Radio Rich

While public television is on the skids, public radio is riding high. What's the secret?

The information tribe gasped when National Public Radio announced it would receive some $200 million from the estate of McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc, who died last month. Most of the ensuing chatter was about the sheer size of the gift and what NPR would do with its fantastic new pile.

And there was a rash of hamburger jokes, with the unspoken subtext that it was pretty hilarious to see these two cultural institutions, public radio and the empire of greasy fries, yoked together. Has there ever been an odder couple? Safe to say that on any given day, your typical NPR listener is statistically unlikely to be found scarfing a Big N' Tasty down at the Golden Arches.

Until now. After the news broke, an NPR affiliate station in Huntsville, Ala., received an e-mail from a devoted listener. "Dear WLRH," it said, "I was overjoyed yesterday to learn of Mrs. Kroc's bequest of $200M to NPR.... I am going to eat a McDonald's hamburger in her honor (not something usually done)."

Even as we imagine a grateful procession of Volvos charily venturing down unfamiliar drive-thru lanes, it's worth noting that the Kroc gift is not an aberration. It's just the latest chapter in a remarkable media success story that's been unfolding for some time.

Public radio is riding high. Its audience has more than doubled in the last decade. About 27 million people now listen to public radio at least once a week, according to the Radio Research Consortium, a nonprofit organization that tracks audience data for noncommercial radio. That's a lot of people. Consider that Friends, the iconic TV series, has been pulling in around 20 million viewers in recent weeks.

And as the Kroc bequest demonstrates, public radio listeners will go to amazing extremes to show their devotion. A cool $200 million is swell, but an awful lot of $50 and $100 checks are also flying into public radio's coffers, and they add up. Even in the shaky economy of the last few years, a time of drastically reduced corporate and philanthropic giving, public radio—which nearly went out of business back in the 1980s—has been thriving, thanks to those loyal viewers.

Meanwhile, public television, which used to appeal to the same smart, affluent demographic as public radio, is on the skids: short on ratings, losing the battle with cable, seemingly unable to muster the viewer loyalty that is public radio's ace in the hole.

What's the secret? For the devoted public radio listener, and I'm one of them, it's kind of hard to say. Maybe it's the very fact that it's hard to sum up what public radio does so well—you can't reduce it to a formula or a high concept—that begins to get at the essential beauty of the thing.

I know this: Public radio is one of the few mass media products today that feels uncalculated, curious, alive, playful, willing to be idiosyncratic and eccentric, to take risks and follow its brain and heart wherever they want to go. It's not driven by some elaborate market-slicing strategy, but by what's interesting to breathing, thinking human beings. The idea is so simple, it's radical.

What once seemed to be radio's great weakness vis-a -vis television, the lack of visuals, has turned out to be its great strength. By delivering a seamless wall of sound and image, television asks—and in some ways requires—that you stop thinking for yourself, become a zombie. Radio can make zombies, too: Witness what's happened to commercial radio, that horror show of packaged homogeneity and cynical, demographic button-pushing.

Public radio understands that if you bring listeners into the equation, let them think for themselves—imagine those images, have their own thoughts, engage, search, muse—they'll get more out of the experience and come away happier. It creates an implied dialogue, and it lets people feel they belong to something. And belonging feels good, so good it can make you want to give away $200 million.

These days, my most powerful media experiences, the stuff I can't forget, are public radio experiences. Joan Kroc cited NPR's war coverage, which I liked, too. But for me, what makes NPR sing are the stories and interviews nobody else is touching. Two months ago, I was driving to the office when I heard an NPR interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which the novelist recalled why and how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five. The piece was so moving, when I got to my desk I called my wife and tried to reconstruct it for her. As I did, I realized I was choking up.

Some Fresh Air shows have stayed with me for months and years, and often they're the really obscure ones. A couple of years ago, host Terry Gross did one about Dusty Springfield, the 1960s pop singer, that I still talk about, when I can find someone who'll listen. Who but Gross could unearth the lost grandeur of Dusty Springfield for a mass audience? And where but on public radio?

Last month, Bill O'Reilly had a run-in with Gross, who he thought was badgering him with left-liberal questions. He fled in mid-interview and has continued his mini-jihad against public radio and the fact that it gets government money. On hearing about this, my first reaction was a desire to defend Gross, take on that Fox News bully and set him straight on public radio, which these days seems to me a lot less biased than his own outfit.

Then it hit me: Terry Gross doesn't need defending, nor does public radio. They're as big as anything now, rich in both senses of the word. And they deserve every penny.