On Valentine’s Day, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a two-and-a-half-minute segment about Justin Bieber fans gone wild. When the teen star lost at the Grammys to Esperanza Spalding, a few of Bieber’s aggrieved minions defaced the jazz singer’s Wikipedia entry, changing Spalding’s middle name to “Quesadilla” and telling her to “go die in a hole.” ATC anchor Michele Norris talked about the incident with Linda Holmes, the network’s pop culture blogger. Norris sounded amused. As close listeners of NPR know, the hosts draw on a wide vocal range to signal a story’s emotional tone; Norris and her colleagues can go from sounding alarmed to intrigued to positively delighted over the course of a two-hour show. For the Bieber segment, Norris’ tone said, We understand this is a light story, but you know what, we’ve just heard about protests in Egypt and the apocalyptic federal budget, so why don’t we take a break with Justin Bieber before getting on to that piece about poverty in America?
Not all listeners got the message. “Was it really necessary to spend any time, even four minutes, on one account of teenagers being mean to people online?” wrote a listener from Olympia, Wash. “I hope ATC isn’t turning into a tabloid!” tsk-tsked someone else. Another Valentine’s story—a three-minute piece about Mattel’s new marketing campaign for Ken and Barbie—elicited yet more anger. “For a few seconds, I felt my ears were deceiving me on two fronts,” said a guy from Beverly Hills. “One, that I was hearing an April Fool-type story when I thought it was Valentine’s Day. And second, that my radio had somehow mysteriously changed from NPR to a commercial channel.”
I’m an NPR groupie. I listen to public radio for several hours a day—more often than I watch TV, more often than I do actual work. There’s only one thing I hate about my daily companion: my fellow listeners. Not all of them—just the ones who write in to complain whenever anything related to pop music, celebrities, technology, or other subjects that appeal to people under 40 comes across their precious wireless.
For proof that NPR letter-writers are the stodgiest, whiniest, most self-importantly insufferable snobs of all time, just search through the network’s archives, which records the letters that All Things Considered and other NPR shows read on-air once or twice a week. Among the many, many topics that listeners have deemed off-limits for NPR, you’ll find blogging (“another example of the slow decline of our once-educated society”); Tiger Woods (“what a waste of my time”); the National Enquirer (NPR’s citing it as a source “shook me to the core”); adulterous Gov. Mark Sanford (“Can’t NPR reporters find more important events going on in the world?”); comedians Adam Carolla and Mo Rocca; the rapper Waka Flocka Flame (“For this, I donate part of my precious pension?”); Twitter (“the CB radio of our era—just as much hype, just as much lasting impact”); Bristol Palin (“The only thing this story provoked me to do was change the station”); Levi Johnston (“We do not care about this subject”); Mel Gibson (“Shame on the producers of ATC for allowing such a scrape at the very bottom of the barrel”); heavy metal legend Dio (“You didn’t have to do it just because he died recently”); e-books (they can’t compare to “the smell of new paper”); the iPad (“a foolish waste of time”); the thought of children using the iPad (“Hopefully, this will be followed up by an uplifting story about the great things that are happening to children in the realm of outdoor play and unhooking from screen time”); and, perennially, sports. “You can’t mention sports without someone saying, ‘Why are you covering sports—it’s just a bunch of Neanderthals, it’s just a bunch of fascists!’ ” says NPR sports correspondent (and Slate sports podcast “ Hang Up and Listen” panelist) Mike Pesca.
For many years, I ignored such letters. I’m 32, but I generally share the sensibilities of folks much older than myself—I watch NewsHour and go to bed at 9:30—so I’m used to encountering people who frown on anything produced after 1981. I blew my top, though, when I heard listeners’ responses to Michael Jackson’s death. NPR ran several fine pieces about Jackson, my favorite being a segment in which fans around the world sang their own versions of Jackson’s hits. The report was sweet, touching, and a creative use of the network’s far-flung correspondents—NPR at its best. The letter-writers hated it. All Things Considered devoted two spots to complaints from listeners who thought that Jackson’s death—the biggest pop culture news of 2009—was inconsequential. “Et tu, NPR? I thought you would offer a safe refuge from the barrage of Michael Jackson coverage on every other media outlet, but alas, no,” said a woman from Pennsylvania. What about “Uyghur unrest in China, fighting in Mogadishu and dozens of deaths in Afghanistan?” wrote another listener. Clearly not given to hyperbole, he added, “If Jackson had lived in ancient Rome, would Nero have moonwalked while his city burned?”
