the habit of daily reading, of regular reading. And that's one of the ways that people will become comfortable with the skill of reading. Reading is not a natural ability. It's a high-level human-learned ability, like playing the piano. And so the more you practice, the better you get.

NEARY: All right. If you'd like to join our discussion, I just want to remind you again that the number is 800-989-8255 and the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now is Kevin Starr. He is a university professor and a professor of history at the University of Southern California. He is the California state librarian emeritus. And he joins us by phone from his home in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Professor KEVIN STARR (History, University of Southern California): Thank you, Lynn. It's been fascinating to hear this.

NEARY: Now, you've been a librarian for years. What kinds of trends have you noticed about people's reading habits?

Prof. STARR: Well, I've served as librarian in San Francisco for five years and librarian to the state of California for 10, and I would concur with everything that Dana Gioia has talked about and what the - "To Read or Not to Read" study which I haven't have looked at points out. On the other hand, there's also, you know, the old notion of the cup is half empty or the cup is half full depending on how you look at it.

I mean, obviously, we've experienced an extraordinary revolution. And if we look across time in terms of, say, Western culture or even culture - human culture in general, it's been a very brief period of time that everybody read. We look at the medieval period, the renaissance, the modern era, where all the masterpieces of our civilization were written. Those are written within the context of a fundamental illiteracy or orality on the part of most of the population. So in one sense, it's back to the future as we move forward and find that this experiment of fusing everybody onto literate culture is undergoing tremendous stress.

In fact, the National Endowment, about four years ago, three years ago, did a survey, showing that 50 percent of Americans are reading literature - only 50 percent. And when I read that, I was actually exhilarated, thinking that in the midst of this revolution, you still have 50 percent of the population reading literature. I thought that the cup was half filled rather than half empty…

NEARY: So…

Prof. STARR: …because we have undergone an extraordinary revolution. Now, since that's the case, since that revolution is the case, what do we do? I don't think we condemn or judge or - our population, especially as this statistics begin to show an extraordinary amount of younger people who grow up in this self-navigating, digitally related culture - and I think the digital culture is equivalent to the oral culture of a previous period - as we find them, you know, becoming successful in American life, becoming pharmacists and lawyers and becoming this and that and the other.

NEARY: Well, can I interrupt you one second, because it sounds like you're saying something which is quite different than what the NEA report is saying, and that is that you can be socially and perhaps even economically successful even if you're not a reader.

Prof. STARR: Well, or not a classically educated. What happened - and it happened during the baby boomer generation as it began to take over the canon of our literature. In a prior age in American life, if you were heading off to be an airline mechanic or nuclear physicist - and you were in high school, nevertheless, you read "Romeo and Juliet" when you're a freshman and you read Shylock, "The Merchant of Venice," when you were junior. And when you were a senior, you read "Hamlet."

And this - or you read "The Red Badge of Courage." People over a certain age, who went through a high school in this country - whether the high school is private or public - had a certain exposure to the canon. Now, for political, cultural and generational reasons, that canon was disestablished in the 1960s, 1970s. So - and (unintelligible) establishments stands to this day, so it is very difficult.

Even at the greatest and best of our universities, the most competitive of our universities is very difficult to find out just exactly what young people know. Now, we all know their board scores. Their board scores are magnificent, they're doing spectacularly, but it's very difficult to find out what they know.

You can't presume that they've read Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." You can't presume that they've ever read a novel by Henry James. You can't presume that they've read Steven Crane's "Red Badge of Courage." And yet, you also cannot presume that they're dumb and doomed to failure. They're not. They're majoring in accounting and pharmacy, they're going on to law school, they're performing high-performing in competitive examinations.

And yet, as any college professor will tell you over a certain age, they're reading half to a third of the books per class per assignment than we're assigned to the 1940s and 50s.

NEARY: All right. Before I bring Dana Gioia back in to response you, I want to get a caller in here. I want - Mike(ph) from Binghamton, New York, is on the line. Mike, go ahead.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. My name is Mike. I have a bachelor of science from a big East college. I enjoyed a 10-year career in the scientific field. And at the age of 37, I don't think I have ever read a novel for enjoyment in my life.

NEARY: But do you read other things?

MICHAEL: Oh, I read lots of other things. I read, mainly, instructional-type material, things that will help me succeed in the interest that I had in my life. I - just to sit down and read a romance novel or a science friction-type book would just bore me to tears.

