[April 20th marks the 50th anniversary of NPR’s first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of radio histories and contexts, leading up to a Guest Post from a colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
On three programs that illustrate the evolution and the range of National Public Radio.
1) All Things Considered: The afternoon drive-time news show ATC was NPR’s first news program, debuting on May 3, 1971, just two weeks after the network’s first broadcast. Hosted by reporter and foreign affairs correspondent Robert Conley, that first show focused on an anti-Vietnam War March on Washington, making clear that ATC would engage with the most immediate and controversial news topics. Over the 50 years since, ATC has continued to do so, modeling a multi-layered approach to presenting such topics that strives less for the myth of pure objectivity (since news coverage always involves choices and emphases) but rather for a genuine sense of balance, featuring distinct voices and perspectives on these unfolding stories that do justice to the program’s name.
2) Car Talk: As public radio continued to grow, countless local stations sprung up, with one of the flashship such stations Boston’s WBUR. Along with news coverage, such stations featured other local programming, and an early favorite on WBUR was the automotive and humor show Car Talk, which debuted in 1977 featuring Cambridge brothers and mechanics Tom and Ray Magliozzi (or “Click and Clack,” their radio personas). By 1986 the show had become so popular that NPR picked it up for the national network, and it would remain a weekly fixture through 2012 when the brothers finally ended the program (with reruns continuing to be broadcast nationally through 2017). Car Talk illustrated not just NPR’s extension into more specialized topics, but also and especially the evolution of programming to include other genres and tones (including humor), all of which gave the network far more staying power and cultural influence than would have been possible with straight news reporting.
3) Code Switch: In April 2013, NPR debuted Code Switch, an online blog that contributed stories to a number of NPR programs; three years later, the Code Switch podcast was launched to cover its own stories in more depth (both that first blog post and first podcast episode were spearheaded by journalist Gene Demby). Just about every detail of that sentence reveals how NPR has continued to evolve in the 21st century, and how new media and forms have helped the network extend, deepen, and even challenge its longstanding work and goals. I would particularly emphasize that said evolution, growth, and challenge has been not just through new genres such as blogs and podcasts (although duh), but also and even more importantly the inclusion of the more genuinely multi-cultural voices and perspectives that shows like Code Switch have featured and amplified. If NPR is to remain relevant in the 2020s (and I very much hope it will), more and more programs like Code Switch will have to be part of the mix.
Next RadioStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?