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The Aesthetics of Public Radio

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 29, 2010 09:30 AM

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Bill McKibben has a great article in The New York Review of Books about public radio. It has a huge audience, he argues, but is "the least discussed, debated, [and] understood" of media:

NPR shows have far larger audiences than the news on cable television; indeed, all four television broadcast networks combined only draw twice as large an audience for their evening newscasts. . . . The audience for most of its programs dwarfs the number of subscribers to the The New York Times or The New Yorker, or the number of people who read even the biggest best sellers.

Yet there is no discourse around radio, probably because of its "smooth professionalism—it’s gotten so good at its basic task that it’s taken for granted." Public radio is a journalistic miracle, but it's undervalued, both critically and financially.

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At the same time, McKibben writes, public radio has become a true creative outlet for writers, journalists, and other observers who aren't at home in the stuffy, ritualized mainstream media, which tend to be either radically partisan or deliberately inert. His heroes are Ira Glass (pictured), of This American Life, and Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab, and he's compiled a list of great public radio programs which is worth checking out. I'd never heard of Encounters, for example, "which is mostly just nature writer Richard Nelson out in the Alaskan wild with a microphone."

McKibben captures the two qualities of public radio which, to my mind, make it most rewarding: a cool, objective thoughtfulness on the one hand, and a private, hushed intimacy on the other. It's this intimacy that characterizes the creative side of public radio. Robert Krulwich, who co-hosts Radiolab, calls his show "warm and seductive"; the crew of This American Life have long prized the show's "driveway moments," the moments when "listeners were so hooked that they would linger in their cars to hear the end of a piece even once they’d gotten home." If it learns from public radio, Glass says, then perhaps broadcast journalism "could be remade with a different aesthetics." It's amazing to think that the future of journalism might be in radio.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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