Dead White People
If we’re discussing dead white people, of course we’re discussing National Public Radio, the bastion of deceased Caucasians.
You’ve heard the euphemisms: “Encore presentation.” “The Best of . . . ” “We bring you a program that first aired on . . . ” Which, in normal-person non-spin parlance, all translate to “Re-run.”
Instead of renewing itself like most living media do, NPR continues to air the same programs not just for years, but for decades, often long past when the hosts of those programs are deceased. And even when the hosts are still alive and kicking, many programs play repeats over and over, ostensibly while the hosts are on extensive holidays or sick leave.
I’m listening to one such program with a deceased host right now, a re-run of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz from more than 25 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong. I like Marian McPartland. I used to listen to her programs back in the day. But Marian died in 2013, at 95, and the last show she produced was in September 2010. That seems an adequate amount of time for NPR to come up with a contemporary replacement.
Then there is Car Talk, AKA Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, AKA The Car Guys, with Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Car Talk in its day was the most popular NPR program, and even in re-runs, as The Best of Car Talk (hint-hint, re-run), it still ranks third in the line-up. I guess that is the network’s rationale for continuing to air it. But the last show was produced in 2012, and Tommy died in November 2014. Tune in today, in 2017, and you’ll hear questions about callers’ 1988 Cavaliers and 1982 Subarus and 1978 Datsuns (yes, I said Datsuns). In an age when self-driving cars roam the nation’s highways, you’d be excused for wondering whether any Car Talk callers own cars that don’t qualify as antique vehicles. That’s because some of the material aired dates back as much as 10 years prior to the show’s last four years of production. That goes back 19 years. I mean, even when it was current, this was a show that would send its weekly Puzzler feature on summer vacation each year.
To give it some kind of credit, NPR said last year it will stop airing The Best of Car Talk at the end of this coming September. I’m curious whether the network will come up with a new car show, or give us one more radio game show. Frankly, I won’t be surprised to hear it replaced as The Best of the Best of Car Talk.
Then there is that other NPR mainstay, A Prairie Home Companion. Now APHC certainly had its audience as originator and host Garrison Keillor regaled listeners with “News From Lake Wobegone” from the show’s inception in 1974 until his retirement in 2016. To do the math, that’s 42 years. But today, with mandolinist Chris Thile selected as replacement host by the cantankerous Keiller (for reasons that, despite Thile’s considerable musical talents, elude me), most of the same skits and standard joke advertisements I listened to while in grad school in the 1980s continue to be run on the program. Notably, the Lake Wobegone segments, which really were uniquely Keillor’s own, have been dropped, and along with them went a significant portion of APHC’s audience. The program has become mostly a musical variety show, but never mind that. Almost every week the program is a re-run from “earlier in the season” — this week’s broadcast was one from last November. As was last week’s. And almost every one in recent months is a re-run, and even a re-run of a re-run. Listen in enough, if you can stand it, and soon you’ll be able to recite the lines by heart.
I have to wonder how much of NPR’s mostly liberal audiences are locked into that old-timey thing. Apparently enough of the network’s listeners are tolerant of these practices to keep on shelling out during twice-yearly local fund-raising drives. And the re-runs extend to shows that are ostensibly current daily mainstays. I don’t even try to keep count of how many times Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is stale air, re-runs of past programs while the host is who-knows-where. The same with many other programs, like Peter Sagal’s game show, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! Well, I can tell you, since too many times I’ve already heard the program. I mean, who gets that much leave? When I was a journalist I had to fight to get two weeks off in a year. Sometimes it seems the hosts of NPR programs are away more than they’re there. Must be nice work, if you can get it. But with such a little amount of turn-over, it doesn’t pay to wait for people to die to try to get in, because they’re still not going anywhere.
When I worked for the government it was said that the only way to get fired was if they held a mirror to your nose and you failed to fog it. Things are even worse than that at NPR.
NPR apparently can’t even come up with enough programs within the nation’s borders to air, so it turns to Canada for some of the music and even news discussion broadcasts the network runs, as well as the BBC for some news programming. To be clear, I have nothing against Canada and acknowledge that there is plenty of musical talent within our northern neighbor, but do we really have to hear about unknown musicians’ experiences growing up in Timmons and St. John and Thunder Bay, sprinkled with frequent misperceptions of the U.S.?
Now we come to the white people part. For all its hectoring us about race relations in America and what a bunch of deplorable racists we are, NPR is an almost solidly white organization. Other than a smattering of music programs, I can only think of one nationally syndicated NPR thematic or entertainment program hosted by a black person, Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. And Washington got the nod to do the program after winning a competition, the Public Radio Talent Quest. There are so few blacks within NPR, even fewer on the air, maybe a tiny smattering on the news side of the house, NPR’s lily-white complexion often is the subject of self-deprecating jokes made on the network. Ha-ha. Very funny.
What’s even more galling is that we support NPR with tax dollars. The network’s slant is unabashedly liberal, ignoring and even insulting listeners who don’t adhere to that orientation but who still are required to shell out for it through their taxes, while the network continues to rest on past laurels, past achievements, past personalities. How many commercial networks would be able to get by routinely running programs from a quarter century past? And how many networks, or institutions of any sort, could justify the kind of racial homogeneity as NPR’s?
I don’t have any illusions that anything I have to say on the topic will make a fig of difference. Mostly I just need to vent on this stuff. As much as I’d like to think that if enough listeners were to rouse from their long sleep and say, wait, wait, we want something new from NPR, there might be the beginnings of change at the network, I’m not holding my breath. We’re probably in for more decades of encore performances, and more dead white people filling the public airwaves.
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