05 May 2009

Cokie's just typical of anemic NPR, which needs a major makeover

I admit I used to be fond of Cokie Roberts' radio persona (I have nothing against her, personally). She had a reassuring manner, and mostly knew what she was talking about. This [>Slate], however, is mean, but I have to say, pretty much spot-on, about how shallow and uninteresting her commentary has become. It's really bugged me in recent years how she was mostly an apologist for whoever had power in Washington, and wasted a lot of precious airtime on what's supposed to be a public affairs program on lightweight chitchat. Her appearances on ABC have been even worse. She's regularly engaged in the inexcusable journalistic habit (I've seen it called Broderism after its foremost practitioner), of pontificating about what "the American people" think and how they will likely vote, with no data at all, just her own blowhard opinionated speculations. (Which have mostly been wrong, anyway).

It really is time for her to retire, and, frankly, she's symptomatic of what's wrong with NPR. The network needs a major makeover, clearing the decks of formats and sharpening content considerably. I would have to include in that that it's time for some new personnel, too. There are lots and lots of serious radio people who could do way, way better than what Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne dish out. Maybe it's not all their fault... the editorial policy seems to be extremely timid in recent years. But in any case, it's high time for them to become something much more incisive, original, and, indeed, controversial, than they've dared to be in a long, long time.

Here's a radical suggestion, and a serious one: NPR should see if they can lure Amy Goodman and Ian Masters away from Pacifica. Pacifica would survive, and eventually produce some new people, and NPR would get a much needed infusion. Amy Goodman is the foremost public radio journalist in America; the tireless and spectacularly talented anchor of Democracy Now! She has turned that program (produced as both a TV and radio show), on a shoestring, into the best news and public affairs daily radio program in the country, period. (It's also broadcast via high bandwidth internet feed in several foreign countries). Imagine if Democracy Now! were broadcast in drivetime on every NPR station (it already is on some of the smaller ones, especially those that are College-affiliated). And how about a tie-in with PBS-TV? Democracy Now! instead of endless juvenile drivel for one hour in the morning on hundreds of PBS stations. To offset the increasingly soporific evening News Hour (snore).

Ian Masters has the best public affairs interview program in the country (Background Briefing/Live from the Left Coast, Sundays on KPFK, 90.7FM, Los Angeles, 11-1). I've tried a lot of them, mostly via podcasts, and believe me, there is none better; download from kpfk.org or podcast from iTunes, delayed a week or so. His show isn't even broadcast on the whole (tiny) Pacifica network, but only here in L.A. This show deserves to be heard on a national network.

But it'll never happen. NPR's masters are afraid of being branded "left wing." So, with CBS, NBC, CNBC, ABC, the odious Fox, and CNN all afraid to put on anything left of Center, and even MSNBC drawing the line at a fairly mild level of criticism from Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, what exactly would be wrong with having a few shows with a distinctly progressive slant? They could easily provide a couple of others as counterbalances.

But it ain't gonna happen. They're too scared that even the Democrats in Congress see no upside to continued funding for Public Broadcasting, and would use the usual orchestrated rant-in from the Right Wing as an excuse to kill NPR altogether if they tried anything like that.

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