My charitable dollars won't be going to NPR anymore / by sylvia kronstadt
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|Wed, 10-23-2013 - 3:06pm|
The Beggar Wears Prada (or Why I Stopped Giving to Public Broadcasting)
The twice yearly, nine-day pledge drive for public radio is finally over. Thank god. If you listen to those fools pleading, cajoling, making "rational" appeals and glorifying their role in your life long enough, it can make you physically ill. Switch to a rock station and listen to Eminem's "Berzerk." It'll drive you less crazy.
But if craziness is your thing, consider this: Just weeks before NPR's nationwide panhandling fest began, its seventh CEO in seven years announced that he was leaving his $700,000 a year job for one that pays $2 million. The staff was "stunned." They feel OK about making only several hundred thousand dollars a year.
I don't feel OK about bankrolling these vain, elitist, self-important people, who have ensconced themselves squarely in the top One Percent. They expect the rest of us, who earn far less and don't likely have rewarding, prestigious jobs, to pay for their fancy-pants lifestyles. That's not my kind of charity.
One fateful day in the late '80s, I happened to learn how much money a chief correspondent for the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" (later "The NewsHour") was being paid. It was about 10 times the median family income in the U.S. at the time. I was floored. I had always assumed that those who worked in public broadcasting earned decent, middle-class wages, like those of us whose contributions supported them. Silly me!
I investigated further, and dug up the salaries of other public broadcasting personalities and executives. Bob Edwards was making half a million dollars as host of "Morning Edition" 10 years ago! No wonder he had that gloating, bemused, "I've Got a Secret" tone (It's even worse now, on his "Bob Edwards Weekend" program).
When I first wrote about the arrogance and self-indulgence at NPR several years ago, there were 14 vice presidents who were raking in six-figure salaries (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/03/npr-deserves-its-whiny-critics.html). Josh Gerstein, then a White House correspondent for Politico.com, questioned how NPR could justify such compensation when it was laying off employees and canceling programs to plug a $23 million budget hole.
I agree with Newsbusters writer Tim Graham, who wrote earlier this year, "The next time a public-radio station goes into pledge-drive mode and begs listeners for their money, it would be wonderful if, in the spirit of balance and fairness, they would read off some salary numbers for NPR stars. Do people on modest incomes really want to chip in $25 to make sure an anchor can take home $375,000?"
One of NPR's longtime catch-phrases is that its unique contribution to American life is "made possible by listeners like you."
Like me? Not any more, you fools. Some other poor devil will have to pay for your Prada.
Stop being such a drama queen. You know you'll get your booty. A commenter on the Poynter Institute site proposed this motto: "NPR -- where the One Percent pretends it cares about the rest of us." Priceless!
A HISTORY OF EPIC MELODRAMA, ROMANCE AND TANTRUMS
I could write a book (but I don't feel like it) about public broadcasting: its history, its truly magnificent efforts over the decades, its gradual bureaucratization and ossification and "insider culture," its corruption and commercialization and commodification, and its gradual dumbing-down to lure a less gray, less Boomery demographic (thus the otherwise inexplicable cancellation of the excellent "Talk of the Nation" and the loss of the truly vast, precious mind of Neal Conan) (replaced by the rapid-fire attention span of "Here and Now," which "reflects the fluid world of news as it’s happening in the middle of the day," junking the concept of both depth and the listener input that made TOTN so gratifying) (plus the onslaught of youthiness in "This-American-Life" wannabe shows, such as "Snap Judgment" -- "a smoking-hot audio roller coaster...storytelling with a beat" -- and "The Moth" -- "true stories told live, without notes, in front of an audience." The stories aren't as "straight from the heart" as they might seem, though, since "The Moth’s directors work with each novice storyteller to find, shape and present his true tale of ordinary life." Then comes the really-not-so "unrehearsed" performance, by someone who -- it often turns out -- isn't a "novice" at all. The "true tales" have about them the air of embellishment, creative license and a too-perfect arc to be convincing as bona fide nonfiction. Human beings love a great story, but -- as the hilarious and delightful David Sedaris learned -- they feel betrayed when they discover that they are being "played" by a programming ethos that values impact over veracity. These TIA-like programs that make excellent, memorable entertainment out of the raw material of real lives perpetuate NPR's fundamentally dishonest tendency to turn what is portrayed as "real" into a manufactured production that leads to more "blurred lines." I put the storied "Story Corps" into the same category, even though I love it. When I read a few years ago that the show's producers provide participants with a list of "interview questions," to ensure that a "great" interchange ensues, I really felt let down.)
(As public radio becomes ever-more obsessed with "real, human stories," our local public TV station's motto is "Utah's Best Storyteller.")
Then, there is the issue of public funding and political bias, the insufferably vain and affected "NPR Style," and the question of whether we need PBS and NPR anymore, now that we have access to so many fine news sources and programming from domestic and global sources. Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written on these subjects (and generally written very well), in newspapers and magazines, but the only books I can find on Amazon.com about NPR are 97 titles that are by NPR and glorify NPR. Surprise, surprise: It's quite a self-congratulatory culture they've got.
This post won't provide anything approaching comprehensive coverage of the public broadcasting sector. I merely want to explain why I diverted my charitable giving away from an enterprise that I loved for many years, and still -- ambivalently -- do.
I admit it: I feel guilty that I no longer donate to National Public Radio (NPR) and public television (PBS).
