All Things Considered, Here’s Why We Love Public Radio (And You Should Too)
By Ariel Nishli
In most metropolitan cities, broadcast radio is a relic of the past, reserved for a hipster’s irony smothered iPhone case or heard over a low hum of static at the district post office, yet another casualty of the digital age. In sunny Southern California however, where people spend an average of one hour per day in their cars, tuning into your local radio station is still a daily ritual.
Now, while it’s true that digital services iTunes, Spotify, Amazon MP3, Napster, Rhapsody, and the like are the way of music’s future, what we young’uns oft forget is that broadcast radio was once a magical place reserved not only for a carousel of top ten hits, traffic reports, and Ryan Seacrest – I t was a platform for riveting drama, a resource for discovering fresh music, and home to controversial personalities.
Take commercial radio host Dog Rollins from KoldCast TV’s exclusive TV-MA short film DOG. He’s definitely old school – opinionated, womanizing, and even downright offensive at times – but the man knows how to build an audience. Dog’s riding the wave with one million listeners strong until he has to deal with changes at the station after a woman is hired as his co-host. What he and more people are realizing is that radio is in fact evolving alongside the digital world, just perhaps not in the way people would expect.
Click to watch DOG
At the forefront of crisp, digestible broadcasting is National Public Radio, accumulating a growing audience with local affiliates across the country. They’re tuning in live, and yes, also subscribing to Internet podcasts and radio streams. NPR is engaging a generation that almost exclusively gets their news from Jon Stewart, equates talk radio exclusively with the ubiquitous Howard Stern, and believes music played on the radio is required by law to be six months old.
There is a plethora of reasons to love NPR, but to parallel the substantive brevity of their programming we’ll just give you our top six.
Titillating Background Music
Instead of some cheesy trumpet tooting away between commercial breaks, NPR makes it a point to spruce up the duller moments of airtime with playful tracks and the hottest bands of the day. After rolling your eyes at hearing that yet another stalled tractor-trailer is backing up the 405, the unfailingly cool Dirty Projectors will sing you into the weather report. Or, if All Things Considered news program’s Robert Siegel is feeling frisky, he’s likely to end off a segment on the obesity epidemic with Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It.” As for the station’s ambient instrumental interludes, they’re on par with that feeling you get boarding a Virgin America flight, wherein you’re confused as to whether or not you just walked into a nightclub.
Friggin’ Free Events
To drum up support, local affiliates often throw giant kickass cultural events that are free to the public and up to par with any major music or food festival. This past weekend, KCRW 89.9 FM transformed Los Angeles’ business district of Century City into a mecca of hip, as crowds descended on the Annenberg Space for Photography for a concert featuring Raphael Saadiq and Band Of Skulls for part of their “KCRW Live: Who Shot Rock & Roll” series. Hairdos worn as works of art, outfits consisting of bowties and empty gun-holsters, and gourmet snacks complimented an evening filled with feel-good music.
Raphael Saadiq gave a nod to Motown infused with the liveliness of fresh R&B and a big seven-piece band. Things settled briefly for just enough time to grab a delicious dulce de leche brownie from gourmet Aussie caterer foodink, before Band of Skulls revived the crowd by reminding us that very, very hard rock isn’t going anywhere and it isn’t afraid to tackle songs about the Hollywood Bowl and ugly girls. Events like these, with their finger right on the pulse, are done best by NPR affiliates like KCRW because they’re trying to raise support and know quality sells.
Photo by Jeremiah Garcia
Guilt Trip Fundraisers
We know. You’re probably thinking, “but this is the worst part of NPR!” Having to suffer through those arduous feel-bad-about-yourself pledge drives may not be worth it for the sake of catching that three-minute piece on the hundreds of millions of plastic pellets attacking Hong Kong by shore. But then again, have you ever considered the level of monotony created by the litany of commercials for laundry detergent, dog food, mattresses and cheap suits that we’re exposed to around the clock on commercial radio? Ten dollars a month is a small price to pay for expansive, ad-free bliss. Don’t mooch and pay up! KCRW’s pledge drive starts August 16th.
News Actually Worth Hearing
In the last few years, we’ve been inundated with aggressive news radio hosts that are either so far to the left or right that you feel by merely listening to these people, you have to declare allegiance or get run out of town. Remember the “Slutgate” melee that erupted when Rush Limbaugh lambasted a Georgetown student for advocating birth control health benefits? He lost a huge chunk of advertisers after opening that foul mouth of his. Publicly funded radio doesn’t bother itself with those problems because news programs such as Left, Right, and Center promise what they preach: fair and balanced reporting. But don’t take our word for it. Watch Jon Stewart recap the media frenzy that ensued last year, even after NPR fired two reporters who took up signs at an Occupy Wall Street protest.
Shows That Rip The Envelope
Nationally, NPR pushes the competition to the curb with a slew of cutting edge programs. Take Radiolab, self-described as ”a show about curiosity, where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” That in itself fires up the neurons with anticipation. Stories about the relentless march of international ant armies and men whose DNA was shredded by gamma radiation blasts abound. In late July, an NPR reporter Kellie McEvers was holed up inside a former Syrian Police Station that had been converted into a rebel army headquarters for All Things Considered. She was interviewing this dude wearing a vest of grenades and smoking a cigar, who was apparently a rebel commander. Other network news reporters were nowhere to be found. As Kanye would say, “that shit cray.”
Think Locally, Act Globally
The real brilliance behind public radio however, is that local affiliate stations blend these shows in with city-specific programming. Detroit affiliate WKAR 90.5’s follow up to Weekend Edition is Car Talk, in which America’s funniest auto mechanics take calls from weary car owners all over the country and wisecrack while they diagnose their problems. In Los Angeles, where the world’s television, movie, music and videogame industries collide, people happen to be starving for thoughtful reviews, insider news coverage, and the scoop on high art. Giving the people what they want, affiliate station KCRW runs programs like The Business, hosted by editor-at-large of The Hollywood Reporter Kim Masters, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at the unpredictable business of show business. Then there’s The Treatment, a show in which film critic Elvis Mitchell brings in directors like Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Soderbergh for conversations that get so intimate, you almost feel guilty for listening in.
We’re not asking you to shun the wonderful spectrum of programming available on your dashboard, or heaven forbid ignore the galaxy of media available on your smartphone. All we’re saying is that when that Rihanna song comes on for the fourth time in 15 minutes, or that battery inches towards the red, it might be worth taking a step back, letting out a deep breath, and tuning in – to the people’s programming. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this magazine.