I grew up in a somewhat anti-intellectual household that would have balked at the thought of NPR in the family car. Sheltered from anything other than bleeding local news and mainstream networks like CNN, I did not discover NPR’s brand of reliable reporting and thoughtful cultural commentary until I was in college. A friend of mine confessed her obsession with National Public Radio, and with delight, she transformed me into a casual listener of several programs. As I have learned over the years, the softly buzzing culture of NPR listeners is ever-growing and quite loyal.
For those needing an introduction to National Public Radio, I have assembled a brief overview of the corporation and a guide to NPR programs that are especially well-executed.
National Public Radio is a not-for-profit corporation that creates and distributes programming to local radio stations known as “member stations.” National Public Radio roughly equates to PBS television, with both services offering programs that can be incorporated into local broadcasting schedules at the discretion of the local media outlet. NPR does not run conventional commercials (a real perk for the listener), but it does run very brief underwriting sponsor tags – usually just a droning sentence or two about a particular company that donates money to NPR.
Virtually everyone in the United States has access to an NPR member station in some capacity: via FM radio, AM radio, or streaming internet radio. Even many remote parts of Alaska enjoy NPR programs (check out Barrow’s www.kbrw.org). Because each member station chooses which NPR programs to broadcast, there is no universal NPR format and not all programs are available in every area. It’s up to the member station (and its listeners and financial supporters) to guide the station’s format. For example, in Milwaukee, we enjoy two NPR member stations, WUWM and WHAD. At some times during the day they broadcast the same NPR programs, and at other times they run different content.
NPR is known for its mix of world and national news, human interest stories, cultural commentary, and music programming (particularly jazz and classical). It does attract an older demographic, with most listeners over the age of 35. However, many young people are turning to NPR for what they feel is a more balanced and less sensationalized take on political and other news. National Public Radio does tend to attract listeners with higher education levels and moderate-to-liberal political views, though this is not always the case.
Guide to NPR Programs
Most of NPR’s local member stations broadcast these shows. For exact time slots at your member station, go to www.npr.com and you can search for your member station’s website and schedule.
Morning Edition (weekday mornings)
A briskly paced but thorough news magazine show that provides news, analysis, commentary, and brief special features, this program was hosted for 25 years by NPR’s Bob Edwards, who developed a loyal following as a morning routine companion. It now features two solid co-hosts, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne. Member stations sometimes intersperse local content into the show, similar to how the Today show on NBC cuts away to local news updates. Arbitron, a radio research company, found that Morning Edition is actually the number two radio program in the country (after Rush Limbaugh). I have found Morning Edition to provide a fairly sophisticated yet compact view of international news, incorporating interviews and other direct sources very effectively. Until I started listening to NPR, I never realized how little Americans hear from the mouths of foreign leaders.
All Things Considered (weekday afternoons)
Dating from 1971, All Things Considered is the oldest news program on NPR and enjoys listenership numbers similar to those of Morning Edition. Like its counterpart, this afternoon program is a news magazine show that covers the day’s top stories, provides thoughtful commentary and fresh angles, and incorporates special features (usually well-conveyed, culturally relevant human interest stories). The format of ATC is deliberately slower, and the stories run a little longer. Not only does it cover news; it covers people’s reactions to the news, making it a fuller-bodied program. The presence of multiple voices and the combination of personal commentary flecked with humor make the cultural interest stories stand out. For example, this afternoon, I enjoyed a short, entertaining story by a Seattle resident who mused about his city’s adjustment to the Seahawks’ first Super Bowl appearance. Aptly named, All Things Considered is a welcome way to wind down during the afternoon.
If you’re afraid that NPR only tackles matters of national import, fear not: Click and Clack, the co-hosts of Car Talk casually dispense car repair advice with brilliant levity and goofy panache. The show features caller segments during which mechanically challenged motorists phone in their car repair woes and seek help from the hosts (whose real names are Tom and Ray Magliozzi). Balancing humor with serious advice, the knowledgeable and crafty pair often ask people to replicate funny car noises (though people seem to enjoy doing it). Visit the car talk website at www.cartalk.com.
NPR began distributing this show in 2005, but it has been part of public radio since the early ’90s. David Dye, of Philadelphia area member station WXPN, hosts this music show. Celebrating established artists and introducing new ones, World CafÃ?Â© blends folk, country, acoustic rock, blues, Americana, alt-country, and other related music styles – including, of course, world music. The program melds live performances and interviews, giving listeners insight into emerging artists’ visions and helping to recast and broaden knowledge about well-known musicians.
Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!
This weekly quiz show features three self-nominated contestants (home listeners) who answer questions about the week’s news, often as it is excerpted from Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Host Peter Sagal and scorekeeper Carl Kasell anchor the cast, while rotating celebrities appear as part of a panel. Self-described “media gadfly” Mo Rocca and Tom Bodett of Motel 6 fame are just two of the rotating panel members who add spice. Originating from Chicago Public Radio, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me is basically an amusing game show for NPR fans.
This show has managed to stay “fresh” since its debut in 1975. Creator and host Terry Gross interviews a figure from music, literature, theatre, television, or some other form of art or entertainment. Living up to its name, Fresh Air aims to look at popular culture, art, and everything in between through lenses of smart criticism and offbeat exploration. The show employs a number of specialized contributors, whose reviews and comments nicely round out the interviews of famous figures.
Other programs either created or distributed by National Public Radio include: Day to Day, Talk of the Nation, Performance Today, The Motley Fool Radio Show, and The Diane Rehm Show. For details on these programs and the programs described above, visit www.npr.org.
Final note: NPR is just one of the companies that distributes public radio programming. American Public Media (home of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion) and Public Radio International (home of This American Life) also produce and distribute much of the content that complements NPR programming on member stations.