Friday, May 15, 2015

Dear Ira Glass

** 5/18/2015 - I wrote this quickly last Friday & hit publish while angry.  (never a good idea).  There's a follow up post here where I talk about why writing angrily, ignoring all the ways that NPR and broader public radio community are meeting me, and bringing up race as I did were all probably mistakes.  If you read this one, please also read that one (linked again at the bottom).  Or maybe go listen to a good public radio piece instead?  I'm making one additional edit to this piece & adding a strikethrough to my reference to race in the final paragraph.  Re-reading, it seems extremely inappropriate.

**Note - getting some responses to this and updating at least the section on the NPR upfronts.  Also worth pointing out that TAL is not an NPR program.  Corrections in the post thanks to comments by Linda Holmes & Annie Johnson, though at this point I won't have time to make more updates.

As a fan of public radio for years, I was disappointed to hear Ira Glass' quote at the podcasting upfront a few weeks ago that "Public Radio is ready for capitalism".  I wasn't alone.
And after reading Ira's response (clarification?) in Current, I think that maybe there's some point-missing going on here.  So here's my attempt to respond and offer my concerns, as a longtime listener (who was prompted to begin pledging in large part at the absolute terror of how I would respond if Ira were to pounce on me and ask why I wasn't).

First, since you laid out your bona fides, lets add mine: I grew up in Minnesota listening to MPR.  The coolest moment of near-brush-with-celebrity for me was seeing Garrison Keillor walking down the street.  I grew up on "Sound Money" with Erika Whittlinger, the "Weekend Edition Sunday" music still sends chills down my spine.  I remember sitting in the air listening anxiously to every second of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me ..." (back when the celebrity guests were NPR personalities and getting only one answer was a "rat boy" named after Neal Conan's failure), and I remember being enthralled by "This American Life".  I drifted a bit in college, and now my listening is podcasts and NPR One, plus following fantastic public radio folks on Twitter, but I still consider myself a die-hard public radio fan.

As a fan of both public radio and podcasts, it's been interesting, exciting, and sometimes disheartening to watch as various programs make stabs into this region.  Let's start with the interesting and exciting - you say that your project documenting life at Harper High School (which was one of my favorite programs of yours last year) was made possible in large part because of increased revenue from podcast underwriting.  That's awesome!  It was a fantastic program, clearly took a lot of effort and also simply monetary resources, and I'm really glad you were able to put it on.  It's been fascinating to watch the cultural phenomenon that is "Serial", and now seeing that "Invisibilia" seems to be doing well is great.  Neither show is really for me (and really, I've mostly drifted away from "This American Life" outside of your occasional investigative shows), but that's fine.  I'm glad that public radio is doing well in this new audio sphere, and I'm glad that that success is enabling new experiments.  And frankly, I get the you were talking to advertisers and trying to get their money.  It's an understandable quote.

But now lets talk about some of the disheartening things - Gimlet's missteps, turmoil at the top, the cancellation of Tell Me More and censuring of Latino USA, and also the poster children of this successful move into podcasting.

Alex Blumberg, former "This American Life" guy, left to form a startup called Gimlet, and his first show "Startup" also had a bit of a moment last year.  A moment enabled by his close proximity to "This American Life", "Planet Money" and the public radio community.  Indeed, when the inevitable public radio march madness brackets arrived this year, there was at least one that included "Startup" in the public radio family.  Famously, Alex had some trouble with a squarespace ad that was misrepresented as a "This American Life" spot.  Less famously, but more troubling to me, when he went out looking to raise money, he did a show with some former planet money colleagues that was a bald-faced attack on the notion of "accredited investors" exactly when he had a huge incentive to ask people (qualified or not) to invest in early-round startup financing.  Essentially, when asking people to make a risky investment, he found some public radio folks to provide cover for a pseudo-journalistic story about how the big nasty SEC was preventing him from asking people for money, neglecting to point out all of the very good reasons that these regulations were developed.  To protect from people like him.  Conflict of interest is a mild way of putting it.  And while Gimlet is clearly a for-profit startup, not a public radio program, there's still some question of whether it's "in the family".  After all, Reply All has put at least one segment on "This American Life".  These blurred lines are going to get blurrier, not less, as plenty of other podcast networks poach public radio talent, and public radio tries to defend itself.  This is disheartening, not exciting.

