In January 2002 National Public Radio launched The Tavis Smiley Show, a daily one-hour magazine program featuring a high-velocity mixture of commentary, reporting and analysis, and hosted by one of the most energetic and ambitious young media personalities in the country. The first new daily program produced at NPR in a generation, The Tavis Smiley Show was directed at an audience poorly served by public radio: African-Americans. According to NPR, it did quite well in terms of ratings. But the honeymoon didn’t last: Smiley felt that NPR was not doing enough to promote his program among nonwhite listeners, and his contract negotiations with the network collapsed in late 2004, after which he went on the offensive against NPR. “It is ironic,” he informed Time, “that a Republican president has an administration that is more inclusive and more diverse than a so-called liberal-media-elite network.”
Smiley directed his firepower at an organization that has accomplished a great deal in recent years. Thanks in part to NPR’s comprehensive foreign coverage, its listenership has soared since 9/11: In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, NPR gained (and has kept) nearly 4 million new listeners, and the network’s various programs now reach 23 million listeners a week on more than 780 member stations. Morning Edition is now the most listened-to morning show in the country. As the listenership grew, so did the philanthropic largesse: In November 2003 NPR received a stunning $236 million bequest from the estate of Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
But Smiley ruined the party both by calling attention to the shortcomings of an institution that emerged from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and by underlining the gap between NPR’s rhetoric–in this case, about racial inclusion–and reality. The entity that calls itself National Public Radio, he reminded us, is not serving the entire public. “You’d be amazed,” he told Salon, “at the number of people of color who do not know what NPR is.”
In its journalism and its financial structure, NPR has indeed evolved into a somewhat different entity from what its founders envisioned. On May 3, 1971, it went on the air with the first broadcast of All Things Considered. The program began with a kaleidoscopic account of a major antiwar rally in Washington, DC, at which more than 6,000 people were arrested. “Excuse me,” NPR’s reporter asked a police sergeant attempting to quell the protests, “Is that a technique? Where the men actually try to drive the motorcycles right into the demonstrators?” Three decades later, rough-edged, in-your-face reportage has largely been supplanted by conventional punditry from the likes of Cokie Roberts, Daniel Schorr and David Brooks, and by consciously mainstream news reporting by correspondents whose voices are often indistinguishable from one another.
To some extent, financial and political pressures help to explain NPR’s turn toward mainstream respectability and high-minded professionalism: NPR’s founders had every expectation that public funds would cover the budget, but Republican hostility to public broadcasting thwarted those early hopes and dreams. Three decades after its creation, NPR now draws a significant portion of its funding from corporations such as Wal-Mart, Sodexho and Archer Daniels Midland. Likewise, NPR had sound journalistic reasons for turning away from its edgy, countercultural roots. Over the past decade, as media conglomerates dumped public-affairs programming in favor of “infotainment” and tabloid trash, NPR recognized the void and moved to fill it with high-quality news reporting. That news-oriented model, by drawing in listeners hungry for substantial coverage of politics and public affairs, has enabled NPR to thrive: Today, it continues to add correspondents and bureaus at a time when most other major news organizations are trimming them. A fair-minded evaluation must conclude that if NPR has turned its back on some of the values enshrined in its original mission statement, it has also, in other ways and despite enormous political pressure from its detractors, remained true to them as well.