NEARY: Well, let me ask Dana Gioia. Is that what we're talking about now? We've heard - go ahead.

Mr. GIOIA: Well - yeah, let me make two points here. But then, I have a larger bone to pick with Kevin Starr, most of whom of what he says I agree with. I have a very serious disagreement on one point. Our earlier report measured literary reading. But by literary reading, we don't just mean Priest(ph) and Faulkner. We mean Danielle Steele and Stephen King.

If you've read one page of one romance and gave up because it bored you to tears, we counted you. The new report measures reading of any kind and in any medium. And the fact is that we're also measuring how well you read. And this is - these are independent studies. And it is an overwhelmingly clear conclusion from this that Americans read less well. Just for college graduates, only 31 percent of current college graduates now read at proficiency level. Proficiency level is what we used to think of as a high school reading level.

NEARY: Let me make sure that we're absolutely clear about this. So in Mike's case, where Mike is reading technical material, you would have counted that.

MIKE: Yeah.

NEARY: This would have been part of this report?

Mr. GIOIA: Yeah. This would have been counted in most of the studies that we have here. And even if it hadn't, we would have measured how well Mike - and I'm sure Mike reads personally very well - how well he read. And when you see in 10 years the reading proficiency of college graduates fall by 23 percent, almost a quarter of people no longer read at proficiency level. So less than one out of every three college graduates now read of what we used to think of is a good high school level. That has nothing to do with what they're reading. It's about how much they're reading.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call and for making your point, Mike.

MIKE: You got it.

NEARY: Appreciate it. And now, to your - the larger bone that you have to pick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIOIA: Well, so I think…

NEARY: Kevin Starr.

Mr. GIOIA: …Kevin Starr is absolutely right in his overall diagnosis. I don't disagree with anything he's saying. But what I would say is this. If indeed we are going back to an earlier historical epic, where most people have an oral culture rather than a written culture, we have to remember that for the most part, those periods did not have free Democratic societies with equality of opportunity.

I think that Democracy depends on participation and knowledgeable participation by the majority of its citizens. And it scares me to go back to a medieval or renaissance society, where small elite are the people who not only read but control society. And that's what I worry about is exactly what Kevin Starr is talking about.

NEARY: Let's see if we can get another caller in here now. We're going now go to, I believe is Lee(ph), who is calling from Tucson, Arizona. Lee, go ahead.

LEE (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi, Lee. Go ahead.

LEE: Yes. Well, I can say that for myself - and I'm retired, recently retired -our hectic lifestyle is the reason I don't read as much as I used to. I'm - was always an avid reader. I love to read, but - and I had hoped to do a lot more of that once I was able to retire, but it just hasn't happened. I mean, there -we have so many things encroaching on us now, just in terms of life, lifestyle, and just trying to keep up with the things you have to do on a day-to-day basis to keep going. And…

NEARY: Now, that's interesting that you're finding that even in retirement, you're not working full time?

LEE: Yeah.

NEARY: Like what kinds of things are taking up your time now?

LEE: Well, for one thing, we had - for one, just keeping up with the junk mail every day. Just trying to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's reading.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEE: And then you have your junk e-mail you have to deal with as well now, and then we have global warming and stuff. And so you have to try to do some water harvesting at least in this part of the country. We're trying to do those kinds of things. And so you're starting these new projects all the time. I mean, there's - it's like the pace of life…

NEARY: Yeah.

LEE: …has just become more and more hectic. And when you call anyone, you can't just call and spend a few moments talking to someone, making an appointment or whatever. You have to sit there and wait through these humongously long menus that direct you to these different places, and frequently you have to start over because it got you to the wrong place to begin with. I mean, everything in life has just become so much more complicated…

NEARY: That it makes it harder to find that time.

LEE: …that makes it much harder…

NEARY: Yeah.

LEE: …to find the time. And then, of course, in my particular case - as I think is probably true for a lot of people as you retire - your health is not like it used to be, and so you spend more time making doctor's appointments and doing things to try to keep your - keep in your head and your body, you know, to where it functions like it should…

NEARY: Right.

LEE: …that sort of things. So you have a lot more of that. And I guess, you know, we tend to slow down a bit as we get older because physically we aren't able to do…

NEARY: So when you look forward to those times where you think you can have just endless amounts of time to read, it turns out not to be the case.

LEE: Not to be the case.