So lets move to the direction of leadership at the top.  Because you've leaned a lot on being a public radio lifer, and being devoted to "the job that’s at the heart of public broadcasting: to put voices and stories on the air that would never be heard otherwise; to provide perspective and analysis that’s not heard elsewhere; and to invent a new kind of broadcasting".  I am incredibly grateful to you for that, and I don't in any way question your commitment to public radio and it's mission.  But I do think that in addition to a strong commitment to mission in the ranks of an institution, there's also a need for strong vision from the top.  NPR has had 5 CEOs since 2009.  It faces large financial pressures.  Am I worried that "This American Life" is going to lose sight of it's vision? No.  Do I think that TAL can by itself keep public radio on-vision? Clearly not (nor should you be expected to - especially since TAL isn't part of NPR - thanks to Annie Johnon @anneejohnson9).  So when you say that public radio is ready for capitalism, I worry very much about how those pressures are going to affect other parts of public radio.

Which leads directly into my next point - the discussion going on about diversity within public radio right now.  A discussion sparked in large part by Chenjerai Kumayanika's "The Whiteness of Public Radio", and one which has to a lesser extent focused on how women reporters and in particular vocal fry are perceived.  (Look! Even you spent some time on that part!).  You concluded your essay by saying that "the best predictor of future behavior is his or her past behavior".  NPR cancelled "Tell Me More".  From that link: "Tell Me More's demise is the third for programs expressly designed to have a primary appeal for African-American listeners and other people of color."  There was just a dustup with "Latino USA" regarding their profile of Chuy Garcia.  In the midst of an ongoing discussion about #PubRadioVoice, and in particular it's whiteness, NPR's past behavior does not fill me with confidence.

Which of course brings us back around to where we started - the podcast upfronts, and the flagship shows that are being used to bring all of these advertisers in: "This American Life", "Serial", "Invisibilia".  I think a visual of the hosts would help here.
**Edited - Glynn Washington hosted the Upfronts.  Jad Abumrad was there.  Sarah Koenig was not there, and Lulu and Alix were not on stage.  Thanks to Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) for pointing this out.  Adding pictures of Glynn and Jad.  I still feel that the online coverage, and the message of "successful podcasts to woo advertisers" has pushed TAL, Serial, and Invisibility, but may be over-reaching there.  Linda also points out that Glyn's "Snap Judgement" is a successful show that TAL has spotlighted.
I love you Ira, but this lineup of shows and hosts almost parodies itself.  I'm glad that "This American Life" is doing the TAL thing.  I think you have a distinct and important voice, and I think that TAL brought and continues to bring something fresh and interesting to public radio.  I don't want you to stop that because you're successful.  Nor do I want all of public radio to be TAL and TAL imitators.  And if indeed podcasting is an important part of the future financial health of public radio, and the people who are the successful faces and voices of that movement are all white, then we start to run into problems with diversity broadly and specifically (to use your words) "to put voices and stories on the air that would never be heard otherwise".

See, Ira, the problem isn't that we think that you're going to sell out.  The problem is that we think that public radio must be broader and richer than you.  You're a wonderful and amazing part of public radio.  I think that few of your detractors actually mean to question your devotion to the mission of public radio.  But we're all too aware (as, lets be honest, you are or at least should be) that capitalism has a lot to do with incentives.  And right now, there are a lot of incentives driving public radio in a very particular, very white, direction.  Pointing that out, and yelling it from the rooftops isn't "cartoony and stupid".  It's an essential demonstration of our love for this great institution that is and must be so much bigger than the four faces above.

I love you Ira, but right now I'm a lot more interested in you using the giant megaphone you've got to amplify black and brown voices and continue a discussion about #PubRadioVoice (which is a lot bigger than vocal fry) than I am in you defending your commitment to public radio by dismissing the fears that an institution that's actively cutting minority programming while promoting white shows might be losing it's way just a bit.  It's fair to ask whether public radio is ready for capitalism, and I think fair to say that you're not the person who can answer that question.

**Reminder that I made some edits to this piece which I wrote more quickly and emotionally than I should have.  Follow up post here.

1 comment:

  1. Should also have linked this piece from The Awl -