When the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center, I was out shopping with my mother. By the time the second plane hit, we were racing home in the car. So I got my first horrified wonder, fear, anger, excitement and shock directly from the voices of the men and women who were reporting the disaster on National Public Radio.
At home we turned on the television, naturally, and something was immediately lost. The pictures were compelling, God knows, but the emotion was gone. Trying to feel it again - as a way of coming to terms with the day - I visited Ground Zero, saw documentaries, went to museum shows, looked at photographs and read everything I could get my hands on. But I never reclaimed the true emotion that I felt on that drive home, listening to the radio, feeling what the NPR reporters were feeling, which became what I was feeling, too.
Today broadcast television news has shrunk to less than nothing. Cable news is trivial. Like many people, I get my headlines from the Internet. But NPR is the last serious source of in-depth reporting and public affairs programming in the county. I can't imagine my life without it.
That is why I am furious with the right-wingers in Congress who are trying to dismantle public radio - and television - in a last-gasp effort to consolidate their gains before their boy Bush leaves the White House. As you read this, Congress is trying to cut $100 million or so out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's budget, and also altering public radio and public television's content to make it more conservative.
It is difficult to write about saving public radio, because NPR is the radio you love to hate. The sanctimonious Scott Simon is so full of himself that he has become unbearable. "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" sound the same. Most of the reporting is too polite. When it doesn't rely too much on official sources, it relies on conventional wisdom. The political discussion on the air ranges from center to center-right. The firing of Bob Edwards was graceless. And NPR revealed its true corporate heart in the noxious way it tried to deny bandwidth to small community radio stations.
Too white, too middle-class and too middle-aged, public radio appeals to the same audience that reads The New Yorker and The New York Times. It needs street smarts. It needs to shake things up.
Worst is the smarmy way public radio disguises its commercials. "Underwriters" like Wal-Mart and the local nuclear power plant are allowed to slip-slide their propaganda in with the news - no hard questions asked and none answered. And if you love the English language, it's hard to listen to the strange sentence structure that has evolved to hide the
commercials: "Brought to you by Dr. Joe Schmo, the singing dentist who fixes your teeth and empowers people with tools and resources for living life on their terms; find more information at...."
So when public radio has a fund drive, I want to say, "Ask Mr. Archer, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Midland. Don't bother me." Even more irritating, Joan Kroc, the widow of the founder of the McDonald's chain, left $236 million to NPR in 2003 in her will. Use her money and leave me alone.
All things considered, however, when public radio is good, it is very, very good. I am passionate about the Saturday morning schedule, with "Only a Game," "Car Talk" and "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me." I enjoy Sylvia Poggioli's wry reporting from Europe. I am in awe of Annie Garrels, who bravely remained in Iraq during the war and told us what was really happening.
Without NPR's wide-spread new-gathering and in-depth reporting, I'm afraid we would fall into a Pravda-Izvestia kind of world, where government pronouncements are proclaimed as news and truth disappears entirely into propaganda. With all of public radio's shortcomings, it remains irreplaceable.
So what does this latest threat from Congress mean? According to NPR's Web site (www.NPR.org), "NPR itself gets less than one percent of its budget from CPB (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) NPR member stations, however, receive an average of 15 percent in grants from CPB
- this money is used to help support their local program production, program acquisition, community outreach and such day-to-day costs as paying the electric bill."
That means our local stations, Vermont Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio, will be especially hard hit; on VPR the other day, someone said the station would lose $200,000 a year. Since VPR is especially important for its Vermont news coverage and the invaluable "Eye on the Sky" weathercast, this is especially troublesome.
There are things right now we can do to stop Congress in its tracks. We can give money to our local public broadcasting stations. We can sign the petition being circulated by MoveOn at www.moveon.org. We can make a mighty roar that will send those mice into hiding. We can do it quickly. We can let Congress know that we take the "public" in public radio and television very, very seriously, and they should leave it the hell alone.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at email@example.com.