National Public Radio’s Elitism: Part One

I love NPR and hate NPR. I love it because of the soothing voices from the broadcasters and the non-commercial format. I hate it because they broadcast some of the most insignificant stories in America. Two stories illustrate my point, one, about the retirement of Oliver Smoot and two, a Vermont toy store. When people often ask what radio stations I listen to, I reply, “Public radio only my friend!” I then proceed to try and talk about the benefits of public broadcasting, no commercials, no corporate profit interests, freedom to set news discussions, etc. I usually skip out on the bad stuff, like ridiculous shows that SNL spoofs.

Let’s pretend someone takes my advice and is driving home from work and tunes into a NPR broadcast of “All Things Considered”. My worst fear is that their first experience with public radio is a story about Oliver Smoot, who is retiring from the board at ANSI. His claim to fame is a story about how he became a unit of measure, one which we already have plenty of units for: length. The rookie listener thinks to his or her self, “Why is a snobby MIT grad retelling a pledge story from a dork fraternity about how he is now a unit of measure doing on the radio!? Absurd!” Or even worse, the person hears a story about how a Vermont toy store employs people to shop around the country for nostalgic toys that aren’t produced anymore for well-to-do clients. They most likely will think, “What kind of elite-crap station did that fool recommend to me!” Let’s not stop there, I went and grabbed the transcript to show you exactly what I’m talking about.

The SMOOT story first:

Melissa Block is introducing the story for us:

BLOCK: âÂ?¦the smoot, a unit of length named for Oliver Smoot by some clever brains at an MIT fraternity in 1958. Oliver Smoot joins us because we learned that he’s about to retire from the board of the American National Standards Institute.

Do you know what the American National Standards Institute is or does? They are cadre of privileged scientists and mathematicians who come up with answers to the question like, “What is a footâÂ?¦really?” or “What makes a pound a pound?” They make weights and measures standardized for industry. I’m not denying the importance of this group or its necessity. But I do question NPR’s desire to air a story about an obscure unit of measure unknown to the average public; in fact the smoot doesn’t even come up in my spell check. It’s difficult to find in some dictionaries. You will never use the smoot as unit of measurement in your life if you are reading this, you can count on that. This is not a story about the smoot, or and informative discussion on its practical application, it’s a story that celebrates intellectual elitism and collegiate frat stories as well as an announcement of retirement from an isolated group of American society (who really retires anymore in the classical sense?).

From the broadcast:

BLOCK: And tell us the story of how you became a unit of measure.

Mr. SMOOT: Our fraternity house at MIT was located across the Charles River from the campus, and the bridge there is about half a mile long. And especially if it’s foggy or snowing, you can’t tell where you are. So as one of our pledge tasks, we were assigned to measure the bridge, and out of the 14 pledges, I was the shortest. So they decided we would measure it in smoot lengths.

BLOCK: In smoot lengths. And what did that involve?

Mr. SMOOT: Well, that involved my lying down and one of my pledge brothers was measuring where my head was and then getting up and putting my feet there and going on across the bridge.

BLOCK: Right down the middle of the bridge.

Mr. SMOOT: Well, down the sidewalk.

Is this newsworthy? How many people can relate to being in a fraternity? How many people can relate to attending MIT? How man people can relate to being a fraternity in MIT? Not many, it’s one of the most exclusive schools in the country. How could NPR think the average listener can relate to this story at all? Will someone call in and say, “Oh yes Melissa when I was at Wayne Community College, I became a measurement of humor because of how participated in a frat pledge.” This programming doesn’t interest a causal listener, much less a NPR diehard like myself. I forced myself to listen to this because it was extremely absurd and ridiculous to broadcast nationwide.

Then it gets worse:

BLOCK: Aha. Now how long is the Harvard Bridge if it’s measured in smoots?

Mr. SMOOT: Three hundred and sixty-four point four, plus one ear.

BLOCK: One ear.

Mr. SMOOT: Well, we thought we had to have some allowance for the possibility that we had made some errors.

BLOCK: And was that the length or the width of an ear?

Mr. SMOOT: It was a length.

Tut-tut Mr. Smoot, what about Oxford? Or Cambridge? Hmm? Self-congratulatory elitism is virtue of the wicked. A person in Mr. Smoot’s position has been insulated from the base troubles of American life for all his years on the planet I believe, from worrying about how to pay for college to complaining about gas prices. These things don’t concern someone with a MIT pedigree and who is an American unit of measure. Maybe NPR wants to remind us who it really caters too, what with all the wealth and global asset management donors. Or perhaps NPR wishes to instill hope that if we attend MIT and join a fraternity we can have a hope of being a unit of measurement too.

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