Sunday Salon: Why we hate NPR but keep right on listening.

C.J. and I really hate NPR (National Public Radio), but it remains the station our alarm clock is set to.  C.J. says we have our radio set to NPR because when the alarm goes off in the morning, NPR will get us out of bed the fastest.

We hate it so much that we’ll leap out of bed to turn the radio off and then start getting ready for work.

This is a good idea in theory.

But there are days, most days really, when we end up lying in bed listening to NPR.  C.J. still loves Nina Totenberg’s  coverage of the Supreme Court and there is still the occasional story that actually proves both interesting and pertinent.  But NPR is just not what it used to be.

It used to be smart.  Listening to it used to make me feel smart.  I fully acknowledge how elitist this feeling was, but it felt good.  We used to have it on all the time, so much so that our parrot took to screaming “NPR!” whenever she was upset at being put back in her cage.  We now scream “NPR!” but for different reasons.

A few years ago NPR switched up how they do things, fired Bob Edwards from their morning show, and really started dumbing things down, way down.

Now, instead of reporting a story like intelligent journalists writing for an intelligent audience, the way they still do at  BBC4, NPR sets things up like a little dialogue.   There’s a host in the studio who talks to a reporter who’s covering the story.  The host asks a series of incredibly dumb questions like, “Nigeria, that’s in western Africa, isn’t it?”  The intent, I guess, is to  fool the audience into thinking that the two are having an off-the-cuff conversation about the subject, but the effect is more like listening to a mediocre script reading in a Freshman playwriting class, the kind where the students are still writing dialogue to explain away holes in the plot.

And their assumption is that the listening audience is stupid.   Though judging from the call-in shows that follow Morning Addition, this assumption may be correct.

So my commute listening has switched to BBC podcasts for the most part.  When I run out of podcasts, I do sometimes go back to NPR in the hope that Silvia Paggioli will do a story from Dakar, but I haven’t heard much from her lately.  (Just in case Steve Inskeep reads this, Dakar is in Senegal which is in West Africa.)

Our local station runs these annoying perspective pieces throughout the day.  These used to be the time broadcasters were required to give to anyone who wanted to present an alternative point of view.  Should the station endorse candidate A, you could get a minute or two of airtime to speak about candidate B, C, or D.  We don’t have actual political discourse on our local public radio station anymore.   What we have is Steve Inskeep asking another reporter dumb questions like, “Are the Republicans in congress objecting to the president’s new immigration policy?”  “Why yes, Steve, they are.  Don’t you listen to the radio or are you really as stupid as you pretend to be day after day?”

Instead my local  public radio station has these little perspective pieces featuring someone  from an upscale town like Mill Valley, talking about the challenges of balancing a career in non-profit visual performing arts with  the demands of a new baby.  How the people of Mill Valley suffer.

The best thing about the perspective pieces is that they almost always get me out of bed in the morning.  Listen to someone drone on about why their puppy needs a special organic  lunch or get ready for work.  I guess I’ll get ready for work.

But this week, on the way to work, there was a rare good perspective piece.  A woman who moved to California a few years ago talked about how she and her husband decided to spend the night in every county in the state as away to really get to know their new home.  Sounds fun, I thought.

I’ve no ambition to spend the night in every state in America, which is a thing many people do, especially after retirement.  Nor do I really have the money to pay for it.  And the thought of all the plane rides it would take fills me with inertia.  But we could drive to every county in California.

So during lunch, I printed off a map of California counties and began shading in the ones C.J. and I have already spent the night in.  I came up with 15.   When I got home and told C.J. about the story, he told me that he had heard it too and had already made a spread sheet listing counties we had stayed in and whether or not we stayed in a hotel or a private home.   He remembered three that I had forgotten, so we’ve already spent the night in 18 counties.

That leaves 40 for us to visit.  California has 58 counties, most of them in the northern half of the state because they were drawn up prior to 1893 when most people in the state lived where the mines were.  We have the biggest county in America, San Bernardino which is larger than both the state of Maryland and the nation of Israel.  We also have more counties named for saints than any other state in the union.  Thank you Wikipedia; you rule.

