Yeah, we’ve got snobs in public radio, but also a lot of great people with mud on their boots

Commentary by Brian Mann

When I first started working in public radio 30-plus years ago, I was a college dropout and my day job was butchering fish on the docks in Sitka, Alaska [map]. That’s the village where I grew up.

That little public radio station was about as rural and rooted as you could want. Sure, there were jazz shows, and you could sometimes smell a little pot in the air room.

But there were also shows about hunting and fishing. At night, we broadcast “muskeg messages” to trollers and long-liners anchored out near the commercial fishing grounds.

And they let me, a local guy in rubber boots and Carhartts, start volunteering. They welcomed me, respected me and taught me a trade. In the years that followed, I muddled from one small-town public radio station to another.

And after that first welcome experience, I learned a little bit about the snootiness NPR executive Ron Schiller showed in that awful gotcha video.

I’ve seen NPR folks flinch at the way I pronounce words. I’ve had people ask me with real amazement why I would ever want to live and work in rural America.

I’ve heard some amazingly ignorant and small-minded opinions about the white, Christian, middle American culture that I hail from and have stuck to.

And some people think that’s all that public radio amounts to. Even some fans of what we do — including Sue Schardt, an important advocate for public radio producers — argue that public broadcasting is pretty elitist.

“[W]e unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite,” Schardt wrote, following this latest scandal [involving Ron Schiller].

Others go even further. Former NPR commentator Juan Williams claims that Schiller’s comments offer true insight into the very DNA of public broadcasting.

But here’s the thing. In my experience, that kind of bigoted nonsense is the exception. And I don’t just mean that NPR are a bunch of liberal city-folk smart enough to keep their prejudices to themselves.

What I mean is that the vast majority of people I’ve worked with at NPR are deeply curious, open-minded and knowledgeable about life in America — and not just life in the coastal cities or the “blue” states. Many of them started their careers in “small-market” rural stations, spending long years doing farm stories, and writing about the travails of rural manufacturing.

The weird truth is that NPR is the only national network that talks and thinks and reports regularly about my part of America with any sophistication or nuance.

Tune in to Morning Edition and All Things Considered and you won’t just get corn-pone and kitsch from the heartland.  You’ll get sophisticated, thoughtful, balanced reporting.

There’s a reason for that.  Over the years, many of NPR’s signature voices — Howard Berkes, John Burnett, Peter Kenyon, Corey Flintoff and Elizabeth Arnold — have been people with a lot of mud on their boots. These are people who’ve spent years in “flyover” country. They can write about mining or oil drilling or running a corner grocery, or maintaining a small rural school, because they’ve gone deep into our world.

American journalism — including the vast majority of conservative American journalism — is primarily anchored in five big cities, Washington, D.C., New York, L.A., Atlanta and Boston.

But it’s telling that my chief editor at NPR works from Maine. She knows and respects Main Street American issues — and thinks about this part of America with as much devotion as any journalist working.

It’s also worth noting that here in rural America, a lot of our listeners aren’t the elites.

In my world, public radio is kept on in the cafes, in the truck cabs, in the tractors, on the job sites, and in the mom-and-pop retail stores.

Yes, they’re people who love Morning Edition and our local news.  But they also love bluegrass music, and they call us with their lost dog reports, and they send us their community calendar listings about Methodist church suppers.

It’s also a simple fact that in my public radio culture, a big slice of the listeners are conservative. In much of rural America, if you didn’t have conservative listeners, you just plain wouldn’t have many listeners at all.

Now, I understand that when a doofus like Ron Schiller sounds off, all that gets eclipsed. Public radio becomes a latte-sipping caricature, a Fox News laugh line, a Culture War pinata.

But here’s the really sad part. When the dust settles, the vast majority of those big-market urban NPR affiliates will be just fine.  They have the big audiences, and the big donors.  They’ll weather deep cuts to their federal funding.

I’m guessing NPR will muddle forward, too.  They might have to trim their sails a little, but the network will survive.

The real blood in the water — and yes, this is an irony that infuriates me — will flow from the veins of this “other” public radio, the one that exists out here where I live, in hundreds of rural towns and small cities.

Many of our most grassroots stations, the ones most deeply connected to the culture Schiller was deriding, will be crippled if Schiller’s blather triggers any kind of sudden, abrupt funding cuts.

I happen to think that it’s fair and timely to have a debate about whether Congress should fund public broadcasting.  That debate was needed before this scandal broke.

But we have to have that conversation in a way that doesn’t cripple the thriving culture of public radio that has evolved in America’s heartland.

Brian Mann is North Country Public Radio’s bureau chief in the Adirondacks, based at Paul Smiths College [map]. He lives at Saranac Lake with his wife and son. He contributes reports to NPR and to regional magazines. This commentary was originally published March 11, 2011, on North Country Public Radio’s site.
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