Public Radio: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am a big fan of public radio. With rare exceptions, I do not listen to anything else on the radio. Perhaps if I subscribed to Sirius or XM satellite radio I would stop listening to public radio. On the other hand, perhaps not. All I know is that I consider public radio, and NPR in particular, to be a national treasure. Which is why I want to chew nails every time the local public radio stations, as they did last week, host yet another membership week.

Seriously, we loathe them. Heck, even public radio stations hate membership week. That is why increasingly stations like WAMU-FM here in Washington D.C. try to bribe us listeners into shortening membership week. For a few weeks before membership week officially starts they try to get us to send them money. If they get enough, they will take one day off the campaign. Yes. Anything but that. Anything but one more day of their grating and near constant grubbing for money.

Yes, it is sadly necessary, but is undignified. Our Congress can give obscene and duplicative payments to farmers, but just spare change to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Enduring public radio’s membership week is like watching a classy dame who goes regularly to the opera and shops at Neiman Marcus spending four weeks a year hanging out on street corners and hiking her skirt for strangers. It is not pretty and it is in fact just plain revolting. Just as you do not want to watch a car wreck, you do not want to listen to public radio during membership week. Really, I would rather have my fingernails slowly pulled out one by one.

At least with commercial radio you know what to expect: fifteen or twenty minutes of annoying commercials every hour. The master of it locally is WTOP, our local all news and traffic station. The proportion of commercials to content is so high you would think the volume of commercials on the station would be unlawful.

For 11 out of 12 months a year, public radio is a welcome respite from our overly commercialized world. Not that outside of membership weeks it is completely commercial free. Virtually every show is sponsored by some well moneyed commercial or non-profit organization that is anxious to tell you what they are up to and to give you their website address. Some TV shows, like The News Hour on PBS almost might as well be commercial TV, with the lengthy “sponsored by” messages that are (hate to break it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) just shameless commercials.

Clearly, all that corporate and non-profit cash is not enough. That is why the announcer usually informs us that most shows on public radio and TV are also sponsored “by viewers like you”. That is nice to know. Viewers like me who appreciate public radio and TV contribute most of the funds necessary to keep them on the air. I know I do my part. I give my local public radio stations a healthy chunk of change every two weeks through the Combined Federal Campaign.

So since I am giving regularly, can you please cancel membership week? For that matter, will WETA stop sending me regular (as in once a month) junk mail soliciting further contributions? Yeah, I know I am on their mailing list because I made the mistake of just once contributing during membership week. Now they will not let me go. I am constantly badgered for more money. I have tried to tell them that I am sending them money via other means anyhow, but they never listen. They are like the doe-eyed orphan Oliver Twist asking Mr. Bumble, “Please sir, can I have some more?”

For the record, I certainly do not want public radio to go out of business. I make sure I send them money regularly to keep them in business. I depend on shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition for my news fix. WAMU-FM in particular has just the right mixture of other public radio programming that keeps me tuning in for more. I need this refuge of commercial-free sanity on the airwaves to keep my psychic lid from popping. In my mind, public radio models what I want my country to be but simply is not. The announcers are scrupulously nonpartisan. They can discuss President Bush’s latest incoherent ramblings without even a hint of bias creeping into their voices. While I am sure I will get disagreement, I feel that on balance public radio shows are fair to both sides, as well as to the middle. Everyone is so thoughtful and civilized.

Until membership week. Then public radio becomes a bad carnie sideshow. It is amazing that public radio gets as much money as they do during membership week because public radio announcers are so excruciatingly bad at selling public radio. It is not that they do not have a valuable product. So many public radio listeners like me would not be listening to them if they did not. Their product is unique and singular. They just cannot sound convincing asking for money. The more they grub thank you products for $50, $100 and $200 contributions the less convincing they become. Besides, we know it is an important service and do not need further convincing. From the tone of their voice, it sure sounds like they too would prefer having their fingernails slowly pulled out rather than have to suffer through another membership week. This is to let you know that we here in the public suffer with you.

For me, membership week means tuning in for just the news or turning off the radio. Thankfully, in the Washington area, there is one final place of refuge on the FM dial when all else fails. It is WCSP, C-SPAN’s completely commercial-free public affairs radio station. (For those of you who live far from Washington D.C., you can always listen to it online.) Granted, spending your Saturday afternoon listening to archival recordings of the Lyndon Johnson tapes, or hearing the late Hubert Humphrey ramble about his life, may not be your cup of tea. Fortunately, its political content is usually more timely than these examples. However, at least in my area, its signal strength is low, so tuning it in can at times be hit or miss.

Membership week is beneath public radio. I think what public radio needs is a sufficiently well moneyed foundation. Perhaps Bill Gates, with all his billions, could put us public radio listeners out of our misery and fund an endowment for public radio. Then it would never be necessary again for a public radio or TV station to grub for money or have to find sponsors again.

And while I’m at it, I’d like pony.

Who Needs Television?

There was a time (late 1960s and early 1970) when I lived for TV. TV was my escape from monotony. Life at the time was pretty boring. I was living in New York’s Southern Tier. There wasn’t a whole lot to do besides eat, go to school and attend church. Binghamton, New York is not exactly the center of upstate New York culture. It didn’t help that my large Catholic family was somewhat financial challenged. We went to movies maybe once a year. Vacations were perhaps every other year. With one car in the driveway our amusements were limited to anything we could reach on a bike.