There were four counties on the map that I had never heard of, including San Benito which is just east of Monterey County.  C.J. and I have decided to pay San Benito a visit during mid-winter break.

With a population just over 55,000, San Benito features two major attractions, Mission San Juan Bautista and Pinnacles National Park.  The county claims to have many terrific undiscovered wineries, but every county in Northern California says the same thing at this point.  We can load up the iPod with podcasts and  take Sigorney, our new car, for a drive down, see the mission, stay overnight, visit Pinnacles, then drive home, leaving only 39 more counties to go.

When were done with all 58, maybe we’ll do a little perspective piece for our local NPR station.  Perhaps Steve Inskeep will want to interview us on Morning Edition.

Perhaps not.

17 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Why we hate NPR but keep right on listening.

  1. I thought I was the only one. Thank goodness, I’m not. It was just a few months ago I realized I never turn NPR on any more. I used to listen to it mornings, and all of Saturday morning. Ah, well.

    But this every-county approach to a state? That’s just wonderful. It reminds me of a guy who decided on a blockathon rather than a marathon one year. They wrote about him in the NYT. Every day he walked around his block in Brooklyn, just to see what he could see. He saw a lot. I’ll bet you will, too.

  2. Maybe NPR will notice. The best thing NPR has done in a long time is the Serial and that was a podcast!

    We’re really looking forward to visiting a county we never heard of before, San Benito.

  3. I listened to NPR back in college (over a decade ago), but I quit right after graduation and replaced NPR with an iPod. I am not quite thankful I did.

    1. I confess that we kind of hate-listen to NPR at home much of the time. There are a handful of shows we still like, well, maybe just Fresh Air. Podcasts are my go-to commute entertainment thesedays.

  4. This post was wonderful. I have been saying the very same thing about the ABC here (Aus Broadcasting). We used to have this absolutely wonderful morning lineup of Books for an hour and also some other specific programs with experienced older journalists. They really knew their stuff and prepared wonderfully. It made my whole day 5 days a week. Then they all got axed and younger presenters put in (don’t have to pay them as much). Changed the format of the show and they ask such stupid questions, won’t listen to answers, just keep talking that now I don’t listen at all. I sent in so many letters of complaint. Of course now I have found the older presenters in other organisations and I can get podcasts so I have done that. I’m glad it is just not Australia who has stupid changes. Love your idea of visiting all the counties. Will look forward to hearing about San Bernito

    1. Maybe with the new audience they’re reaching for, but the people I know who still listen are all educated folk who know which continent Nigeria is on. Though, there is that call in show which certainly supports your point of view.

  5. The dumbing down of America. I can’t even start. It would run far longer than a comment should.

    I love the travel idea! As a child, my grandmother took us along on all types of adventures we could track like this one. And we were almost always in a car! You can drive so many places if you just accept the slower pace. The book I’m reading now, A Philosophy of Walking, has this wonderful chapter on slowness. What we gain when we do not view it as a loss of time, as something taken from us. I wish you happiness in your travels!

  6. I loved this post, despite not having heard NPR before (I’m in Scotland) If you did get interviewed about your county travel trip, he’d doubtless just ask, “That’s in California, isn’t it?” And re the rest of the world, I’ve heard the saying, “War is how they teach Americans geography”!

    1. Unfortunately, I think there may be a bit of under-lying truth in what the world says. I say that as a former geography teacher. I hope you all are clever enough to keep the BBC as good as we in America think it is.

      1. It is good – but I’ve heard the same “dumbing down” comments about Radio 4’s Today programme in the mornings. I’m assuming this is an aim to capture a younger audience – but it ends up antagosing existing listeners! I understand the problem, it seems like a no-win situation. I really laughed at the story about your parrot!

  7. I said something in a post of mine just a few days ago about how creepy I find the whole NPR listening experience to be…I think that’s the word I used, but you get the idea. I was always a little put off by NPR because I considered them to be incredibly biased and slanted when it came to political discourse, but now I find their broadcasts to be akin to listening to Stepford wives cocktail party conversation.

    1. I think that’s a great way to describe it, Stepford wives cocktail party conversation. So much of it is like that now. It’s embarrassing for those of us who remember what it used to be.

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