The first thing that strikes you as you read ‘Listening to America’, a 1995 compilation of pieces carried by America’s National Public Radio on its wonderful programme, All Things Considered, is the yawning gap between public broadcasting there and here.
Just what is it, you wonder, that enables tax payers’ money to be used so differently and so elevatingly, and why are we stuck with the disgrace called Doordarshan and its slightly better brother All India Radio, but which too is trying desperately to go the same way.
In his foreword, NPR news vice president Bill Buzenberg offers six general reasons why “our” brand of public radio journalism has succeeded. And just reading them is enough to give goose pimples to anybody interested in the J-word, it doesn’t matter if you are employed in radio, TV, newspapers, or the web.
1) Time for in-depth reporting: NPR listeners get a comprehensive look at the world’s news, every day, and whatever time of day the news is breaking. And they get the history, context, and analysis citizens need to make sense of issues, idea, and events. NPR devotes extra airtime to our reports to make them more than headline summaries. Oversimplification is a disease of modern broadcasting. But NPR programmes are meaningful because they have time to convey meaning. A two-hour NPR newsmagazine, such as Morning Edition, has almost two full hours of news and features. The average report on NPR is four to five minutes long. Taped interviews can be as long as needed for a coherent conversation, and taped remarks can express a complete thought.
2) Good writing and editing: Writing for the ear is everything in radio. A strong narrative line carries a good story and makes for compelling listening. News reports and features on NPR newsmagazines are written and edited and often rewritten and reedited, giving the programmes a lucid, literate sound. It is clear to the audience that language is used carefully. When it is not, we get bags of letters.
What counts most when NPR hires a new reporter or seeks a new host is what he or she knows and how well he or she writes. Although many NPR reporters and hosts have become “stars”, we are not in the business of creating a personality cult around a fresh face or hairdo. NPR asks a different question: What does this reporter have to say and how well can he or she say it?
3) Content and standards: Entertainment values influence much of the media today. Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, has pointed out that entertainment values lead to sensationalism, hype, brevity, conflict, immediacy, and oversimplification. Public radio, by comparison, puts content at the centre of its value system. NPR has been described as radio with soul; we care about society and democracy. We assume the audience is intelligent and that they care, too, about making our diverse and democratic polity function better. NPR reporting can also be entertaining, but there is a seriousness of purpose in most of what we do. Public radio listeners do not expect to hear tabloid-type stories on the air. We seldom go live from the latest murder trial. We have been happy to let others sensationalise. A major media survey recently gave credit to NPR as the leading institution setting standards in American journalism. That aspect of NPR News is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of these 25 years.
4) Authentic voices and the human experience: Talking with all kinds of people, the ordinary and the powerful, is one of the things NPR does best. We have also found our own authentic voices and made them commentators. News by its very nature cannot all be good. But NPR programs are leavened with positive stories and profiles of remarkable people who are portrayed with their human frailties, as well as their courage and indomitable persistence.
The first NPR mission and goals statement, written in 1970, says the network will speak in many voices and dialects and “will regard individual differences with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”
5. The advantage of radio: Television is certainly the dominant medium, but as a medium for ideas, discussion important issues or suggesting solutions, radio cannot be beat. Great writing coupled with imaginative use of sound production can be more powerful than a picture. When skilfully done, a radio piece can trigger our imaginations and create vivid, long-lasting impression and images.
6. Public service: Perhaps NPR’s greatest distinction springs from it basic purpose. NPR still seeks to educate at the highest level of understanding, providing important information that a democracy needs to survive. Public radio addresses “listeners as citizens and individuals, not as consumers. We create programing to serve the public and we aspire to see our audience grow. But we do not view our audience as a marketable commodity” according to our new guide on journalistic standards. In other words, NPR programming is not viewed as a profit centre, and our style of radio journalism is not designed primarily to bring a mass audience to hear an advertiser’s message.
NPR Worldwide, a service of NPR, can be heard 24 hours a day in India on the Worldspace Satellite Radio Network, Channel 301