NPR: Where New Ideas Go to Die?

Public radio broadcasters in the U.S. are coming to grips with the announcement from Tom and Ray Magliozzi that they plan to retire from Car Talk, one of National Public Radio’s most popular (and lucrative) programs, this fall.
“Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” have been doing the show for 25 years. Although they’ll be done, Car Talk itself will remain on the air with shows assembled from the archives (one of the producers, a former colleague of mine, says they’ve got wide discretion to pick and choose what will air and when).
There’s been some controversy over whether it makes sense to actually keep running Car Talk since all the content will be rehashed. Ira Glass, founding producer of This American Life (a program that, ironically, NPR declined to syndicate), thinks airing reconstituted shows makes for bad programming precedent on NPR more generally.
“For all of public radio’s successes, the part of our mission we’ve always neglected the most is innovation,” writes Glass. “Our biggest shows…are decades old. The average age of our listeners keeps creeping upward. At 53, I am one of the younger public radio stars. My show has been on the air 17 years.
“We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas. That’s our mission, and ultimately, it’ll be good business, too, to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences.”
NPR’s vice president of programming, Eric Nuzum, begs to differ. Calling Car Talk “the single most powerful program in public radio,” Nuzum suggests that public broadcasters can’t afford to part with the show – at least not in the near future. To him, it’s all about the bottom line.
Car Talk isn’t a dying old has-been,” asserts Nuzum. “It is our greatest success story TODAY. It isn’t our past. It is our present. And it will help make our future possible. Relegating Car Talk to off-hours — or killing it altogether — neither serves the audience or the goal of innovation. It would be a self-inflicted wound.”
If Nuzum’s perspective is representative of NPR leadership, then the state of programming innovation there is abysmal. We’re talking about a call-in program devoted to car diagnostics and repair – far from the high-minded sentiments one finds among many public broadcasters who still like to believe that they go above and beyond their commercial and community-broadcast brethren when it comes to simultaneously enlightening and entertaining the populace.
Car Talk itself is not without its own dark spots. Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel wrote recently about how NPR leveraged the program to force carriage of other shows on affiliate stations, to the detriment of locally-produced programming. Paul’s story even got picked up by Harry Shearer, the host of Le Show (also syndicated by NPR).
In addition, most people don’t realize that Car Talk has never really been the program it purports to be. One assumes a call-in show is live, but that is not the case here. Instead, the show is a meticulous work of pre-production. When you call Car Talk‘s toll-free hotline, you’re shunted to a voicemail box where you’re prompted to leave your name, number, and a brief description of what you’d like Tom and Ray to do for you.
Car Talk‘s producers then vet each call, choosing which ones to feature on that week’s program based on “entertainment value” as the primary metric. Tom and Ray insist they don’t do any pre-research on the calls they receive, but this is hard to believe.
Commercial broadcasters have been kicked in the teeth (and justifiably so) for their increasing use of such sonic sleight of hand, pimping shows as “live” when they’re most definitely not. The fact that Car Talk‘s gotten away with it for so long says a lot about the pass public broadcasters get for doing good (and good-sounding) work outside of the commercial paradigm. Yet this is a program that effectively pioneered the practice, long before commercial broadcasters gravitated toward it.
Unfortunately, public broadcasters live in a bubble, strongly defined by their institutional connections/loyalties and a misplaced sense of moral authority that their work is “better” than what else is available on the dial. But if commercial broadcasting is a benchmark by which one judges their own quality and importance, what does that actually say about the service public broadcasters provide? Commercial radio sucks, and good on public broadcasting for sucking less, but it’s all still suboptimal, leaving much to be desired.
The fallout from Car Talk‘s planned discontinuance shines a bright light on just how bereft this bubble is when it comes to program development and support. It’s hard to believe that, after 45 years, NPR doesn’t yet seem to realize that the majority of its best programs have originated with affiliate stations, who still scrounge for every cent they can just for the opportunity to try and create compelling programming.
The system by which program development happens in public radio is bass-ackwards: NPR’s at its best as a program distribution channel, not as a program incubator, and the mentality of Nuzum et al. certainly seems to support this sentiment.
Over the last year, I’ve developed an increasing level of respect and passion for those who are trying to change this dynamic from within, but it’s sad to see that they’re still wholly outnumbered and outfunded by folks and forces that seem more interested in protecting a chimera than actually engaging the medium and those who use it in truly innovative ways.
I suspect it’ll take a generational shift in the upper echelons of the public broadcasting world before this state of play may change. But since the bubble’s walls seem stronger the higher one rises among pubcasting’s leadership class, I’m not holding my breath.