I hadn't planned to withdraw my support. I had always done my share. I genuinely enjoy supporting causes and institutions that are worthwhile, and if you don't mind sloshing through the mediocrity, you will be treated, every day, to real gems of insight and character via public broadcasting.
But at a certain point it became more of a moral compromise to give than not to give. There are too many destitute, anguished people in the world, and too many urgent causes, to allocate my finite charitable resources to a bunch of imperious prima donnas.
A MATERIAL WORLD FOR A MATERIAL GIRL
Vivian Schiller: What were you thinking?
How dare they implore us to "please, please give what you can -- even if it's just five dollars!" as if the lives of adorable African children were at stake?
On top of Vivian Schiller's Big Haul, former National Public Radio vice president and fund-raiser Ron Schiller (no relation) was paid $479,011 in 2011. After a much publicized, very embarrassing, sting by a conservative group, depicted in the high-impact ad below, Schiller left "for unrelated reasons," the Christian Science Monitor was told. He received his full annual salary and bonuses, despite the humiliation his smart-ass remarks inflicted on NPR.
Public opinion is driven by "white, middle class racists," Ron Schiller said on tape. The year before Vivian Schiller's shocking payout, NPR bestowed $1.22 million in salary, bonuses and deferred compensation upon her predecessor, Kevin Klose, who retired that year.
Kevin Klose. It paid another $1.22 million to Ken Stern, its president, who was "forced out" (that is the terminology used on NPR's own web site). Isn't that odd? It's like Wall Street: Screw up horribly, and get fabulously rewarded.
Ken Stern. Earlier this year, the Newsbusters and Daily Finance web sites listed some of the most recent NPR salary information available (2010-2011) for the hothouse flowers known as the "talent." The data, from IRS 99 forms, included:
Robert Siegel, cohost of “All Things Considered,” $375,652;
Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” $373,097;
Renee Montagne, co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” $405,140;
Terry Gross, host of WHYY’s “Fresh Air,” $256,611.
(Now that "Morning Edition" has three anchors, with the addition of David Greene, it must cost nearly a million dollars annually just for the big stars, not to mention the behind-the-scenes workhorses.)
(After Juan Williams was "kicked upstairs" to be an "analyst," following his tenure on "Talk of the Nation," he was paid $65,000 annually for 12 to 15 minutes of radio time a month. This was widely regarded as "all but a shove out the door." It sounds like a great gig to me.)
(Steve Inskeep said at the time, "We spent 10 years trying to make Juan look good." Will someone please do the same for Stevie? There's a twerp thing that needs to be purged, and a peacock thing, and actually quite a few other things. Like beginning every story with the smart-ass, faux casual, "Okay, so....." instead of trying a bit of faux maturity.) (Oddly enough, I saw him moderate one of those really good public-TV panel discussions, and he wasn't a weenie at all. He was smart, modest, professional and respectful. A bona fide split personality!)
The network's managing editor Barbara Rehm makes well over $400,000. Chief financial officer James Elder gets $431,861. Keith Woods ($205,989) is vice president for diversity. So it's nice to see a black face -- and a very nice face, indeed -- in this rather too-pale lineup.
Keith Woods: Power to the people, but which people?
THIS AMERICAN CRAP
"We're here for idealistic reasons," the host of "This American Life," Ira Glass, exclaimed during the latest pledge drive.
Ira! WTF? It depends on what your idea of "ideals" is, I guess. I'm sure they're in there somewhere. So are fame, adulation, power, mastery and wealth. You love how much you're loved, Ira! And you love the "art" of playing with your listeners' emotions. You're giddy about it (along with being respectful and sensitive, of course). It's YOUR incredible American life that keeps you going, not primarily "this" American life, which you present so powerfully. And that's understandable -- just be honest about it, man.
It's not idealism that propels the work of NPR. I have heard anchors and reporters refer more than once to the irritation they feel when they don't fly first class. They hang out (courtesy of their loyal listeners) at Café Milano, a pricey restaurant, where fat-cat lobbyists and senators have earnest talks over fine wine and COSTOLETTA DI VITELLO ALLA MILANESE CON LA SUA RUCOLETTA (pounded, breaded veal chop). For dessert, the 24k gold covered hazelnut semifreddo filled with Kaluha-coffee gelato and chocolate crunch torrone ($75) is highly recommended. But the best part is that precious "Cheers" feeling, when you glide in, and all those powerful people give you a warm smile and call out your name ("Norm!"), or (better yet) when some Supreme Court justice says, "Hey babe -- have you lost weight?"
"To make a living is not to make a killing -- it's to make enough," the gentle, modest Berry said.
Does that sound so terrible, you NPR flounce-abouts? Wouldn't you love yourselves even more if you just took what you needed for a tastefully simple life, and left the rest for those who have so little?
Given the egomania and narcissism and competition that turn NPR into a hotbed of intrigue and conspiracy theories, I wasn't surprised at how beleaguered Liane Hansen felt as the host, for 22 years, of "Weekend Edition Sunday." In a revealing, touching speech at TEDx-talks last month (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zevraXF0dQM), she described the sensation of being surrounded by whispers and resentment.
Maybe if NPR employed smart, sensible people and ensured that they remained "regular people," this highly charged culture would not develop. Current anchor salaries at NPR are seven to eight times the median family income, according to the latest Census data. Perhaps it's more fair, though, to compare the NPR salaries to the average per capita income, which indicates that the radio darlings are being paid 12 times what the rest of us get. Obviously, their lives -- a fragrant swirl of poshness and (probably) alligator-leather handbags -- perpetuate the very income inequality on which they regularly report.
