Bill McKibben may be best known for his many thoughtful books and articles about environmental issues. He is, however, also a fan and occasional critic of public radio, and has written on that subject as well. Several of my public-media friends on Facebook recommended McKibben’s recent essay in The New York Review of Books about public radio programming, so I checked it out.
Public media insiders might not find much new in the article, which basically surveys the current lineup of nationally syndicated public radio shows, singles some out for praise (Radiolab, Sound Opinions) and laments the lack of more adventurous programs that reach a wide audience. The latter sentiment is one that has been voiced for many years within public radio, but it’s nice to see someone of McKibben’s prominence bringing it to a mainstream readership in an article like this one. I suspect that’s why people who work in public radio were jazzed to see it in print.
McKibben writes: “There are public radio stations so hidebound that they run the not-that-hilarious Car Talk twice each week.” I had to laugh at this because I just discovered over the weekend that my local NPR affiliate is in fact guilty of this. Not only that, but it airs the show at the exact same time on both Saturday and Sunday mornings. I have to wonder whether that truly exposes the Magliozzis to audiences that are all that dramatically different. And if it doesn’t, what purpose does it serve?
McKibben goes on:
It’s a waste of the precious hours in the broadcast day to repeat the program, and it’s not a good sign for the future that program directors aren’t taking more chances. If they’re not careful, NPR could wind up without a farm team of experienced new program makers, and with the same demographic problem now crippling public television (to see what I mean, check out your public TV pledge drive and try to imagine what age group they’re appealing to with overweight doo-wop groups squeezing into sequined suits).
McKibben doesn’t get into issues of direct concern to the PMC, such as diversity in age and race among the voices presented on radio, but it’s not hard to extend his argument into that territory. If public radio stations took more chances, aired a broader range of programs and leaned less on repeats, it would certainly free up more room for shows that sound unlike the others already airing. McKibben praises This American Life, and the praise is well deserved, but these days even that show has become established enough to spawn a legion of Ira Glass soundalikes. There are yet more individualistic voices on the margins — on podcasts, in youth programs, and on local public and community stations, for starters — and it’s well past time to bring those to more ears.