Reading the local paper offered little stimulation. We subscribed to The Binghamton Press, which at the time was an afternoon rag. But it was a shallow, uninteresting paper full of brief news articles from the Associated Press. Our suburb was too wholesome to have drug problems. If kids were practicing premarital sex I didn’t know of any (but wished I did). That left two forms of amusement: radio and TV. Radio was out. There were a couple rock and roll stations but the same music was repeated endlessly and the commercials were endless too. At that time there was no public radio. That left TV. TV became about the only entertainment in my life. I looked forward to the autumn TV season the way some baseball fanatics look forward to the World Series. For a couple hours a day at most (and we were generally limited to an hour of TV a night on school nights – my parents were so cruel) I could escape into something else. For reasons I never really understood certain shows were out. Believe it or not we were not allowed to watch Star Trek. (Too racy I guess.) Laugh In was also out. Oddly it was okay to watch All in the Family and M*A*S*H. Dreck like My Three Sons and Hogan’s Heroes were always okay. I’d live for Friday and Saturday nights. Then I could watch quality shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They seemed a whole lot more interesting than my humdrum life.

Now we have over a hundred channels to choose from available day and night. And while our daughter still gets off on TV I hardly ever go near it. I’d like to say this is a recent phenomenon but it’s been this way for about the last fifteen years. While everyone in my office was watching Seinfeld I was clueless. (It could be that raising a daughter and going to grad school broke me of the habit.) I’ve never made it through an episode of Friends. I’ve never seen The West Wing (a show I doubtless would love if I could take the time to watch it). I don’t even know when it comes on, or even if it is still on the air. I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation regularly. But I lost interest in all the other Star Trek spinoffs. Even shows I would never miss like Masterpiece Theater and 60 Minutes have dropped off my radar.

The one TV constant in my life had been TV news. I watched The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite religiously. After he retired I would watch it with Dan Rather. But eventually I discovered there was much better news programming available on the radio. From National Public Radio, the public affairs programming locally on WAMU-FM and (a Washington blessing) C-SPAN Radio I can get much better in-depth news than I ever got from Uncle Walter. I won’t put up with commercials. I stay strictly with the public stations. During pledge week I turn off the radio.

It’s probably just as well. When I do get bored enough to surf the channels it seems a complete waste of my time. First, there are even more commercials than there were when I was growing up. Most commercial channels have 20 minutes an hour (sometimes more) of commercial blocks. But even minus the commercials the content is mostly just not there.

I understand “reality TV” is now all the rage. Oddly enough I have no desire to see “real people” engaged in these strange and pointless contests. The one time I tuned one in I quickly channel surfed away. Why would I want to watch someone eat a bug? Or get fired by Donald Trump? Or try to survive on some deserted island? It’s not like these things are all that real anyhow. Like professional wrestling these “reality shows” are actually usually pretty well scripted.

But the real reason I’ve given up television is that it is a passive experience. I’d much rather talk back. And I’d much rather take things at my schedule, not someone else’s. I don’t want to arrange my life so that Wednesdays at 9 PM I have to be glued in front of the TV. I don’t even want to bother to set the VCR to record shows to see at a time that does suit me.

Instead of TV I have a computer and an Internet connection. Rather than limit myself to 100 cable channels I now have billions of web sites. But like with TV viewing I tend to go to the sites whose content is fresh and interesting. But unlike TV my new channels are pretty much always available. TV channels don’t have hyperlinks.

On the Internet I can talk back. I can’t do that with my TV. Most of the sites I hit are blog sites. Most of the time I don’t leave comments. But I like the freedom to be able to comment when it suits my mood.

What do I use my TV for? It’s not to watch cable TV. Mostly my TV exists to let me enjoy videos and DVDs. My TV is not just a TV anymore. It’s part of a home theater. I have surround sound now. But even with the lure of my home theater most of the time I am surfing the Internet instead. While DVDs are fun they too are passive experiences. I’d rather be reading, or Steve Gilliard’s Blog, or catching up with my friend Lisa over at Snarkypants, or hanging out with fellow Tolkien fans, or thrashing through the issues and trivialities of life on my forum The Potomac Tavern, or enjoying the latest bizarre amusements in the world on Memepool or Dave Barry’s Blog.

I’m wondering why more people aren’t like me. Why are they watching people eat bugs when there is much better amusement on line? If nothing else, you can only get PG-13 sex on TV. On the Internet you can dine from a fine buffet of X rated amusements if so inclined. Or if virtual sex is insufficient there are endless temptations with online personal sites where maybe, just maybe, you find your ideal mate or find someone who shares your particular erotic kink.

I have to wonder how much life commercial TV has left. Like the mainframe, stories of its impending death are probably greatly exaggerated. But I have to think with its limited buffet and with the unlimited buffet available on the Internet its days are numbered. I’m hoping that twenty years from now network programming will be obsolete. Instead I expect we will get the information and amusement we want from our very fat Internet pipes or from our high bandwidth portable Internet devices instead. If I need to see TV news I’d much rather do it at Naked News anyhow.

To survive perhaps TV will have to find an excuse to become good again. It doesn’t have to dwell forever in mediocrity. Maybe we will get programming for people with an active and curious mind, like me. Maybe instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator TV will pander to those of us who imagine ourselves as full of class, intellect and style.

But those shows are few and far between. Yet if PBS ever does shows like Meeting of Minds again I could be lured away from my computer. How about it, entertainment industry?