The perfect addition to a radio icon's wardrobe of handbags. And here's the thanks we get: the Nina Toten-bag. (When the generally likable Simon was publicly criticized for taking such a high salary for his Saturday morning show, he was widely ridiculed for protesting, via NPR's ombudsman, "Most everybody in commercial radio makes more than $364,000." That's blatantly not true, as scores of commercial radio hosts made sputteringly clear. Moreover, it's irrelevant what those in commercial broadcasting are paid.)
So maybe it's hard for the demimonde of public broadcasting to keep things in perspective, even though they're constantly reporting -- with achingly compassionate voices -- on poor people, and those who have lost everything they own to one disaster or another.
There are numerous NPR personalities who are paid handsomely for doing weekly one-hour programs. Lynne Rossetto Casper of "The Splendid Table," for example, was getting $173,500 back in 2008. Her delightful cooking show is an excellent vehicle to promote her lucrative web site and cookbook ventures. She's quite a tycoon, despite her mirthful and cuddly voice.
I prefer to give to charities that are less gluttonous.
As mentioned earlier, Gary Knell, NPR's seventh CEO in seven years -- who had been at the helm just over 18 months -- shattered an already fragile staff morale when he cheerfully announced, just weeks before the nationwide pledge drive was to begin, that he was leaving to head National Geographic.
Knell had been making up to $988,456 annually at Sesame Street Workshop before taking a pay cut to head NPR, but then he was offered "an opportunity that, after discussions with my family, I could not turn down." (Yeah -- blame it on the wife and kids.) Knell's predecessor at National Geographic was paid more than $1.4 million in 2011, media blogger Jim Romenesko said, citing IRS filings. So it must be a thrill for Knell to escape from NPR, where he claimed to have "calmed the waters," and get back to making the big bucks.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik stated that when Knell initially took the helm, "there was a sense that NPR was being led by grownups, who were working constructively in a shared direction."
Apparently, this was an aberration. A Vanity Fair article last year referred to "frustration with impotent, ineffectual, absentee, and alien management at NPR," despite the obscene salaries that had been paid to get so-called top-notch people.
A dollar a year? God -- what is his problem? That's the sort of reasonableness and decency that's going to make everyone else feel totally uncomfortable. Not good for morale, dude. Why don't you go back to selling trousers? Oh sorry, that's Haggar. Well, maybe you should start selling trousers, and let someone with the requisite money-lust take over at NPR. A good pair of pants can do a lot for a man.
And NPR could give out Haggar chinos as pledge-drive thank-you gifts! It's a perfect solution.
SURROUNDINGS SUITED TO FIRST AMENDMENT ROYALTY
Have you ever heard a public radio fund drive that didn't plead desperately for you to keep the whole thing afloat? They portray themselves as always on the verge of vanishing from our lives. "Please help us continue to produce the programming you love!" they repeat incessantly.
"We know you're listening," they add eerily. "Won't you do your share to ensure that we can keep providing the news and analysis you've come to rely on?"
They ask for your pets to pledge, and some do! They need your support!
The need is desperate, because no matter how many millions of dollars we dutifully sign over to them, they are going to spend millions more than that.
How do they do it? Well, we've begun to count the ways. And now we have the little matter of NPR's new, LEED-certified, $210 million D.C. headquarters building, which opened in April of this year.
"NPR’s gleaming new headquarters building in the shadow of the Capitol in Washington has soaring ceilings, a 'wellness' center, an employee gym and a gourmet cafe staffed by a resident chef.... It could be a political problem," the Washington Post noted in June of this year. Was this "edifice" too "luxe" for a nonprofit organization that receives tax dollars? the Post asked.
It's too "luxe," as far as I am concerned -- not because I resent beautiful work spaces, but because I, as a potential donor, know of a few hundred more sensible ways to target my charitable dollars. Condie Rice, who is such fun to quote, would perhaps say it is "unhelpful."
When millions of people are suffering, when human and civil rights are being horribly violated, when the planet is dying, when our democracy becomes more illusory by the day, when animals are exploited and abused all around us, I have no interest whatsoever in financing a gym or gourmet dining for the Chosen Few at NPR. Screw them! Do they have no sense of shame? If they do, it has been buried way, way under their tumescent feelings of entitlement and ultra-importance.
The new, 400,000 square-foot complex, with a 90,000-square-foot newsroom, cost more than the annual operating budget of the organization. The recorded voice of "the woman known affectionately (by whom I don't know) as 'the mother of public radio'," Susan Stamberg, announces the floors in the building’s elevators. The new building is stocked with $44 million of top-shelf audio and multimedia equipment, and it contains 14 studios and six recording booths. Audio moves around the building on a fiber network, and a central data center manages all things tech, including power, HVAC and security, the Post added.
The voice of "Mother Stamberg" tells you you've arrived. There are modern production studios, and video screens throughout the building, including 18 screens in the newsroom. A live HD TV camera at NPR can connect NPR reporters and experts to television media via a fiber or satellite link. "The finest mahogany can be seen throughout!" exclaims a volunteer tour guide, who hopes eventually to nab a real, paying job among the exalted ranks. Downstairs is an elaborate, permanent installation chronicling the "incalculable" and "historic" contribution that the building's occupants have made to the nation. Defending our freedom, and whatever!
NPR was so despondent about its funding hassles, it had to cheer everyone up with these "mood brightening" surroundings.
