You will not escape "Car Talk," "Prairie Home Companion" or "Whad'ya Know"
November 12, 2001 10:45 AM   Subscribe

You will not escape "Car Talk," "Prairie Home Companion" or "Whad'ya Know" How the hardcore number-crunching audience analysis of commercial radio is applied to public radio. It's "frowny faces" for poor-performing classical music shows, I'm afraid. Is there any local radio programming you love that wouldn't survive this kind of scrutiny? (NYT registration required.)
posted by CosmicSlop (30 comments total)
posted by ParisParamus at 10:54 AM on November 12, 2001

Excuse me, but there is no "local" radio anymore. Every station in town sounds exactly the same, and I mean EXACTLY the same, as their demographic clones around the country. Our public station is at least a decade behind the times, generally speaking, so any syndicated NPR/PRI show is usually an improvement over what it replaced, even if it was music. If you pinned me down, though, I'd say losing Sunday morning's "Gospel Flight" would pain me most.
posted by nance at 10:58 AM on November 12, 2001

Radio sucks, has sucked for years, and there's no change in sight. Thank god for streaming audio like Radio Paradise. I sincerely hope that eclectic internet radio can fill the void left in the airwaves.

Has anyone tried that XM Radio? You need special gear to get it, and ClearChannel (ugh!) looks to be one of the programming consultants, but for all that it looks interesting....
posted by mrmanley at 11:06 AM on November 12, 2001

Excuse me, but there is no "local" radio anymore. Every station in town sounds exactly the same, and I mean EXACTLY the same, as their demographic clones around the country.

Well you have a point that radio isn't "local" anymore, but as to every station sounding EXACTLY the same, I must object!

Give KEXP (formerly KCMU) a whirl--local DJs do all the programming and you can listen to Real/WMA/MP3 streams + get a real time playlist! A public radio station brought to you by the University of Washington and local superrich patron of the arts Paul Allen.
posted by donovan at 11:30 AM on November 12, 2001

This is a great article -- a really good piece of reporting, getting inside the decision-making process that's been driving increasingly talky public radio. Luckily, here in New York we have access to non-NPR public radio like WKCR or WFMU, which provide music and a more local flavor.

I admit to being a complete NPR junkie, although I can no longer deal with the irritating guffaws of Car Talk. It seems to me that NPR has become a bit like Barnes and Noble. However much I dislike what the chain does to smaller bookstores in places like NYC, it also brings a wider variety of books to communities which previously had (at best) a crappy Waldenbooks down at the mall. NPR is sort of like that -- you can complain that the juggernaut of All Things Considered tramples local public-radio programming. But it does create a nationally available channel for decent news and commentary that otherwise couldn't be approached by local stations.

I don't know what the answer is.
posted by BT at 11:43 AM on November 12, 2001

There are some other Internet "radio stations" out there (radio formats on the web seem as appropriate as radio plays on TV, but hey it's an evolving form) that present adventurous music. Check out for info and links, and a guide to local radio in the Seattle/Portland/Vancouver area.
posted by retrofut at 11:50 AM on November 12, 2001

I would give my local public radio station more money if they just got rid of "Prairie Home Companion" and "Whaddya Know".
posted by panopticon at 11:51 AM on November 12, 2001

I wish adjacent stations would get their schedules together. I recently drove from NJ to Roanoke, VA and back, and heard the same first half-hour of "This American Life" three times and (Whaddya Know?) twice in the six-hour drive. I gave up and shifted to the local relligious shows for entertainment, and found out that Harry Potter is a tool of Satan.
posted by fpatrick at 12:05 PM on November 12, 2001

nance, check out WNYC. David Garland does a show called Spinning on Air which is a gem. His personality and collection of recordings add up to a unique show. He's unlike Irwin Chusid, who guns for outsider music, David's kind of on the edge of music and gives a great deal of historical and production background on what he plays. WNYC is a public radio station.

Also in NYC is WKCR which belongs to Columbia University. WKCR is the home of the most extraordinary historian of Armstrong and Parker, probably Miles, too, Phil Schaap. I'll grant you though, that this station is university owned and that changes the criteria.

