Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

Tax-and-Beg Radio

The billboards for the local public-radio station say “NO RANT. NO SLANT.” That flatters the target audience nicely, eh? Unlike those wingnut stations where Rush Limbaugh speaks in tongues through a megaphone, public radio is as calm and collected as the resting heart rate of a sloth on a branch, as serene as Garrison Keillor chewing a mouthful of hotdish in a tub of tapioca. No slant! Your Glenn Becks and Hugh Hewitts and Dennis Pragers, why, these guys get up every day, read the Times and the Post, narrow their eyes into super-villain slits, and think: It will be a special challenge today to distort these obvious truths, but my audience of slack-mouthed zombies expects nothing less.

The controversy over Juan Williams’s garb-related thoughtcrime focused attention on defunding public radio, something conservatives have pushed for years. Why? Because they hate art and fairness! Also puppies. But it would be a sign the Republicans could actually make a government program go away, instead of slowing the rate of growth by 5 percent and calling it savings, so conservatives are urged to defund it all, even if that means Nina Totenberg will have to live on a grate by a Metro station.

Public-radio advocates usually respond: A) We don’t get hardly any money whatsoever from the public, something like 0.0001 percent of our budget; and B) If you take that away, an old lady in Squat Falls, Idaho, will be unable to watch her beloved opera. Granted, she could get it at the library, or watch it online, but the library copy is scratched and she has trouble doing searches on YouTube. Fine. Hold a fundraiser and send her a complete set of Puccini. I’ll chip in a buck.

Or run commercials, already. Granted, the very idea of crass splashy ads crashing into the well-tempered palaver makes public-radio advocates rear back like Dracula confronted with the cross. Public radio is known for its seamless tone, its even temper. Mournful interstitial banjo music leads into a reasoned but rueful account of Sudanese atrocities, followed by gently effervescent baroque quartets that yield to a station ID with a hopeful flute fillip. Somewhere on Olympus, Daniel Schorr nods in approval. Commercials would spoil it.

But many shows already have a commercial, fore and aft. “This program on the folk music of Depression-era transgendered African-American pigeon fanciers has been brought to you by a large corporation whose board vainly believes this will engender good will, and a grant by the Gotrocks Foundation: spending its largess in a fashion that would give its capitalistic benefactor a coronary for over 30 years.” The corporation grants are a particularly pathetic piece of danegeld; British Petroleum could sponsor every single public-radio show, and no listener would conclude, “Well, I hated you for killing the earth, but you sponsored that show on the impact of lead-based makeup in Renaissance commedia dell’arte, so we’re even.”

#page#Besides, their commercials are pledge drives, the worst form of commercial ever invented: Instead of people who pop on the air to sell you something in 30-second doses between traffic and weather, two uncomfortable local hosts are commanded to bore the audience with the radio equivalent of standing by a freeway ramp with a sign that says ABSOLUTE DESPERATION. It’s pitched as a partnership, a way of belonging, of doing good works — but when someone gave Mother Teresa money for the orphanage, she didn’t give him a tote bag with a logo.

The obligatory disclaimers: I like public radio. The other night we heard a long debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace — four great speakers argued the case, and then the audience voted. And then everyone was fired! Including the audience. You don’t have to contribute if you listen, any more than you’re obligated to give money to a grocery store that dumps a sack of risotto on your stoop every week, but the dunning letters come with dire orations of need, and the checks go out. In return we get a little dongle you can put on your keychain that gives you discounts at selected merchants. What does AM talk give you, besides the knowledge that you have pleased the Bestial Lord Rove, sitting atop his mountain of gruel-soaked skulls?

I know people who work in public radio, and they’re good journalists. But I grit my teeth when I go to the local station for interviews or shows. I’ve spent time in private radio, where the dank ugly studios lack only leaking barrels of water with Civil Defense markings. The local public-radio stations are like the bridge of the Enterprise. Here, put on these silk-sheathed headphones, cushioned with our special mixture of ambergris. Grapes? Peeled or pre-peeled?

If the Congress defunds NPR, then Ernst Stavro Soros, sitting in his underwater lair stroking a white Persian, can foot the bill for the rest. Or Bill can foot the bill. (Gates, that is.) Or they can run ads, and the audience can suffer the way the AM talk-radio audience suffers, listening to another exhortation to buy gold before the currency gets into a contest with Zimbabwe’s for the greatest number of zeros. If we can’t stop paying however many pennies to public radio, then we can’t push away any piglet from the teat. A hard-working Congress could pass this by 9:02 a.m. on Day One. Unless Amtrak abolition took a minute more than scheduled.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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