Airy spaces are so important for camaraderie and "the occasional romance."
Glorifying yourself is part of the job at NPR, but it's for the public's benefit.
NPR defended the expenditure, saying the outpost would help it provide better coverage "outside the Beltway," but that is a specious argument. Member stations in every state employ reporters, paid for by donors and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who are champing at the bit to have their moment in the NPR spotlight.
NPR itself has correspondents stationed all over the place -- just not in ego-building digs. We don't need any of the several NPR reporters who were relocated to the West Coast to cover happenings in Colorado or Oregon. They're covered. It's redundancy we don't need and can't afford.
There is no evidence that NPR brought anything to this story, except a bill for its donors to pay. Its coverage was essentially a “retweet,” and our local reporters were left out of the loop. (To be clear: this is not Berkes' typical modus operandi, but it is very common at NPR.)
"There's a certain cachet to having a bureau out here," Montagne said, shortly after getting settled in. And cachet is such a worthy cause, dear listeners! Cash and cachet are two of NPR's favorite things!
The great thing is that celebrities drop by, and I mean real celebrities, not NPR poseurs. Mediabistro reported on a particularly thrilling week in which Brad Pitt and George Clooney turned the newsroom into a swooning uproar. On top of that, "Modern Family" taped a segment there!
Poor George Clooney didn't expect to be mobbed by squealing NPR "journalists." The staff "has been developing new segments and ideas to make the broadcast sound like it's coming out of the West Coast," the Los Angeles Times reported last month, which seems like not the best use of their time, particularly after having already been there for 12 years. It's substance we need, not style, you fools! Since when did "geographic vibe" become such an obsession? Why didn't you just stay in D.C. and make it sound like you're coming out of the West Coast, if that's so important to your sense of terroir? You've shown no shame about misleading listeners in the past about the city (or country!) from which a reporter was broadcasting.
NPR West: an outburst of grandiosity and wannabe glamor. Why don't you shut that White Elephant down, and devote the resources to investigative and foreign reporting, instead of relying on other news organizations to do the hard work? What, precisely, has been achieved in L.A., besides the fact that Renee somehow got herself declared a celebrity by TV Guide (http://www.tvguide.com/celebrities/renee-montagne/tv-listings/357889)? I know that was The Dream, but couldn't it have been achieved less expensively, especially since the entry says she hasn't done anything?
The new building, which was designed to accommodate 90 employees, "is a gorgeous mix of practicality and industrial charm," according to the NPR blog. "The owners before us made some lovely renovations including planters in the polished concrete floors." The facility has "furniture and wall art worthy of a Silicon Valley start-up," the Los Angeles Times recently reported.
"NPR folks have a love for the finest technology," a staffer told the Times. (Within seven years, 30 employees would be laid off and two shows canceled, leaving behind so much empty space that desks are rented out to media tenants such as Slate. Not one program has originated from NPR West since then, until just last month, when "Weekend All Things Considered" pointlessly dragged itself cross-country and began a trial run. "The difference could be heard right away: more LA content for the listeners of NPR," noted LA Observed. (why is that a big deal? why couldn't Renee handle it?) "The theme music was even freshened a bit. NPR also just wanted to send a few more people west." In fact, the show's entire staff was relocated, at considerable cost, even after NPR West was forced to lay off dozens of existing staffers. Bizarro world! Host Guy Raz has been tasked with "rebranding" the program, the Los Angeles Times says. Branding, marketing, targeting and focus-grouping are taking up way too much of NPR's intellectual bandwidth these days.)
Despite the layoffs and cancellations, one on-air personality at NPR West described looking out his window a couple of years ago at "a parking lot filled with Saabs and Volvos as far as the eye can see." And they wonder why we stereotype them!
DON'T LET MONEY FOOL YOU
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
But whatever happened to the much-ballyhooed $235 million contribution by McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc in 2003, which NPR described as ""the largest monetary gift ever received by an American cultural institution"? NPR staffers were openly ecstatic, speculating about what this would mean for them.
When the helplessly repugnant Renee Montagne was asked how the Kroc windfall might affect NPR, she said, "Well, I certainly hope the hotels we stay in will have sheets with a higher thread count." That's our girl -- shamelessly exuding the NPR ethos and value system. Not long after that, she got a raise, even as dozens of her colleagues were being laid off, due to "tight finances."
The San Francisco Chronicle asserted the Kroc gift would "ensure financial stability for NPR for a generation."
It didn't ensure financial stability for five minutes. The deficits have continued relentlessly. The funds were supposed to go straight into the NPR endowment, generating "at least" $10 million a year in interest income, in perpetuity, the NPR web site emphasized. But the endowment has been plundered so many times to cover "unforeseen expenses" that last year's payout was down to $3 million.
Sorry Ms. Kroc, you dear woman.That's what you get for trying to help people like these.
Joan Kroc -- an heiress determined to help the world. She had been thrilled that some of the funds would be used to support investigative reporting, which hasn't been part of NPR's repertoire, and clearly should be. But no funds appear to have been expended for this purpose. Foreign reporting, which particularly interested Kroc, has declined since her bequest.
THE GENTEEL SEDUCTION OF THE GENTLE HEIRESS
The story of how Kroc's gift was made "offers a glimpse of how, in the world of philanthropy, small human interactions may form the foundation of major financial donations," the Los Angeles Times wrote in December 2003, two months after the heiress's death from brain cancer.
