Save NPR!

But please, put PBS out of its misery.

It has been a bad time for the network of a million tote bags. In October, NPR commentator Juan Williams was fired for saying that people in Muslim garb on airplanes frightened him. Earlier this month, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller, caught in James O’Keefe’s sting operation, called Republicans “anti-intellectual” and Tea Partiers racist. (Although it soon became clear that O’Keefe had edited his tape to exaggerate Schiller’s comments.) Then his non-consanguineous boss Vivian Schiller was forced out. And then House Republicans voted to defund NPR.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether NPR needs better leadership. NPR’s own ombudsman makes that case pretty well. But whatever its leadership’s failings, NPR itself is not troubled or failing (and I’m not just saying that because I have been an NPR commentator, and on occasional, an unpaid host). To the contrary, NPR is the most resounding media success story of the past 40 years.

There are media companies with greater reach than NPR—and with larger profits, since NPR is a nonprofit. But the Huffington Post and Fox News, to take two examples, are in growing mediums: the web and cable news. NPR, by contrast, has thrived on FM radio during the era in which FM radio has lost audience, not to mention cachet. For the most part, terrestrial radio has become a dreary wasteland, littered with the tumbleweeds of safe, adult-contempo and pop-country playlists, with few local DJs, even fewer local-news operations, and most programming done off-site by consultants and by schmaltzy evening hosts like John Tesh and Delilah. During precisely the years that FM radio has lost the diversity and the free-form progressivism of its 1970s heyday, NPR, which debuted in 1971 with live coverage of Senate hearings on Vietnam, has steadily gotten more adventurous, more popular, better.

Here, it is instructive to compare NPR’s history with that of its hideous, ugly televised brother, PBS.

In the mid 1970s, NPR was still fairly inconsequential. It broadcast All Things Considered every afternoon, but otherwise had very little daily programming. Many of its affiliates carried weekend fare like Prairie Home Companion, which debuted in 1974 and is not produced by NPR proper. Most affiliates played classical music during much of the weekday. That was nice, of course—I love classical music and actually regret that most NPR stations now play very little of it—but music is what many of those stations had done before they linked up with NPR, so the network hardly improved their offerings. By 1977, there were about 200 NPR stations. The flagship Morning Edition did not premiere until 1979.

Even then, many NPR stations initially did not carry Morning Edition. The older liberals who are now a core of the NPR audience were in many cases very attached to the jazz, classical, or folk music that they could get only on these small local stations. It was not yet an accepted fact that people wanted to be talked at, even by informed news reporters, every waking hour. I am old enough to remember how many people in Western Massachusetts were despondent when Morning Edition banished our beloved classical show, Morning Pro Musica, which originated in Boston and was hosted by the bass Robert J. Lurtsema, famous for his extremely … long … pauses.

Meanwhile, PBS, also born in 1970, almost immediately learned to fly. It aired lauded children’s education shows, like Sesame Street, which had debuted on proto-PBS stations in 1969, and Electric Company, which PBS commissioned and began airing in 1971. It imported good English television, often through its Masterpiece Theater series. In 1971, PBS took over Firing Line, William F. Buckley’s combative and exciting interview show. It offered a serious, long-form evening newscast with The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which started in 1975. Like other television networks, PBS did not produce all of its shows, but it had the good sense to air shows like NOVA, which were produced by member stations or independent producers.

Today, it can be difficult to find what ambitious, interesting programming there is on PBS. Earlier this month, I tuned in a few times and was greeted by Antiques Roadshow, a doo-wop concert that I have seen before while channel-surfing, and—several times—the financial advice of Suze Orman. From those glimpses, it seemed that an average evening on PBS had all the intelligence of VH1 and all the youth appeal of CBS.

That may have been an unfair sampling. Last week, for example, I found a NOVA episode about the disaster in Japan; a show about the abuse of queer youth in the juvenile justice system; and a Frontline special about the influence of big money in the NCAA. But even in its best weeks, PBS lacks any sort of coherent sensibility. At a time when the most successful networks have an obvious style—the illicit, pervy edge of Showtime’s Weeds and Californication; the fine-grained realism of HBO’s best dramas—PBS shows are defined variously by shameless baby-boomer pandering of the self-help or nostalgia variety, by a kind of earnest love of newsy documentaries, or by old-school PBS Anglophilia.

