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Good, Gray NPR | The Nation

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Good, Gray NPR

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A third group of critics takes issue not so much with NPR's political orientation but with its monotonal sound quality; its often bland and homogeneous programming; its lack of aural experimentation; and its diminished cultural coverage--which, they note, was an integral part of NPR's founding mission. These critics, many of whom work in the world of public radio, lament that on the road to becoming a "primary news provider" NPR has neglected its original mission to provide a wide array of top-notch, eclectic cultural programming. (They note, as evidence of NPR's bias against innovative, artistic fare, that the network turned down two of public radio's most popular programs--Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and Ira Glass's This American Life, both of which found a home at rival distributors.)

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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"The notion that we are turning away from culture is not correct," says Klose, who cites programs like Performance Today, Jazz Profiles and a recent eight-part series on the state of regional theater as evidence of NPR's cultural vitality. Klose is right: Valuable cultural fare continues to flow from NPR. But the numbers show that news is clearly seen as more important: In 2002 NPR spent $41 million on news and information, and only $7 million on cultural and entertainment programming.

"The NPR drone" is how some staffers describe the network's overall sound, and many NPR watchers concur with that description. "If you listen to a lot of NPR," Brian Montopoli averred in The Washington Monthly in 2003, "you realize how similar it all sounds: no matter who is talking, or what they are talking about." Writing in the New York Times in 1998, Greil Marcus took blistering aim at NPR's leading hosts and newscasters, and wondered why, year after year, their work imparts a sense of "boredom with the world."

Klose takes issue with the notion that NPR is bland, detached and formulaic: "I think it's an urban myth," he says. "It's an armchair cavil that has no basis in fact." But at least one distinguished former NPR employee has a view closer to that of the critics. Two years ago Robert Krulwich, who many consider to be the network's finest correspondent from the late 1970s and early '80s, issued a blunt critique of NPR's programming--and, by implication, its audience--at a staff retreat. According to the notes of a staff member who was present at the talk, Krulwich made the following points:

Politesse. NPR desires to be polite, to maintain dignity. It doesn't challenge its sources or interviewees. There is room for reporters to stiffen when they hear a lie and poke back.

Scared of audience. The habits of your audience shouldn't be your habit. NPR writes too much for our expected listeners. We should disturb the audience occasionally. Tell them what they don't already know and what they don't want to hear.

No joy. A mature organization grows accustomed to itself. NPR has lost the willingness to play. You don't hear much that makes you laugh or as many tears. Too much in the mind. NPR needs more people who scream, suffer; people who are playing.

Might the Kroc money, by providing NPR with a solid financial cushion, pave the way for more quirky, spontaneous and risky programming? Says Susan Stamberg: "The Kroc money, actually, will probably reduce the quirk level even more, because with it we can pay for more and more sober reporters out in the field."

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