To me, it offers a glimpse into just how sleazy and predatory fund-raising can be.
"The biggest surprise was the out-of-nowhere nature of the bequest," the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.
But it was not out of nowhere. It was out of Somewhere, and that somewhere is the slick, focused, calculated, vulturish world of big-time fund solicitation. Joan Kroc, who would die within the year, was courted by the Elegant Men at the Top of NPR. She was expertly groomed to give, and then to give more. She was wined and dined. She was fed a storybook version of NPR's ideals and financial rectitude. She was given reassurances that died right along with her.
As far as I know, this episode has never been covered properly. It makes me ill, no matter how "sound" her cancer-filled brain may have been.
The whole affair unfolded after Mrs. Kroc sent a $5 million donation to her local public radio station, KPBS, in San Diego. Stephanie Bergsma, associate general manager at KPBS radio, dutifully called the top brass at NPR and essentially said, "there seems to be some big money here, guys."
Feed that beast, Mrs. Kroc. art by Max Ernst On Oct. 31, 2002, -- one year before Kroc died -- NPR CEO Kevin Klose and Executive Vice President Ken Stern jumped on a plane and excitedly jetted across the country to meet Kroc for breakfast at Rancho Valencia, a resort about 25 miles north of San Diego, according to the Los Angeles Times' straightforward chronology of events. During the 90-minute meal, the group talked about NPR and its funding mechanisms. Stern explained how reporters abroad gather news.
Klose, a former foreign correspondent, "spoke passionately about journalism," the Times was told.
Klose "was on a scouting mission," says Richard Starmann, described as Kroc's friend and advisor. But not a Boy Scouting mission, which might have required more honor and less salivation.
Klose again flew West and visited Kroc the following March, six months before her death. For Kroc, "the philanthropic was always personal; she needed to feel a connection with those she intended to help," friends told the Times. Klose made sure he kept that connection going.
As the summer progressed, Kroc's health faltered. "She had not thought that she would make it to her (75th) birthday [Aug. 27]," says Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.
The Times describes how thing then unfolded: "On Aug. 22, however, she called...Klose and a few others to say she would be holding a party on the following Wednesday.
The house that hamburgers built, golden arches not included. "Klose hopped a plane and joined about three dozen other guests at Kroc's home. Tuxedoed waiters circulated with appetizers, as Kroc's grandchildren dashed about.
"Toasts were offered to Kroc. Klose gave her a Russian lacquered box, a memento of his days as a reporter based in Moscow for the Washington Post.
"When Kroc greeted Klose, she gripped him with both hands and beamed up at him," the Times account continues. "We're really going to do great things together," she said. Slender, elegant and energetic, Kroc had not given Klose any indication that she was seriously ill. Only then, he claimed, did he realize that she was sick and determined to make a final gesture to NPR.
"In her will, Kroc left gifts of $50 million to peace institutes that bear her name at the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.," the Times reported. "She gave $10 million to the San Diego Opera and $5 million to KPBS. And she gave NPR the largest gift in its history. Her donation came with no strings attached, save its structure: $175 million (was) to be held by the NPR Foundation, to generate approximately $10 million annually in interest in perpetuity."
Ah yes: perpetuity. Don't count on it. When you donate money, it's prudent to expect that those who have been acting as obeisant handmaidens, curtsying and kissing your hand, will do whatever they want with it.
(Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that a massive statue, depicting the horror of nuclear war and paid for by Kroc -- a $250,000 "investment in peace" -- will probably be torn down, for both political and financial reasons, despite its popularity and official landmark status. More good intentions down the tubes.)
Paul Conrad's "Chain Reaction." Of course it's not pretty -- it's nuclear war! (Poor George Soros. He is such a nice man. He, too, tried to buttress the quality of NPR by donating $1.8 million through his Open Society Foundation. The funds were intended to "provide in-depth reporting on government actions in all 50 states" and serve as a "highly functioning watchdog" by hiring 100 new reporters. Has anyone seen the impact, any more than we've seen an impact from the huge Kroc bequest? Money vanishes. Dreams just die!)
THE BON FEU OF THE VANITIES
There are several message boards on which NPR listeners argue about which program host is the most detestable, the most insufferable, the most worthy of being impaled and set on fire. One of the most interesting aspects of researching this post has been to realize how people get blindly freaked out by such a wide range of "tics": each idiosyncrasy of speech and personality that a radio star displays has its own cult of haters.
The psychology of it is interesting. Why does your blood boil every time a certain host (such as Terry Gross) opens her mouth, and yet I find her to be inoffensive or even kind of cute? And vice versa? I very much enjoy several of the NPR hosts who are most vociferously ripped and trashed online.
But if you sound pompous, seductive or inauthentically foreign (even if you really are foreign), lock your doors and turn out the lights. These "fans" are ready to explode! Do not sound gay. Not that there's anything wrong with being gay -- just spare us that gayness of speech, for crap's sake! Moreover, if your voice is grating or quavery or cloying, put a sock in it (preferably one that is soaked in Tabasco).
The online commenters, as a whole, are repulsed by pretty much everyone. There is vast consternation over David Greene's fake stutter (which is intended, apparently, to make him sound unscripted) and "Mee-Shell" Norris' come-and-get-me "bedroom voice," which many describe as conveying a fellatial relationship with the microphone. I agree, as I wrote two years ago.
Ironically, she claims to have "one of the most trusted voices in American Journalism."