Since then, I’ve grown to hate these listeners. Oh, I hate them, hate them, hate them. Every time one of their narrow-minded, classist letters makes it on the air, I contemplate burning my tote bag in protest. The problem, for me, isn’t just that some people don’t like some things NPR covers. It’s that these reflexively snobby pseudo-intellectuals see NPR as their own—a refuge from the mad world outside, a “safe,” high-minded palace that should never be sullied by anything more outré than James Taylor (whom, of course, they love). Not only do these letter-writers perpetuate the worst caricature of public radio, but their views don’t track with what you actually hear on the air. Over the years, public radio fans have heard Terry Gross interview Gene Simmons and Ira Glass confess his love for Howard Stern.
If these snoots love public radio as much as I do, then one of us must be missing the boat about what public radio is supposed to be about. Is it me, or them?
It’s them. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spoken to several people who work at NPR and elsewhere in public radio, as well as people who’ve studied the public radio audience. After all these conversations, I’ve concluded that the letter-writers’ views don’t represent most of us who listen to public radio. Their correspondence is the product of a psychology particular to public radio—since they spend so much time with the radio, and because they even donate to keep it alive, they believe it should reflect their high-brow passions.
“The first wave of letters tends to be the people who are grumpy about what we’ve done, particularly pop culture,” says Christopher Turpin, the executive producer of All Things Considered. “They feel very strongly that they don’t want us getting into the gutter.” But that’s not the whole story. “What tends to happen is that the day after we air those letters, we get a bigger wave from people who say, ‘I loved your piece on Charlie Sheen,’ or ‘Please, more Ken and Barbie!’ ” Turpin says. In other words, the grumps are the outliers.
NPR doesn’t usually air these kinder letters, Turpin says, because “we don’t like to pat ourselves on the back.” But Turpin has good reason to believe that they represent the “silent majority” of NPR listeners. To the horror of many NPR snoots, many of the people who work at the network love pop culture. “I noticed it during the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial—the entire staff of ATC was gathered around the television to watch the verdict,” Turpin says. * “That was the moment a light bulb went off.” NPR staffers generally come to the network after a lifetime of obsession with public radio; if the staff loved celebrity news, Turpin came to realize, most listeners probably do too.
Public radio’s audience statistics seem to back up this story. From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, public radio saw an enormous spike in listeners. In 2003, 11 percent of all Americans—and a quarter of college graduates—regularly listened to public radio, according to a 2006 study of the public radio audience by researchers George Bailey and David Giovannoni. The growth was made up in large part by young listeners—people born after 1970—who now account for the second-largest share of public radio listeners, after baby boomers.
In the last decade, NPR has moved deftly to keep these younger people listening. Jay Kernis, a longtime producer who now works at CNN, is generally credited with encouraging NPR staffers to cover pop culture more often. In an e-mail, he told me that he did so because “NPR programming and coverage should not be elite, but reflect a wide range of American expression—high, low, remarkable, strange, etc.—as long as it was worthy of the audience’s attention.” Many of the reports on pop culture that I’ve heard on NPR live up to this mandate; they’re smart, funny, informative, and deep. A year ago, for instance, NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon spent 10 minutes interviewing Ke$ha, whose single “Tik Tok” was then at the top of the charts. It was as thorough an examination of her rise as I’ve heard anywhere else, and it was also just fun to listen to. Of course, the letter-writers couldn’t stand it. (“I thought this radio station was supposed to be a bit more cultivated and cultured than most. What an insult,” one said. “We listen to NPR precisely to avoid this sort of stupidity,” claimed another.)
After plateauing between 2003 and 2007, NPR’s audience has been growing lately. * Still, like many media outlets, its audience is also getting older; between 1999 and 2009, the median age of NPR News’ audience rose from 47 to 52. This shift has produced some anxiety in public radio circles. NPR, it’s clear, needs to attract younger audiences without dumbing itself down and without turning off the boomers who are its most fervent listeners. One idea that’s been floated is to create stations that target programming to young people. “In large markets, you could have a channel for NPR News listeners in their 20s and 30s, essentially the children of most of today’s listeners,” says Bailey, president of the public radio consulting company Walrus Research. “But that doesn’t mean the younger station would be for idiots. In fact these people would be the most-informed, educated, politically active segment of the 30-year-olds.”
Tell that to the snoots! I suspect that any move to create stations for young people would be met with howls of protest from the letter-writing classes. Here’s hoping public radio officials ignore them. Indeed, let’s all ignore them. The next time you hear a smarmy letter wishing that NPR would quit wasting its time telling you about Charlie Sheen, let me suggest that you respond with pity, not anger. Clinging to an outmoded view of what’s fit for consumption by the rest of us—it’s just so, so sad. Indeed, I listen to NPR precisely to avoid that sort of stupidity.
Correction, March 2, 2011: This article previously misspelled Winona Ryder’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, March 3, 2011: This article originally claimed that NPR’s audience has declined over the last five years. NPR’s listenership has actually increased since plateauing between 2003 and 2007. (Return to the corrected sentence.)