In both these cases, I think they survive because of the massive audience in NYC. Another exception that I believe gets air time all over the place is Schickele Mix. It's syndicated by Public Radio International. I don't know what relationship PRI and NPR have, but I know there are other PRI programs that are much more interesting like Saint Paul Sunday. Another cool guy is Kark Haas.

On the other hand, I agree with the complaints about NPR. It has become too bland for me to swallow any more. People have to move their butts for this not to continue to happen on a larger scale. They have to complain, make their opinions heard when they contribute (if they contribute). The radio dial is just not that interesting anymore. Everything has been sliced and diced according to the marketing schmucks including the fascinating 20 minutes with no commercial interruptions stations.
posted by mmarcos at 12:15 PM on November 12, 2001

Our local NPR dropped Classical recently, essentially replacing it with the BBC and I couldn't be happier.

I love all the NPR talkies.
posted by glenwood at 12:15 PM on November 12, 2001

mmarcos -- I'll second that recommendation for Spinning on Air. David Garland's terrific, and exactly the kind of thing the increasingly talk-centered format of NPR/PRI stations allows less room for.

Re Phil Schaap: while he's intensely knowledgeable, Schaap tragically suffers from Self-Important-Jazz-DJ syndrome, and has a bad tendency to preface every cut with a long recollection of a conversation he had with Mingus in 1973.
posted by BT at 12:31 PM on November 12, 2001

I want to like local radio, but there's really no such thing. And before I begin this rant let me explain that I live in the fifth largest and highest rated FM radio market, and seventh largest AM market in the US: Dallas Texas. Even the local stuff here is regional or national minded - as it gets rebroadcast to other smaller markets so radio companies can save money. Mostly though we get stuff rebroadcast from other markets too, so it's all like snakes swallowing their own tails.

I had a conversation about this awhile back with the programmer of KERA 90.1fm here in Dallas. He explained that come pledge drive time, shows like NPR's Car Talk and PRI's This American Life would bring in money. Music shows didn't. I was trying to convince him to consider producing a local program showcasing rock, pop and folk oriented music from artists here locally in the North Texas area. He said they were already phasing out all of their "filler" music timeslots, and moving further away from playing any music whatsoever. Even their local shows would be talk or news oriented. KERA used to be one of the last places to try and promote the local area, and now even they can't afford to do it. So much for public radio.

Well it would almost be unfair not to mention KNON 89.3 but it's "community" radio, and makes no headway in this area with any resemblance of ratings.

There are times when "local" radio stations claim to support local music, but getting them to actually play local music on the radio is harder than performing a root canal. They hire people to come by to public venues where they think there might be an audience, and they plaster the place with signs and banners about their radio station. This means they've "sponsored" the event, which means nothing, really. I doubt any money even changed hands. They told the people running the event they'd mention the event live on the air a few times, and in return they get to pretend that the event in question was the radio station's idea, which it wasn't.

Occasionally they'll have one radio personality hang around before the bands start, and then quietly disappear before they ever have to actually touch the groundlings and unwashed masses.

Since the radio station playlists are decided upon outside the local area, it's practically impossible for any local artist or band to get their music any regular airplay whatsoever on the station. Some stations have "local live shows" on Sunday nights. No one ever listens to the radio on a Sunday night, so these shows rarely achieve any measure of success. When they DO, they're quickly squelched. The Merge 93.3 had a local music Sunday show featuring Chip Adams, that actually started doing rather well. They promoted Chip Adams the weeknight shift, but took away his local show. What used to be an hour of of local music once a week has been reduced to about ten minutes each weeknight: Chip Adams' Local Access Spotlight where he is allowed to play one local artist per week, predetermined with input from his superiors. Talk about castrating the bull! All the rest of the time he's stuck with the songlist that fits The Merge's demographic and predetermined format. In other words, now a trained monkey could do Chip's job.

