Monday, May 18, 2015

Follow up to my public radio post

"Dear Ira Glass" got a big more of an audience than I expected, and some thoughtful responses to what was not a particularly thoughtful or measured piece.  Linda Holmes of NPR's Monkey See blog, one of the people I most respect on Twitter, managed to both validate some of my frustrations while also calling me on some mistakes (who was at the podcast upfronts) and pointing out that there are people at NPR working every day to meet the audience where they are, people I managed to totally erase in my angry venting.  In retrospect, I'm not sure anyone needs some guy who listens to public radio opining on whether elements of public radio have lost their way, but re-reading the post I feel like there are three areas where I made mistakes that I'd like to correct:

  • I wrote an angry post based on manipulative headlines
  • I ignored the many ways that people at NPR and in the public radio community are reaching out to their audience
  • I brought up race in a hamfisted and inappropriate way
(Disclaimer throughout - Ira Glass and This American Life aren't affiliated with NPR, and the upfronts were a joint project of NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ.  There are plenty of other members of "public radio" including various station affiliates, American Public Media, and at least a few other independent non-NPR and non-regional groups I can't list.  I'm going to try to use NPR when I mean NPR, TAL when I mean This American Life, and public radio when that's what I mean.  This is my layman's understanding)

I wrote an angry post based  on manipulative headlines.  The public radio podcast upfronts attracted attention in some media at least in part because podcasts are having a moment, and Ira Glass (one of the few well-recognized national names) said "public radio is ready for capitalism" and so of course that's what got picked up and written about.  It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and I totally went for it.  I have problems with the sentiment, but reading a few headlines, not informing myself of basic information like who was actually at the upfronts, writing a post based on that, and hitting publish before I calmed down is stupid.  Like basic internetting stupid.  I'm sorry for that.

I ignored the many ways that people at NPR and in the public radio community are reaching out to their audience I used to listen to public radio on the radio a lot.  I rarely listen to the radio anymore.  I spend my day on twitter & listening to podcasts.  Despite that, I still consider myself connected to the public radio community because it's moved to meet me where I am.  I follow shows and individuals on twitter.  I listen to (a few) podcasts, and to NPR One.  I'm still most likely to go to NPR when looking for information about a story.  I support my member station because (as I understand it from MANY pledge drives), this is how I support those other initiatives.
Ignoring the Code Switch blog, the twitter chats that Gene Demby and Michel Martin have hosted, Pop Culture Happy Hour (my favorite friday podcast), Current's "The Pub", Mark Memmot's Memmos, and the many other ways that NPR has worked to be more transparent and meet me at my preferred watering hole was a mistake.  I'm deeply grateful for all the ways public radio is more than radio, and that didn't come through at all.

I brought up race in a hamfisted and inappropriate way.  
"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."
I'm cringing as I read that.  The last thing the internet needs is a white guy telling another white guy how to behave regarding race.  Especially since I'd earlier advanced an incorrect and whitewashed presentation of the upfronts that started all of this.  And especially since one thing that came through in discussions of the public radio voice this year is that many factors besides race play into the voices that we expect, or don't on our public radio station.
So I'm sorry for bringing race into a situation that wasn't and shouldn't have been about race, and I'm sorry that in so doing I erased the voices of people of color in public radio.  Again, I failed at basic internetting.

I'm still really not comfortable with the notion that public radio is ready for capitalism, and a lot of that does have to do with concerns about stable leadership at the top.  (It seems clear that if you're not at NPR for the mission, there are plenty of places to go that'll give more money, so I have great faith in the employees of NPR at every level).  I'm also worried that many of the podcasts getting pushed & held up as successes or models seem very similar.  The point of reaching out to a diverse audience is that not every podcast is going to appeal to everyone - it's good that there are some I don't like! But each one seems to rub me wrong in very similar ways (I see the "big" public podcasts that are getting pushed as: TED Radio Hour, Invisibilia, Snap Judgment, TAL, and Serial.  I may be mistaken.  I've sampled all of them, but not listened to any in a while, so it's possible their voices have changed since I stopped).

I wish I'd paused on hitting publish, and written something more clear. I wish I'd started by acknowledging and thanking the many people in public radio who are doing all sorts of fascinating and interesting things to support their mission.  Then clarified my particular concerns with the Ira Glass voice and how so many other popular public radio programs seem to be mirroring it.  And I wish I'd been able to say "I love the many things that NPR, and the broader public radio community are doing, but this particular notion of embracing capitalism raises in my the spectre of trying to hit the iTunes chart with similar-sounding programs, and Ira's statements to the contrary, I find it really worrisome."  I think once I'd written that, I would've realized that what Ira Glass says about public radio isn't all that relevant to me - there are lots of other people in public radio speaking to me.  Diverse audiences ftw!  Once I'd written all of that, I might've avoided hitting publish altogether.

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