Wait Wait...Don't Kill Me!
I’m hard-pressed to think of a more superfluous cause you can donate to. Scientific research to improve bacon?
It's the season for pledge drives on public radio, and my local stations have conspired like Nixon and Dancing with the Stars to do theirs simultaneously. No one in the Puget Sound will enjoy Robert Siegel’s professorial baritone, Michele Norris’s come-hither rasp or Melissa Block’s ugly-girl squeal uninterrupted by nervous laughter and unhinged appeals for MONEY, MONEY, MONEY from the faceless drones that hoard broadcast spectrum like a fat, greedy squirrel.
Public radio kills poor people. Here’s my reasoning.
It's expensive to run a public radio station, sure. You could be sued by the FCC any time your local sexpert talks about the latest toy named after a beloved childhood figure, your talent demands six-figure salaries, and you have to shell out a sum larger than Ira Glass's prima-nerda ego to pay for the NPR shows that make people actually listen to your station. Sorry, the talking chipmunk that hosts Alternative Radio isn’t doing it.
But I’m hard-pressed to think of a more superfluous cause you can donate to. Scientific research to improve bacon? Talk about a demographic-spanning quality of life improvement. Generously tipping your dancer at the local gentleman's club? Her kids will thank you, not to mention your lap.
Public radio benefits precisely two groups: people who work for public radio and would otherwise be clutching their theater tech degrees in destitution, and rich whites who love to tell you how they get their news from public radio. "Watch the local news?" these patrons of soft-rock journalism say. "What am I, a barbarian?" Nothing is more offensive to residents of a certain economic bracket than reporting mixed with commercial messages. Unless it's Monsanto and your announcer is heavily sedated.
Like a methhead bugging Bryan Cranston for a snort, the monied melaninless have a compulsive need to be "informed" by public radio. They feel smarter by listening to reporters with made-up names tell them about the latest social network or how Chinese grandmothers got their groove back. Public radio patronage is primarily about ego: I enjoy the platonic form of News, unpolluted by any bias except for quirky transition music.
Pouring millions of dollars into egofication has costs, though. Those millions aren't helping anyone with a more pressing need than hearing Paula Poundstone jokes while doing the New York Times crossword in bed with your polyamorous lovers. Rich whites could be donating their treasuries to get homeless kids off the street, give clean water to the Third World, develop better cancer drugs, or even give old people therapy dogs - causes they will tweet to their heart’s content and maybe send $5 through PayPal. Instead, they’re propping up a couple blue-collar millionaires with good writers or, most shamefully, feeding the Bloated Beast for decades while Africans starve.
Of course, you wealthy Waldorfs have the right to send your money wherever you see fit. But nut up to the fact that your demand for ad-free radio is killing people not clever and hip enough to merit your vast sums.
How does it feel to be more morally questionable than Monsanto?
This Is Marketplace
We only recently had our local NPR pledge drive, which is usually the time when I discover the merits of other radio stations that are privately funded. Indeed, my disdain for fund drives for government subsidized radio stations far outshadows my ire toward farm subsidies and those leeches of America, FAFSA-sponsored students.
I find the local hands pitching the value of these "one of a kind" (how many are there?) stations rather strident, personally, hawking angel packages as if Della Reese were the patron saint of the Michael Silverblatt Bookworm Book of the Month Club and Michael Landon's shining spirit watches over Joe Morgenstern to ensure he sends out only properly licensed DVD's to schmucks in Cheviot Hills who earn more than me but not quite enough to warrant an invite to any Sean Penn bash, which puts them squarely in the "most willing to give to public radio" demographic.
Personally, I never much liked the idea of giving to public radio. But as Buster Bluth ably puts it, I don't agree with your dirty doings here, but I will defend with my life your right to do them. In this case, dirty doings happens to be siphoning off the upper-mid-to-lower-upper class incomes in order that "Left Right & Center," a "bi-partisan show" pretending Arianna Huffington isn't a gigantic media whore, can stay on the air for half an hour every Friday at 6.
But hey, that's what public radio is for. If rich white people want to give their dinero to communications majors with superiority complexes, just to improve their own sense of superiority over their fellow urbanites ("It's Mee-Shell Norris.") then who are we to stop them?
Don't get me wrong. I'm white, and I love a good softball lobbed over the plate of regional politics, and if I'm so stuck up as to think that I'm better off listening to droning pundits talk about ethanol subsidies in Haiti or how Asian-centric after school curricula are beginning to dominate the beaches of Southern California, well I've got old white guy Warren Olney for that. But I bear no illusions that public radio is making an impact either way on the average, say, black guy robbing convenience marts in Inglewood, or your Korean Banana Stand entrepreneur.
Granted, the money those mini-Ashley Judds are spending on Fringe Benefits cards could be going to feed some Peruvian village, but then again, so could the budget for the next Warner Bros. multi-million dollar flop. Fact is, even though I'm nowhere near the income bracket, I could see myself one day spending a little cash on a pledge in exchange for a t-shirt ("I gave to NPR and all I got was this lousy t-shirt and a self-congratulatory Facebook post").
What public radio shows us is that the marketplace is big enough to support both public and government subsidized radio and mercy shipments to Haiti. The pot may be black, but if the pot is big enough, who cares what race it is, as long as we feel better about having given to the less fortunate, even if that giving never quite supplies the whole need. As Jesus said, you'll always have the poor. Doesn't mean you can't blame the World Bank.
While we're blaming folks, I think it's as easy to blame public radio stations for the continuing poverty of those who lack basic resources as it is to claim George Bush doesn't care for black puppets or people; this despite the fact that Bush's giving record far outstrips Kanye's. In the same way, your annual support for public radio does, in some way, ensure that the public discourse continues (whatever, we have Twitter for that), and that we'll continue to be exposed to bands like Delta Spirit and The Fogmen.
Anyway, as an imperialist, I like that I can decide where my money goes. Like a little dictator, I can decide who shall receive my beneficence and who shall suffer the wrath of my financial neglect. So who's on the block today? Red Cross? Or that latest Kickstarter campaign to mass produce hipster tchotchkes from the vestiges of old iPods?
I think we know the answer to that.