The battle over The Connection illuminates what public radio has become: privatized, high-quality programming for the affluent, well-educated elite
BY DAN KENNEDY
FOR CONNOISSEURS OF high-toned tawdriness, the meltdown of The Connection, public radio station WBUR’s signature interview-and-talk show, has had it all: poisonous e-mails, revelations of six-figure salaries and five-figure bonuses, dueling Web sites, and a particularly ugly dispute over who’s picking whose cotton.
At the root, this is a battle between two of public radio’s most admired and driven personalities: Jane Christo, 59, who built one of the country’s great stations, and Christopher Lydon, 61, a cerebral former Boston Globe and New York Times reporter, long-time public-television news anchor, and quixotic 1993 mayoral candidate who seemingly found his true calling behind the WBUR microphone.
The story has lost none of its allure in the 10 weeks since Lydon disappeared from his post at The Connection, or in the eight weeks since Lydon and senior producer Mary McGrath left the station — fired, they say, after negotiations broke down over their demand for an ownership share (or a “partnership,” as Lydon prefers to call it) in the future national growth of the show.
The final chapter has yet to be written. Lydon says he and McGrath are busily attracting investors and underwriters for their new company, L&M Productions, and that they hope to be back on public radio “sooner rather than later.” Christo continues to search for a new permanent host of The Connection, calling that effort — which she hopes will be completed as soon as a month from now — “a very interesting and exciting process.”
But there are larger issues at stake here, because the Christo-Lydon standoff illuminates what public radio in general — and WBUR (90.9 FM) in particular — has become. Public radio has come a long, long way from the 1970s, when the image it projected was one of earnest granola-crunchers trying to save the world. Today, public radio is a big business (if a nonprofit one) with big money and big egos — a high-quality source of news and information for the well-educated, well-heeled professionals who can afford to contribute, and for the corporate underwriters (read: advertisers) who cater to them.
At the heart of this media universe is National Public Radio, whose drive-time shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are a staple of public stations, including WBUR, and which are heard by nearly 10 million people apiece each week. With commercial radio sinking into a morass of deregulated stupidity, with newspapers and magazines increasingly spurned by time-pressed yuppies, and with the audience for network newscasts shrinking and aging, NPR has become the medium of choice for the cultural elite. And much of NPR’s programming is designed to appeal to that elite.
“NPR plays to certain zip codes because those zip codes are the places where their funders are,” says Danny Schechter, the executive editor of the Media Channel, a Web site that monitors international media from a left-liberal point of view.
In other words, public radio today is radio for “bobos” — the “bourgeois bohemians” who are the subject of David Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Indeed, with NPR coming up on its 30th anniversary, two national magazines have published odes to the network that actually celebrate just how exclusive public radio’s audience has become. In Brill’s Content, Ben Yagoda, the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, 2000), compares NPR’s appeal to the allure of the New Yorker from, say, the 1950s through the ’80s. In the Atlantic Monthly, Bill McKibben likens NPR’s newscasts to the New York Times.
Seen in this light, NPR has evolved into the preferred medium for a generation that works long hours, spends considerable time commuting with the car radio on, and lacks the time and energy to read. And on its face, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Indeed, as a regular listener, I would argue that most of what I hear on WBUR/NPR is pretty damn wonderful. What’s left out of the equation, though, is the idea of public radio as — well, public radio.
Today’s system is privatized to a remarkable extent, with government funding playing a negligible role in keeping the 650-station system running. NPR reportedly receives none of its approximately $90 million budget in the form of direct federal subsidies. Locally, of WBUR’s $15.3 million income in 2000, less than $900,000 came directly from the federal government; nearly all the rest was split evenly between listener contributions (more than $6.9 million) and corporate underwriting (slightly more than $7 million). Yes, some poorer, more rural stations depend on taxpayer dollars. But in many ways, it would be more accurate to describe public radio today as a private, nonprofit network.
Jerry Starr, the executive director of the Washington, DC–based Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, says that as taxpayer support has been reduced, so has true community-based programming, such as foreign-language shows aimed at immigrants — the sort of fare that attracts tiny audiences and no money, but that surely provides a useful service to those who listen to it.
Says Starr of modern public radio: “In the context of the degradation of media generally, it does stand out as a better product. Unfortunately, that’s the problem — they think of themselves as a product rather than a community service.”
Thus it’s hardly surprising that Lydon and McGrath started to think of their show as a product — a valuable, high-quality product that they tended to every day, and that entitled them to their own piece of the cotton patch.