Meanwhile, beyond its intelligent, serious news coverage, NPR—and its member stations, which are free to buy shows not produced by the NPR mothership—have become home to many spectacular radio serials: This American Life, Radiolab, Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered, and the list goes on. There is still a rump of NPR clichés—I have never been particularly moved by Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion, and I refuse to like Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me until they invite me to be a panelist. But those shows are the starting point for NPR in 2011; they aren’t the entire product. The network clearly knows that for all the love listeners show Garrison Keillor, NPR at its best is quirky and cerebral, in the style of Ira Glass and Robert Krulwich.

Why the diverging fortunes? First, to a great extent, their competitors have set the terms. In the past 30 years, cable television got extremely good, while private radio got extremely bad. Today, if you want to do creative television, chances are you would take a job at HBO, AMC, or Showtime; it is unclear why, given the greater freedom (and money) those cable stations offer, you would work for PBS. Meanwhile, the radio situation is reversed: it is unclear what kind of self-loathing idiot wants to work on programming at a Clear Channel radio station. And although SiriusXM satellite radio can be a delight—when I had my free media trial membership, I constantly listened to Little Steven’s Underground Garage—its nonmusical programming can be rather insulting. I am actually afraid to listen to the weekly show Game On, which promises “the super-secret knowledge on the science of meeting and attracting women that badass, confident men only teach their sons and little bros.” No, for someone serious about radio, NPR is the golden land.

Second, as serious viewers gravitated toward cable television, and to options like Netflix and Hulu, the remaining PBS audience changed—it got, for lack of a better word, lamer—requiring PBS to go downscale to meet their need. “There was a time when you used to fundraise around NOVA or Masterpiece Theater or other premium programs,” says Michael Flaster, a longtime public broadcasting executive in San Diego. “And then they realized you can do better by creating large audiences around less than substantial programs. They moved into doo-wop, anti-aging, ersatz art kind of programs that are better at raising money.” Flaster says that PBS programming is now devised to allow watchers to “transact” with the what they see, as they do when they give a pledge in exchange for a CD or concert tickets of the featured band.

NPR gives away stuff, too. But on PBS, the transactions seem cheaper, in a way that makes sophisticated watchers blanch. It does not help that on television one can see the rickety old sets, often unimproved since the 1970s or 1980s, where the pitchmen and phone answerers work; over the radio, the state of the studio cannot project despair that way. Today, on television, the bones of a PBS station always make it look like a slightly dressed-up version of public-access cable; whereas the branding of NPR—the tasteful station breaks, often featuring the signature voiceovers of Frank Tavares—makes it the class of radio, which on other talk stations is the land of advertisements for debt consolidation and shady gold investments. Meanwhile, NPR funds its product to a great extent through voluntary contributions, at a time when newspapers are terrified that few people will ever pay for content.

It need not have gone this way. In January 1994, PBS aired the BBC’s brave television miniseries of Armistead Maupin’s gay soap opera Tale of the City. It got some of PBS’s highest ratings ever—but 10 months later the Gingrich Congress was voted in. Soon, funding threats were made. PBS was liberal! And it was gay! And it got public dollars. PBS got scared. “We got in Gingrich’s cross hairs,” says Flaster. “There was nudity on Tales of the City, profanity on that. We started getting pressure from Congress, and it filtered down to the board.” Flaster says that several top creative executives left PBS around that time, and that the organization, worried about its survival, lost its ability to innovate, just as television was becoming an especially innovative medium.

So it is hardly surprising that in 1998, when the sequel More Tales of the City was produced, it aired on—yes—Showtime. Which is where today you can find one of Tales’s great stars, Laura Linney to this day, starring on The Big C, the kind of frank, intelligent show that is the specialty of our best cable networks—and the kind of show that in some alternate universe would be available for free, to all of us, on PBS.