The concept of finding new talent out there that could rivet the imagination of listeners is gone. DJs are custodians. Clear Channel wants the local audience to buy $75 tickets to international pop sensations. They don't want people paying a small cover charge to hear local bands play, when the entertainment value is equal or greater. I've been observing this for years, and used to try to fight it, but it's like David and Goliath, and I'm plum out of rocks.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:32 PM on November 12, 2001

The state of public radio is pretty good, but, of course, could always be better. What I miss most in NYC is the small-town, locally produced programming I hear on trips in Upstate NY and New England.

But really, all you unhappy people, what are you longing for?
posted by ParisParamus at 12:35 PM on November 12, 2001

What am I longing for? How about some radio that surprises me once in a while? Lately I've been raiding my local library for MP3 material, and I'm always struck, as I go through these '60s compilations, by how eclectic a typical '60s Top 40 playlist was, mixing Marvin Gaye and Glen Campbell and Big Brother and the Holding Company, all of which would be separated into their respective urban/country/classic rock reservations today. And even on those reservations, they might have to go to a special corral there. A friend reported the other day that he met an employee of one of our local country stations who had never heard of Merle Haggard.

All of you who mentioned this or that station in NYC or elsewhere, be advised I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sure, I can get some of those stations when I'm sitting at my computer, but I'm not sitting here all day. "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW is probably my all-time favorite public-radio music show; I base this opinion on having heard it twice. I do occasionally catch "Schickele Mix" on an out-of-town public station when I'm driving through Ohio, and whoever mentioned it above, I can second that.

One commercial station I'd listen to regularly if I could get it is WXRT in Chicago, which does, indeed, surprise me sometimes. There's a high school !!!) station in an even smaller town west of here that does a pretty good job aping it, but I can't get it in my car and only faintly on my home receiver.

As for public radio, I agree with whoever compared NPR to Barnes & Noble -- it's a huge improvement over what was there first, but it's a shame it can't be even better. Ira Glass gave an interesting interview to the NYT magazine some time ago in which he echoed many of the complaints about public radio. He's an exception, I guess.
posted by nance at 12:52 PM on November 12, 2001

The fact that public radio has managed to be increasingly self-sufficient is fantastic. To do so, programmers try to attract larger, money-giving audiences. That's logical to me. I don't see this as "music vs. news/talk" and it's not as simple as "local vs. national" either.

It's about the preponderance of syndicated shows. Progammers play it safe by going to the same high-profile syndicated shows, instead of developing original local shows. It seems like it's taking the easy route. As others have pointed out, it's as uninteresting as cookie-cutter commercial radio music formats being franchised nationwide.

Ultimately, I still hold public radio to higher standard. I think it's insulting to your local audience to feed them a steady diet of syndicated programming. It's like going to a neighborhood restaurant and finding Swanson TV dinners, Jennie-O turkey loaf and Spam on the menu.
posted by CosmicSlop at 1:04 PM on November 12, 2001

I agree with whoever compared NPR to Barnes & Noble -- it's a huge improvement over what was there first, but it's a shame it can't be even better.

Well, boys and girls, I think you want your cake and eat it too. The potential market for a program such as TAL is tiny, and would be even smaller if it was a "local show"; This Chicagonan Life. So, make up your mind. More local means more mass market, even on public radio.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:20 PM on November 12, 2001

I don't really want more local on public radio -- we already have more than most, and it's not all that good. But I would like to hear more of a local voice in commercial programming. I miss the days when you could tell the d.j. had just broken up with his girlfriend because he kept playing heartache songs, or the days when he or she might say, "That last track was so good, I'm playing it again," and then he would. You might hear that today, but you can bet the gesture was focus-grouped first.
posted by nance at 1:25 PM on November 12, 2001

commercial radio sucks, but I doubt anyone here is arguing that.

Hmmm. Wonder what public radio in, say, Portugal is like???
posted by ParisParamus at 1:33 PM on November 12, 2001

"This American Life" is good show. That it has succeeded nationally is impressive. It got off the ground thanks to a big leap of faith by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, who gave Ira Glass & Co. a big fat, multi-year grant. More power to them. Big grants or not, such shows have to start someplace. But what if there is no room in the radio inn because of Satellite Sisters or Splendid Table re-runs?

