Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free
Joe Carter has a very intriguing post on Why NPR Beats Talk Radio. He presents six reasons to support his assertion:
1. It's not part of the conservative monoculture
2. There are no callers
3. No commercials
4. No Dittoheads
5. It's not Rush
6. There's no Dr. Laura
He also closes with a plaintive question:
Still, NPR takes ideas, culture, art, and international affairs seriously. Conservative talk radio may touch on the same issues but generally they are either treated defensively ("In our next segment, the NEA's plan to ruin our children...") or as purely political concerns ("Will the genocide in Darfur hurt Kofi Annan..."). Talk radio is merely topical while NPR attempts to be timely.
Mostly when I listen to NPR I wonder why conservatives can't produce something similar. Why can't we have discussions about art for art's sake on the radio? Why can't we have debates about the role of religion without it being subordinated to politics? Why have we ceded all culture to the "liberals?"
Before getting into each of the six reasons that Joe cites to demonstrate NPR's superiority, I'd like to point out some of the difficulties in comparing NPR to commercial talk radio. While they do "compete" in the same medium, commercial talk radio is a business, while NPR is more akin to a government agency. In fact, from my brief experience in commercial talk radio and what I've learned about NPR, I believe that NPR is similar to a university.
While there are administrators who have to worry about fundraising (pledge drives) and attracting students (listeners), the tenured professors (hosts) tend to lead lives of splendid isolation compared to their counterparts in the business world (commercial radio). There definitely are expectations for them, but they don't face nearly the same kind of time, money, and competitive pressures.
Listeners tend to underestimate the amount of time that radio hosts need to put into their shows to deliver quality programs. Most commercial talk radio hosts have a very small, dedicated production staff who work their tails off to come up with the material to do three hours of radio a day (or whatever schedule the particular host has). Often what separates the very good from the good hosts is this production work. I've never been a big of Laura Ingraham herself, but her staff does an incredible job on production and makes the show worth listening to.
Meanwhile, from what I hear, NPR has production resources (and facilities for that matter) that are the envy of commercial radio. If you think that NPR often sounds slicker and better produced, it's because it generally is. Having several production people on hand and state of the air studios will tend do that for you. This is where the money comes in. NPR has the money and spends it like a government agency. No one is "profiting" from NPR, so there really is no reason not to invest in whatever they feel they need.
Which includes salaries. Granted, no one at NPR is going to be hauling down Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken money. But, again from what I understand, six figure salaries are not unusual for the hosts. And the producers, technicians, etc. don't make out too shabby either. While those at the top of the heap in commercial talk radio do quite well, there is a big drop off as you move down the pile. In fact, I understand that there are even some fools out there working for free.
Then there is the timeliness factor. Most commercial talk radio shows are up against the relentless grind of the news cycle and the need to keep on top of it. They usually don't have the luxury of spending a week putting a show together on stories that may be interesting, but not topical. While some of the NPR shows are news cycle driven, most of them are not. They have the time to research topics, script storylines, and hone the production. Most commercial talk radio shows do not.
Why? Because of the competitive pressures of the marketplace. Commercial radio is all about advertisers. And getting advertisers is mostly a factor of your ratings (obviously it's much more complicated that this with targeting specific demographic groups, listener loyalty, and such, but the bottom line is that the more listeners you have, the more you can charge for advertising). Commercial radio needs to deliver results, and usually stations are not prepared to wait very long to see these results.
If commercial radio stations poured the resources, money, and time into a show that NPR typically does, they would be expecting to see a significant return on that investment in a relatively short period of time. NPR has no such expectation. Oh sure, they're not oblivious to their ratings and they wish their programs to be successful. But if the program fails or even falls short of expectations, the consequences aren't the same.
NPR doesn't rely on advertising. Its money mainly comes from grants, corporate sponsorships, individual donations, government funds and selling Prairie Home Companion loofas. None of these streams is tied directly to ratings. As long as the money continues to flow, the ratings of individual shows really don't matter all that much. Commercial talk radio is all about the ratings and it's rare that a station will allow an underperforming show to survive for long.
Finally, to compare NPR to all of commercial talk radio as Joe does is a little deceptive. It allows him to go out and cherry-pick examples of programs that he doesn't like and have them stand in to represent commercial talk radio. I think a better comparison would have been conservative political talk radio with equivalent shows on NPR, but maybe that's for another time.
Let's get to the meat of his argument that NPR is better.
1. It's not part of the conservative monoculture Joe starts off by lumping all conservative talk radio hosts in together as, "middle-aged white male conservative[s] (except for Ingraham, who merely imitates being one)." While I have to give Joe credit for the Ingraham line, this sort of broad brushed depiction of conservative talk radio drives me nuts. Sometimes when people find out that I'm part of a conservative talk radio show they'll say, "Oh, I really don't like those Sean Hannity kind of shows." Know what? Neither do I. I can't stand Hannity's radio show and if anyone ever says that the NARN reminds them of Hannity, I'm liable to hang up my headphones on the spot.
Frankly most of the conservative talk radio hosts aren't all that good. For me, Rush is in a category by himself (more on that later) and then you have the Big Three from Salem: Prager, Medved, and Hewitt. Ingraham and Bennett are a notch below and there isn't a whole lot else out there that I like. O'Reilly and Hannity are vastly overrated bore masters. Savage is entertaining, but his political views are not worthy of serious consideration. On the local scene, I enjoy Bob Davis on KSTP and David Strom and Dwight Rabuse who proceed us on The Patriot, but that's about it.