"For god's sake, some serious shit's going down in the world and you make it sound like a sing-song Broadway show tune," one commenter wrote, referring to the affected musicality of Jackie Lyden's speech.
"NPR touts its 'driveway moments,' but it also has I-want-to-punch-my-radio-until-my-fist-is-bloody moments," another said.
My intolerance is not as wide-ranging as that of some listeners, but it is just as intense. I thought I was just being my usual wacko self to be so chronically sickened -- almost murderously so! -- by certain of the stud muffins and puff pastries who pollute my life with their narcissism and melodrama. They are enchanted with themselves. It is not the substance of what they are saying that grips their attention: It is the way in which their every word and breath, every poignant pause, every delicious lilt and efflorescence of insight, that make them stars. And being a star is what it's all about. NPR has its own special "culture of celebrity." The divas and the leading men could not be more vain and tiresomely debonair if they were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
I'm adorable! But even I was stunned by the venom that is expressed on the NPR-related message boards, one of which has 600 entries (and I read all of them, not becoming bored for a minute). It's a good thing for all of us that people have an outlet for all that rage! My god! They are screamingly ALL CAPS and boldfaced hateful. More than one person talked about the urge to blow up his radio. A lot of them scream at their radios, and I am one of them. Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up, you big-ass poseur!
These are not the kind of reactions that media consumers have toward serious, sober journalistic professionals.
I listen to the BBC before "Morning Edition" comes on at 5 a.m. It is like being in another country, appropriately enough. The "presenters," as they call themselves, talk like normal, intelligent people, whose job it is to manage the purveyance of information. Their expert guests, and their delightful callers from around the world, are the "stars," not they. They are not polished gems who seem to be striving for love and fame. They're just doing a job, like the rest of us, and doing the best they can. Their work requires knowledge, sensitivity and management skills, but you don't notice that unless you're looking for it. What you notice is that you're learning.
Then -- shattering your relaxed, cultivated state of mind -- "Morning Edition" blares forth, in its shrill, "here we are -- your cavalcade of sweethearts!" fashion.
You sense immediately that the curtain has risen on a big-time "production," complete with supposedly nuanced roles, heart-wrenching drama, carefully contrived, tortured, silly segues and attempts at comic relief, accompanied, unfortunately by some fake, explosive, side-splitting, woodpeckery, stop-on-a-dime guffaws. Thanks for that, Steve. Just what I needed for my decades-long morning sickness. Add to that your sidekick's swoopy-voiced manipulation, coyness, cuteness, faux delicacy and eyelash-batting playfulness, and I am ready for the vomitorium.
In Montagne's mouth, words sound like fruity candies, moisturizing her tongue as they roll around deliciously. God! She manages to turn one-syllable words -- such as "act" -- into three syllables! (She has generously taught this laryngeal feat to Jean Cochran, who makes "this" a three-syllable word when she ponderously proclaims, "Th-ii-is...is...N..P..R," as if she were announcing the Second Coming of Christ.)
But seriously: How many times each day do we have to be reminded, "...and I'm Renee Montagne." We know that. Who cares? If you want a platform for your show-offy personality, why don't you do a blog, and let it rip? It works for me. And then "Morning Edition" could be straightforward. You know: professional.
It is NPR's cultivation of a "unique style," and its environment of glowing specialness, that has transformed what I assume were once regular people into grotesque caricatures. They are fancy, pampered people who put on a show -- a highly produced, tightly paced, cynically manipulative show -- for we gentle cows, "out there in the heartland," who listen intently and then agree to be milked.
Each day, another theatrical extravaganza unfolds. One aspect that's particularly irritating is that the hosts, and the reporters they interview (journalists probing journalists -- always a treat), are heavily scripted, but they attempt vainly to sound spontaneous. Thus, their pauses, their stammers, their "groping" for words that are right there in front of them, their "sad feelings" (cue the sad music!) and their bursts of saucy banter, are plotted down to the millisecond.
"It's so, um....it's just hard, really...to convey, you know, the scope of the tragedy." They are being dishonest toward their audience, and I resent it.
For many years, as I wrote in 2011, I have sensed that NPR has a sort of 'finishing school' for on-air personalities. During this indoctrination, I visualize that reporters and anchors are taught an absurdly unnatural and contrived rhythm of speech that involves odd pauses, obnoxious emphases and pathetically obvious attempts to sound spontaneous, when it is clear, as previously mentioned, that they are reading from a script -- even during what are disingenuously portrayed as unrehearsed interchanges. These scripts are evidently not edited by anyone with a brain (although they do have a number of well-compensated staffers whose title is "editor").
Our benevolent, omniscient "tour guides to today's world" have apparently practiced ad nauseam how to hurtle and flutter their voices, seduce, emotionalize and sickeningly PERSONALIZE their approach to the news, slipping effortlessly from hilarity to hushed, quivery tones of tragedy. They speed up and slow down for no apparent reason other than to give us a chronic case of aural vertigo.
"Oh, the humanity!" I once tried to keep a log of all the grammatical errors, redundancies, mangled syntax, misused words, misappropriated metaphors, misunderstood and/or misstated figures of speech, and inane, naive or self-evident observations during each day's "Morning Edition," and I had to give it up because I couldn't get anything else done -- I just sat there scribbling. NPR personalities make the kind of errors that you are taught to avoid in Journalism 101, like not saying "armed gunman," because that is a STUPID thing to say, just as "pro-Putin supporters" is a stupid thing to say. When Inskeep told us about the "birth of a baby boy" (Giuseppe Verdi) I was too weary to yell, "at least he wasn't a teenager!"