I think too much reliance on proven, warhorse syndicated shows is ultimately unhealthy for public radio. Local shows want to be syndicated; syndicated shows all want to find more local affiliates. Where's the middle ground that allows new, creative efforts to take root locally while Garrison Keillor keeps 'em tuning in for more whimsy across the country on Saturday evenings to protect the bottom line?

I'm a volunteer host on a public station, and this isn't eating cake and having it too, or merely sour grapes. I'm simply troubled by the national trend in public radio programming choices.
posted by CosmicSlop at 1:42 PM on November 12, 2001

Could not live without the 24-hour-a-day commercial-free jazz station. No ads, vocals about once in a blue moon, and many very long (compared to commercial radio) songs.

posted by fuq at 2:28 PM on November 12, 2001

You have to remember that producing an original show locally costs money, a lot more than paying a syndication fee. Though almost every station has some local content, very few create great, original shows. The trend on public radio is similar to that on public television: political pressure has reduced subsidies from federal and state governments, which means that stations have to raise money through more pledge drives -- or more corporate sponsorship. The former is a Bad Thing because of donor fatigue. If you've given, you're annoyed because you're still stuck listening to the drive. If you haven't, you're actually statistically very unlikely to be converted, so you get annoyed for similar reasons. So pledge drives are listener turn-offs. (WBEZ in Chicago had been having success dropping tiny blurbs to go to their website and pledge; in better economic times this had resulted in almost completely eliminating pledge periods. This last week they've been doing a drive in high gear again, so I assume that people aren't going to the website as much.)

Faced with these two pincers, the easiest choice left is to seek corporate sponsorship.

And corporate sponsors like proven, safe name-brand shows.

That said, there are some great shows out there. WBEZ has a talk show called Odyssey hosted by the effervescent Gretchen Helfrich, who has one of the fastest voices in radio and a knack for restating complex things in simple language, from Mideast politics to string theory. 'BEZ has syndicated it starting a couple of months ago, but I don't know how many stations have picked it up so far. To some extent it may provide a replacement for shows like The Connection, which was wracked by a dispute between the station and longtime host Christopher Lydon.

Here's another article on the decline of classical radio, covering the loss of Chicago's WNIB among others.
posted by dhartung at 2:43 PM on November 12, 2001

Well, I hate to reveal myself as a backwoods hick, but before I got to college I had never even heard of public radio. I listed to "the rock station" and "the rap station" etc. I lived in a town with 2000 people. Then I went to college, and started listening to NPR, and realized that commercial radio sucks a big.

Now I'm out of college, and I live in Dallas. I listen to NPR almost exclusively. Some say I have turned into a priggish intellectual type as a result. OK, so it's true, but this does not diminsh my enthusiasm for public radio. I think the people at KERA do a great job. The talk shows are OK, and I don't care if they're national. For people like me, who are used to either an overly commercial or an overly provencial selection, NPR is right on the money.

The local music shows with the people on the theramin and the digiredoo are cool and all, but uhh.....I'd rather listen to some fat guys from Boston tell retarded car jokes.
posted by dr_emory at 3:06 PM on November 12, 2001

Good points, dhartung. Underwriters like to back winners. But new shows have to come from somebody, with time, effort and money coming from someplace. If not from local stations, then new shows could be developed directly from national syndicators.

Then would you be OK with your local public station becoming a 24/7 affiliate for a large public radio system someday? That's an exaggeration, but it's happening with commercial music radio now. Stations owned by out-of-state companies, voice-tracked DJ's phoning in their shows, playlists consulted from afar, and a local sales staff pounding the pavement for local advertising dollars. And all of that revenue doesn't even stay in your town's economy, while jobs for on-air employees are eliminated. It's a bad path to be on.

Maybe that doesn't bother some folks. Is radio simply not that important anymore?

Further reading on NPR business practices HERE.
posted by CosmicSlop at 3:19 PM on November 12, 2001

Is radio simply not that important anymore?

