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Money Talks

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But before we move on, let us consider where we are headed in this nonprofit radio venture lauded by all right-thinking people for its noncommercial, educational value.

Throughout the fund drive (it comes twice a year), there were the appeals that gushed concern for you: "It's really something you do for yourself." If that approach didn't work, the announcers laid on the guilt: "If Scott can pledge twice in one week, certainly you can pledge once." Then came Garrison Keillor, the condescending, phony down-home Minnesotan head of a multimedia company that generates more than $100 million a year: "Do your part ... pledge and add 10 percent because you know how cheap you are." When outright begging from announcers failed ("We need you, we absolutely need you ... things are a little quiet out there"), they pulled out the threats: "We'll be on the air until we meet that goal."

One would like to believe that most Richmonders phoned in donations just to shut up those damned announcers. But I'm afraid that's not the case. The sacrosanct assumption at-large is that public radio is, as NPR President Kevin Klose once told Congress, a "national treasure," with "enlightened reporting" and "cultural programs that celebrate the human experience."

Certainly, NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are not bad, meaning they're less biased than they used to be (notwithstanding a January report suggesting that a Christian advocacy group had a motive in the anthrax attacks on two leading Democratic senators). And some local shows — the Whitlow/Richmond Symphony Concert Series and "Out o' the Blue Radio Revue" — are innocuous enough, with their offerings.

What's really irksome are much of Public Radio's most famous programs, the highly esteemed and celebrated syndicated shows, most of which offer nothing worthwhile in the way of enlightenment or education.

These days, our Community Idea Stations mostly celebrate one experience, and only one — the worldview of the yuppies, the boomers, the best and the brightest, still marveling at their wonderfulness.

When Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which oversees NPR) in 1967, it did so for the "expansion and development of public television and the diversity of its programming." The federal government's contribution to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting began in 1969 with an allotment of $5 million. That number has risen steadily ever since, to $340 million last year. But the sum is only a small part of what it takes to run NPR. State and local governments contribute their share, but the biggest chunk of money comes from corporations and individual support. Now, rather than engaging in "diversity of programming," NPR caters to one subculture. Demographics show that NPR's audience is mostly well-educated, upper-middle-class people with expensive tastes, and so it's no surprise that the shows largely pander to them with self-satisfied reporting and content.

And as the programming during those fund-raising weeks showed, it ain't pretty. Sure, there are the targets beneath contempt, such as the ever-popular "Car Talk," which attracts a ton of listeners. For an hour, two schlubs named Tom and Ray idle away the time cracking jokes about Honda manuals causing hemorrhoids and whether a Ford Taurus really can provide adequate shelter during a tornado. As for their car advice, here's one bit of profundity they gave a caller who said his vehicle wouldn't start: "It's either the battery or the starter." If you check out their Web site, you'll see they themselves don't pretend this is a show of any significance. How do they put it?: "Our Lousy Radio Show." If this is modesty, they have much to be modest about. In one opening segment, they tell you: "Car Talk" offers the perfect way to lose weight. One listener, they say, can't keep her food down when she hears the show and now has "regained [her] school-girl figure." If you're wondering where the talk of cars comes in, keep wondering.

If you tuned in during Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," you would have heard his quip about the guy who has breath that would knock a buzzard off a carcass, and of the time an air conditioner banged Keillor's toe, making the nail grow back deformed, in the shape of a buffalo head. (Whether it was canned laughter, I don't know, but the audience seemed to enjoy the barb.) He then proclaims, "I'm a thoughtful person." Indeed.

But perhaps nothing is more egregious than "Marketplace." It would be foolish to listen with the expectation that you'll find some hard-hitting business news. Rarely do they run any piece of depth. In fact, nearly every story is pegged to their stance on the environment or women, a slant that permeates the whole programming. In other cases, they go all-out for frivolity. Especially galling was their recent special series, "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" Truly cutting edge.

"This is 'Marketplace,'" says host David Brancaccio. "We've been asking these few weeks just how much pet ownership is worth to you. In the final installment of our series we examine the ways that animal lovers pay their last respects."

The "business" reporter comes on, asks some tough questions: "How does one cope with the emotional loss?" Then, the cut-to-interview subject, a grieving woman whose pet recently died: "And then she gave her [pet] the shot and my husband, um, kept her face in his hand and looked in her eyes so that ..." The woman chokes back tears, says that she went to a grief recovery seminar ($495 — now that's the business news) and the folks there "glued my butt back on essentially."

If you were one of the listeners who made it to the end of that "Marketplace" segment, you would have heard the news, that of the announcer interjecting, saying that the station had nearly met its call-in donation goals for the program. They just needed one more caller to phone in.

"Be the one," the announcer said. "Gosh, I was just thinking about that story," he added. "I have dogs ... there certainly are business ramifications. ... it's just a great piece and it's just the sort of thing you expect from 'Marketplace' ... just very brilliant."

Good grief. Within seconds, someone phones the station with a donation. It's my old dentist. "He's challenging other dentists, dental workers and patients to call in with pledges," the announcer says.

That's all I need to hear. I say, No. S



Lisa Singh has written on cultural matters for The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, Weekly Standard and other publication.



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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