NEARY: Thanks so much for that - sharing that, Lee. And I think I want to talk a little bit more about that point that you're making - thanks so much for joining us - that, you know, we're talking about the fact that there's a lot of competition from the digital world, from digital culture for book-reading. But there's just - what Lee is saying is so true that the pace of life just seems to be so fast now that it's hard for people to really find time to read for pleasure, Dana Gioia. And Kevin Starr, you can join in on this as well.

Prof. STARR: Well, if I could, for just a second - Kevin Starr here. I think we have to also remind ourselves that we're publishing some 134,000 titles a year in this country, and that in many ways, it's a golden age of nonfiction. I don't think it's a golden age of the novel, but it's certainly a golden age of nonfiction. And it's certainly a golden age of poetry of which Dana Gioia's poetry is part of that golden age. So the population who does read, the population that is reading is reading as intensely and as ambitiously.

Now, I share Dana's joyous fear about those who are not reading and their ability to participate in a democracy such as the United States. But I would also, historically, suggest that basically the United States is perhaps one of the few democracies, if not the only, we'll say there's only a few democracies. And if they are dependent upon 50 percent or more of literacy or reading habits et cetera, then you have to have a new model then for what the future is going to hold because I don't think we're going to reach those people who are not reading. And I don't include the retired person who just called because she is feeling anxiety that she is not reading enough. We all feel that anxiety today.

NEARY: Right.

Prof. STARR: And I think what Dana is suggesting is people falling off, those one out of three dropouts in high school - people falling out of reading altogether. And at that point, I yield to his argument. It's a pretty frightening prospect.

NEARY: And let me just remind our audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Dana Gioia, what about this problem of not having enough time, and the day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIOIA: Well, I mean, I think that farmers in the 19th century, you know, who had to grow everything or weave everything that they used, had, you know, problems of time and it's - so, you know, we have probably more leisure time than people did historically. But it's been crowded up by many, many alternatives. And one of the things about life is that in order to get one good, you often have to give up a lesser good.

And so I think that, you know, what we need to do is to train our children, our students, our young adults to turn off some of the devices and actually have the quiet, contemplative reflective time that reading creates.

NEARY: Let me read you a couple of e-mails here that really address exactly what you're saying. This is from Sonia(ph) in Scottsdale. This also has to do with the whole modeling for children. She says, my husband and I not only model reading for our children, but they also are required to read in exchange for TV or computer minute-for-minute.

And Mark(ph) in Frankfort, Kentucky, says we've had movie night at our home for a while now. My wife and I have recently started a book night as well. No TV, no radio, no computer, just together with books.

Mr. GIOIA: These are great parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIOIA: No. But I do think - I think Carmela, her point was that adults need to model the behavior they want their children and grandchildren to have. Because you can, you know, talk big about something, but people notice what you do or what you don't do. And one of the really scary things in the United States is that half of the adult population doesn't read and they don't even read to their children.

Those parents are putting their own children at a disadvantage. However much they love them and they nurture them in other ways, they're putting those children at an academic, economic and social disadvantage.

NEARY: Kevin Starr, if you like to get one last point in…

Prof. STARR: Well, I have one last point, that'll make me agree with Dana. When I was state librarian, we funded two programs. We funded a program that we have hundreds of thousands of children in California whose parents are in prison and are - had literacy problems. And we've worked with those imprisoned Californians to bring their literacy up so that when their children came to visit them at prison, they could read to their children. We had tremendous results from that program.

Second program, we had a program at the Stanford Medical School in which children, who are seriously threatened, with life-threatening diseases, would have with an Rx, with a prescription the doctor prescribed - read "Little Women," read "Treasure Island." And we found that in studying that that there was enormous amount of therapy.

Unfortunately, however, these are small pilot programs that 50 percent is pretty powerful number about people falling out of reading culture. I see it as a kind of historical recidivism. I applaud Dana Gioia and his colleagues in fighting it but…

NEARY: Let me give him one last word as well.

Prof. STARR: …I think (unintelligible) long time to come - can be part of the landscape with this…

NEARY: Kevin Starr, I'm going to give him a couple of seconds here. Kevin Starr is a university professor and professor of history at the University of Southern California. Thanks for joining us.

Dana Gioia, your last few words as we…

Mr. GIOIA: Well, I think what, you know, these programs that Kevin Starr mentioned are exactly the sort of thing that we need. We cannot allow ourselves to live in a country, where only the affluent and privileged children are likely to succeed in education and in the workforce.

NEARY: Dana Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. So good to have you with us.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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