I think radio will have to be destroyed utterly before it can rise again from the ashes. Listening to a random sampling of what's available here in Vegas, we're getting close.

My hopes are for ubiquitous wireless internet access and a proliferation of broadcasts.

(I really liked KINK-FM in Portland when I was there a few years ago, but they don't do a web broadcast, dammit.)
posted by rushmc at 3:57 PM on November 12, 2001

I can tell you what I've found in Spain. Commercial radio quite like other Western countries. Sports coverage is quite insane (for those familiar with "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!" upon scoring), yak, yak. Some commercial programming directed at housewives which is sometimes funny to listen to, it almost always seems to have a slightly fascist edge to it, especially when ETA has committed another of its imbecile acts. Public classical radio is incredible, better than anything I heard in the US, such a wide variety and some programs dedicated to listener requests, a pretty bold contemporary playlist, not just classic ditties. Late night talk shows which talk about a very wide variety of things (sex is perfectly fine). The really interesting programming still tends to be on the govt funded radio stations. Little jazz except a nightly program on the main classical station.
posted by mmarcos at 5:21 PM on November 12, 2001

TAL fans, you might want to check out Transom, if you don't know about it already.
posted by mmarcos at 6:12 PM on November 12, 2001

My favorites, aside from NPR news and This American Life:
Living on Earth
David Oates' Great Apes
New Letters on the Air
posted by ferris at 6:38 PM on November 12, 2001

Dr_Emory - LOL I'd like to here theremin and didgeriedoo shows once in a while...

I was introduced to the value of NPR by a certain Humanities teacher in high school, Ms. Chernoff. Never got into it really until I started grad school (and moved to a town with a full time NPR station). Now I'm an NPR junkie; it's totally ruined me for commercial radio, which is NOT a bad thing at all. This quote from the original NYT article hits the nail on the head, then misses it completely:

[What NPR listeners seek, he maintains, is not a narrow format but a "sensibility," a pattern of "interests, values, and beliefs," which explains why the audience for "All Things Considered" also responds well to the quiz show "Whad'ya Know."]

As for the first part, it is EXACTLY that sensibility, etc. that holds my interest, keeps me intrigued. But that quiz show SUCKS. I sometimes wake up to my stereo/alarm set to NPR Sat. mornings, and having given it a chance a few times, can't figure out why the hell anyone listens to that. But to each his own.

As a statistician of sorts, I'm glad NPR knows its audience. But there definitely is a value in taking risks, changing it up, and surprising your audience.
posted by skechada at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2001

Miami must have the worst selection of commercial FM radio stations of any major city. About half are Spanish language, but none play anything but commercial pop/salsa stuff. The few rock stations have VERY limited playlists.

The local NPR affiliate, WLRN, is (bad npr pun follows) a breath of Fresh Air. They have several exceptional locally programmed jazz and Caribbean music shows. As a gearhead, I admit to liking Car Talk, and although Garrison Keillor can induce spontaneous narcolepsy, PHC does have some good music and a funny skit once in a while.

There is also an excellent independent community station, WDNA, that plays mainly jazz, latin jazz and "rootsy" latin music. Other than a couple of interesting bootleg r/b stations, that's about it.

What I miss is the musical diversity of top 40 radio in the mid-to-late '60s. You might go from Dean Martin, to the Beatles, to Johnny Cash, to The Temptations in less than 10 minutes. Everything is so damn specialized nowadays.
posted by groundhog at 9:10 AM on November 13, 2001

WDNA! Blessings on you, I was trying to remember them recently. They've got streaming!

I remember WLRN. Cool station. They were quite independent in terms of programming when I lived there (mid-80s and before). Back in the 70s WSHE was a tremendous rock station, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heap, Boston, the occasional Yes. I understand SHE is now a crappy station. There was also WBUS, the best jazz station I ever heard except for WKCR as mentioned above. One of the BUS guys, China Valles, went to WTMI. When I left he was the only decent jazz program around.

I sympathize with you on the Latin stations but that's part of the marketing problems raised by this article.
posted by mmarcos at 4:13 PM on November 13, 2001

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