About NPR, public radio, and the ecology of news

Several days ago I mentioned that I had recently been on two public-radio talk shows, "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia and "RadioWest" on KUER in Salt Lake City. At the end of the item I mentioned that it was worth reflecting on "how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR." A reader who works in public radio but not for NPR writes to say:

"I think it is worth mentioning that both of these programs aren't on NPR but rather member stations. I know it may seem like a fine distinction, but by lumping together all public stations that carry NPR content and calling them NPR, you're essentially blurring the lines between the autonomous stations and the largest of the many content providers. This may seem harmless, but as someone who is in favor of diversity of programming in public radio, I am concerned that NPR's strong armed branding efforts  and lack of general (public / consumer) knowledge about how public radio content is distributed are making it harder for independent content providers to make it work.

"At [a DC-based public radio operation], I've observed how this economic depression has forced local stations to reevaluate how they spend their dollars. Often, the stations opt to spend their money on flashy national programming (Car Talk, Morning Edition, etc)  and end up cutting back on local programming--whether it be in newsroom or on local shows, like the ones you appeared on.

"I agree that the American media landscape would be vastly different and worse if there were no local stations or NPR. My concern is that as NPR grows into a full-fledged multimedia corporation, they won't leave much room regional and independent perspectives. This would be a huge loss, because it is the content and narrative differences between stations that make public radio in America great."

So I guess to refine the point: it's worth imagining how different the news ecology would be without public radio in all its forms, including NPR. My wife and I give money to the local public radio stations in the various places we've lived, since they provide so much information, context, and culture we wouldn't get otherwise.
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For the record: I enjoy appearing on public radio talk shows nearly anytime I can, and I have been doing regular news-analysis for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered since coming back from China.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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