NPR brains -- it sometimes appears -- are on autopilot, so the egos can have access to as much neural glucose and ketones as possible.
For years, I didn't understand why some people make fun of NPR, but now I get it. There is a culture there -- that I guess dates back to the Bob Edwards, Susan Stamberg and Linda Wertheimer days (Wertheimer describes herself as a "beloved figure" who has had a "profound" effect on public broadcasting, a characterization that Stamberg must surely feel belongs to her) -- which conveys such self-satisfaction and self-importance that it can actually be refreshing to listen to right-wing radio -- which is garishly straightforward about its ballsy macho ethic and conspiratorial fear-mongering -- or AM news radio, where they actually play it straight.
When the utterly repellent NPR fund drives are on, I listen to KSL Newsradio, which is surprisingly informative and intelligent, with none of the egomaniacal preening that is so exasperating on NPR. Even the musings of Grant and Amanda seem genuine and mildly amusing. They never make you want to scream SHUT UP, GROW UP, I HATE YOU.
It must be said, though, that they are never anywhere near NPR at its best, when the hosts get out of the way and allow both experts and ordinary people to suffuse you with the joy of new ideas, decency and courage.
In 2012, Poynter writer Andrew Beaujon reported that NPR had plundered its endowment for three of the past four years, which short-lived CEO Gary Knell acknowledged was "unsustainable."
NPR continues to accumulate yearly deficits -- this coming year's is expected to reach $6.1 million -- but the lights are still blazing away. Especially the spotlights, on all those "beloved personalities."
The week before NPR's most recent pledge drive began, it announced a 10 percent cutback in its staff (the last significant cutbacks came in late 2008, when about 8 percent of the staff was laid off ).
NPR, like many nonprofits, has long complained of funding shortfalls and chronic deficits. The first major one that was made public -- "an almost fatal setback" -- was in 1983, when Congress was scandalized by its $7 million deficit, a number that was unheard of 30 years ago. NPR's president resigned amid an investigation, CPB provided a loan to avert public radio's bankruptcy, and the funding mechanism was shuffled in a superficially dramatic but essentially meaningless way.
NPR's 2012 budget was listed as $192,503,942 in an audited report by LarsenAllen LLP, but the tax consulting firm distanced itself from its own overview by observing that it had been unable to apply "generally accepted accounting principles." NPR's "failure to consolidate entities that meet the definition of affiliated entities" prevented LarsenAllen from providing "a complete presentation of the consolidated financial position, results of operations, and cash flows."
The auditor can't see what he needs to see. I have no idea what this means, but it sounds like NPR is, as usual, holding tight to its "special place" in America's heart, exempt from the ordinary rules. Consistent with this attitude, it also is "surprisingly unable (or unwilling) to give a precise number" regarding the percentage of its revenue that comes from the federal government, according to Vanity Fair's 2012 investigation, "National Public Rodeo."
The "non-commercial" enterprise does admit that it gets more than a quarter of its budget from commercial sponsors, and the "acknowledgments" it runs constantly are in fact commercials ("The Herman Miller Aeron Chair, now available in true black."),
From $629 to $1,129 at Sit4Less.
"Love: It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru." Not that they're advertising Subarus. They're advertising love.
"Public-radio listeners will be encouraged to turn to a certified financial planner for investment guidance when advertisements touting CFPs hit NPR this fall, as part of a $40 million campaign," Investment News reported a year ago.
NPR gets underwriting support from publishers and movie distributors whose products it reviews. Its so-called "firewall" has been in flames quite a few times.
The endowment is supposed to be left alone, purportedly so it can generate $10 million annually to supplement the operating budget. But last year's interest income was just $3 million, as the endowment has lost its inviolability by being repeatedly raided to cover shortfalls.
Endowments are intended to provide ongoing sustenance. In a widely cited op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, then-Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) wrote: "While executives at PBS and NPR are raking in massive salaries, the organizations are participating in an aggressive lobbying effort to prevent Congress from saving hundreds of millions of dollars each year by cutting their subsidies. The so-called commercial-free public airwaves have been filled with pleas for taxpayer cash. The Association of Public Television Stations has hired lobbyists to fight the cuts. Hundreds of taxpayer-supported TV, radio and Web outlets have partnered with an advocacy campaign to facilitate emails and phone calls to Capitol Hill."
Although there are solid arguments against his demand that all taxpayer dollars be removed from public broadcasting, his description of the interest group's ferocious and expensive campaign to keep its privileged status intact can't be dismissed. Public broadcasting is a fiefdom that doesn't hesitate to enlist its clueless, tote bag-carrying serfs in its perpetual war to remain in the castle, high on the hill.
"We are special, and you are listeners." At the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the average salary -- including custodial and clerical staff -- is $99,000, as of Sept. 13, 2013, according to Indeed.com. Its president received over $400,000. The CEO of PBS got nearly $800,000. Both have made appeals to the public, urging us to tell Congress we want public broadcasting to continue to be funded, in spite of the nation's dire financial straits. CPB's budget is comprised almost entirely of an annual appropriation from Congress plus interest on those funds. For fiscal year 2012, its appropriation was $445.2 million. President Obama has favored an increase of several million dollars.