The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of variety in the world of conservative talk radio. Just look at my Big Three from Salem and their interests outside of politics. Dennis Prager's area of expertise include music, photography, and Judaism. Medved knows history, baseball, and movies. And Hugh...well Hugh knows...he knows a lot about...eh...let's just say that Hugh's a well rounded guy.
Conservative talk radio is not a monoculture. And even if it were, Joe is arguing the position that multiculturalism is in and of itself better, regardless of the merits of the individual. Would you rather listen to three people from a monocultural background who did a great job or three people from a multicultural background who sucked?
2. There are no callers First off, this isn't really true. There are NPR shows with callers. In fact, some of them regularly take phone calls. But, even though it may not be in my self-interest to say this, I have to agree with Joe's contention that:
The opinions expressed by callers are consistently unoriginal and dull. Only on the most rare occasion do the add anything worthwhile to the conversation.
My only caveat would be that some shows, sometimes have decent callers. Medved's callers help make his show, since he typically takes those who disagree with him.
3. No commercials Again, Joe has a point. Commercials are the bane of commercial talk radio. But if you listen to a show enough, you can usually figure out the commercial schedule and plan accordingly. Most of the Salem shows have commercial breaks that you can set your watch to. They start at :07, break at :18, come back at :22, break at :30, come back at :35, break at :40, come back at :45, break at :53, come back at :56 and go until almost the top of the hour. When I listen to these shows, I simply punch up some music during the break, knowing exactly when to come back to not miss any content.
Which seems a small price to pay in comparison to the long blocks of fundraising that you must endure at NPR. Hours, days, sometimes it seems like months of pitiful begging, guilt inducing, and shaming from a place with budget expenditures that rivals those of Third World countries.
4. No Dittoheads I will give this one to Joe. Although he might want to reconsider why:
In all of the years I've listened to NPR, I've never heard anyone praise Terry Gross or Bob Edwards.
5. It's not Rush I concur with Joe that Rush's glory days are behind him. That being said, there still is no match for Rush when he gets on a roll. Unfortunately, those rolls are fewer and farer between these days. And don't even get me started on his callers.
But is not being Rush a good enough reason to listen to NPR? Mike Gallagher isn't Rush either.
6. There's no Dr. Laura This is the sort of cherry-picking that I talked about earlier. I am not a particular fan of Dr. Laura myself and won't make an attempt to defend her show. But again, does she represent all commercial talk radio? Hardly.
If you look at Joe's arguments closer you'll notice a similarity to the Kerry campaign. Lots of negative reasons not to listen to commercial talk radio, very few positive reasons to listen to NPR. I'll give you a much shorter list of why I prefer commercial talk radio to NPR.
1. Commercial talk radio is what it is When you tune in to a commercial talk radio show, you can usually figure out what the host's beliefs and values are in a matter of minutes. You want a liberal slant? Listen to Al Franken. You want soft conservative viewpoint? Tune in to Hugh.
NPR cloaks itself in a veil of objectivity, while typically proceeding in a manner that is anything but objective. I get enough subtle bias, hidden agendas, and template journalism from the mainstream newspapers, networks, and cable news. Radio is a refuge for open and honest disclosure of partisanship. Except for NPR.
2. Commercial talk radio is entertaining Quick, name one NPR show or host that makes you laugh. Please don't tell me that you mentioned Garrison Keillor or I'm going to have to open an above average can of whoop ass on ya. Seriously, is there anything on NPR that truly could be considered entertaining? I once was able to enjoy Prairie Home Companion before Keillor lost his mind a couple of years back and went off on his wacky political bender. What else? Click and Clack?
I'm not talking informative. There are plenty of NPR shows that are highly informative and I listen to some of them. But at some point a good radio show has to be more then informative. It has to entertain. And for the most part, NPR is not anywhere near as entertaining as commercial talk radio.
3. The hosts with the most Tell you what. I'll take Rush, Prager, Medved, and Hewitt. You take any four hosts from NPR. Compare and contrast.
In the comments sections of Joe's post, someone wrote:
I agree with you about the state of radio these days and the superiority of NPR. Mark me down as a conservative fan of Terry Gross and "Fresh Air". I don't think there is a better interviewer in the business and it's because she prepares, i.e., if her guest has written a book, she's read the book.
I read this and my jaw dropped. Terry Gross is the most overrated interviewer on the planet. Yes, more overrated than Larry King. I've listened to Gross more than a few times in the last couple of months and I find her almost unlistenable. If she's talking with an author or a musician, she's tolerable (barely). But if she's interviewing anyone else, she seems lost and out of her league. That includes her interview last week with the guy who voices Sponge Bob. Seriously, she had nothing interesting to ask this guy. My five year old nephew could have come up with more insightful questions. And her inability to follow up when a good line is opened is maddening.
In conclusion, I disagree with Joe's assessment that NPR is superior to commercial talk radio. While I do like some of the shows on NPR, commercial talk radio is more entertaining, has better hosts, and is honest about its biases. And I think I answered his question about why there is no similar conservative alternative. It just would not play in the commercial talk radio market and the only reason that NPR can do it is the way they are funded.
It might be possible (but exceedingly difficult) to establish a separate "conservative NPR." It would be much easier if the current NPR would hire more conservative hosts and air more shows with a conservative perspective. But until they do, I'll stick with the one that brung me.