Compensation has been a thorny issue for years, as public broadcasters have tried to finagle personal wealth and privilege, despite their nonprofit and tax-subsidized status. Way back in fiscal 1996, six officers at PBS and two at NPR were paid more than the $148,400 salary cap imposed by Congress, according to figures on the networks' tax returns reported by Current.org. PBS and NPR chairmen had made forays on Capitol Hill in 1995 to lobby for repeal of the salary cap and for tens of thousands in bonuses to "compensate" for "low pay." When Congress said no, they ignored the cap, which has since been wiped off the books.
In the 1980s, after Congress heard that PBS had subsidized a home mortgage for then-President Larry Grossman, Congress added a sentence "discouraging" interest-free loans by PBS or NPR to employees.
In fiscal year 2003, NPR established two deferred compensation plans to provide "certain highly compensated employees" the ability to defer a portion of their compensation to provide supplemental retirement benefits. In other words, it created tax shelters for the richest staffers. For the others, a generous retirement program was established within the operating budget. Employer contributions to this program rose 35 percent from 2010 to 2011, just after the whole crew moved into the fabulous new headquarters building and declared, "We're more broke than ever!"
SIXTEEN TONS: WHAT DO YOU GET?
Another day older, and deeper in debt. NPR continues to amass yearly deficits, as if it were the U.S. government or something.
DO YOU HAVE THE DRIVE TO PLEDGE?
I wonder if those tens of thousands of decent, ordinary Americans who "do their share" to support public-radio programming have any idea how their money is being spent. I doubt it. If they did know, would they keep on giving, or would they demand some austerity, and compensation that reflects the economic situation that the rest of us confront? Perhaps NPR sees us as "bottom feeders," who are so focused on finding something to eat way down here that we never look up and see them splashing lavishly in the sunlight.
"I'd love a hazlenut filled with Kaluhua-coffee gelato." Even if NPR reporters and chatty, flirty, corny, arrogant hosts and hostesses were SUPERB journalists, with real investigative fervor, a solid intellectual/historical foundation and an all-consuming devotion to advancing the public's "right to know" (which most of them are not) I would oppose asking struggling, hard-working Americans to pay such disproportionate salaries.
I have worked for several nonprofits, and also for the taxpayers of New York. My colleagues and I gladly accepted much lower pay than we would have received in the private sector. We wouldn't have had it any other way. Working for a cause is a calling, and it is a solemn trust. We had cheap, bare-bones offices with linoleum floors and decades-old metal desks. No touches of comfort or beauty anywhere. We didn't care! Anything more would have offended our sensibilities.
We tried. They died. But we weren't self-sacrificing Mother Teresas. We had no-frills lifestyles on our barely middle-class pay, but we were exhilarated by our work. It was noble. It was fascinating. We were fighting the good fight with magnificently talented and dedicated colleagues. Our work had impact. It made news. When people asked what we did for a living, we were proud to answer, and they wanted to know more.
Working for public broadcasting -- and for any high-minded nonprofit -- is a privilege. Those who want to make a lot of money should stick to the corporate world. There are plenty of enterprising, talented, creative and charming people who would love to work in public broadcasting, and would do it for a modest paycheck.
There are so many perks to working in public broadcasting. Imagine getting to be the likable, dignified Robert Siegel. What a blast! What an ego trip! You are regarded with respect and affection by a large audience, just for doing your job. How many of the rest of us can say that? You get to be on a first-name basis with the most powerful people in the world. You work in a dynamic environment that provides constant intellectual stimulation. You have great prestige. Each day, as you walk into NPR headquarters, you have the sense that you are working for a venerable enterprise with a global scope.
You don't need trousers bulging with cash on top of that. How many millions of donor dollars have been paid to Mr. Siegel? Doesn't he have enough by now? He might think it's none of our business, but of course it is.
If NPR employees won't work for $50,000 a year, they can easily be replaced, probably by people who would bring more vitality and a bracing "watchdog" mentality to the role. We need that.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH.........
In my community, which is known for its low-wage workforce and the highest student-teacher ratio in the nation, our public broadcasting stations are ensconced in the $16 million, 100,000-square-foot Eccles Broadcast Center.
KUER radio has chosen to advertise to advertisers on the air, urging them to publicize their goods and services to "our loyal and affluent listeners."
Is that not quite gauche? How does it make those who aren't affluent feel? I think it makes all of us feel like bait, whatever our economic circumstance. It objectifies and commodifies, turning us into "target markets" and "revenue streams." It's typical of an enterprise that can never get enough money and coldly uses us for its self-perpetuation.
The local pledge drive, which would turn me off from donating even if I were otherwise planning to, focuses -- as is the norm nationwide -- on the need for programming fees to "continue bringing you the stories you love and that you would never hear anywhere else."
I believe the vast majority of those who just contributed a total of $540,000 to the station's semiannual "Begathon" would at the very least have had second thoughts if they knew how much money is being paid to those who pleaded abjectly, obnoxiously and (at times, I think) drunkenly for money, with good-natured help from the development director of the public TV station, KUED, who gets paid $104,000. KUER's station manager earns $110,000. The development director: $97,510. The three staffers who together produce a daily one-hour talk program (it's excellent, but that's not relevant to the current discussion) earn more than $200,000 combined. Audio engineer: $88,000. News director: $86,751. To complicate matters, these are considered to be public employees, affiliated with the University, so their salaries come from tax coffers. Do listeners who are asked to pledge funds to the station realize that they already have made a substantial contribution? KUER should at least inform its audience that employees are compensated with tax dollars before requesting additional support.
Paid for by you.