Confessions of an 'NPR conservative'

Jul 3, 2012

“NPR Conservative.” 

To some, that term might sound like an oxymoron straight from the writing staff of The Colbert Report.

It happens to be me.

For just about all of my adult life, public radio has been my life’s soundtrack.  It is the voice that wakes me every morning on my clock radio, it is my companion in the car, and the source that I turn to when something newsworthy happens. 

It is also the opera on a Saturday, or Professor Longhair on “American Routes” from New Orleans. It is the pure "Americanness" of Garrison Keillor, reminiscing about the Sidetrack Tap in Lake Wobegon.  Last I heard, Mr. Keillor’s political leanings as a member of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party were not much in doubt, but that the voters in Lake Wobegon might be something like 53-to-47 percent Republican.

Public radio gives me pleasure, at all hours of the day. It even serves as a kind of a social test for me. At any gathering of friends or strangers, there is almost always an occasion where I can begin a conversation with, “I heard something interesting on public radio…” It is never a stretch to do so; the inexhaustible wealth of human interest on public radio makes it easy to cite something uniquely on point almost anywhere, at almost any time.  A conversational reference to public radio never, ever fails to move the conversation to something positive.

But it must be said, and I am here to say it; for a person with conservative political views, public radio can sometimes be a challenge. And this is where it gets tricky.

First, let’s make it clear, lots of conservatives listen to public radio and support it financially. I don’t think most conservatives would be the slightest bit afraid to admit their public radio listening habits. Conservative firebrand Tucker Carlson, whose father Robert once headed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is an avowed, proud public radio listener. He is a member and a supporter of his local public radio affiliate. He’s also fond of accusing the NPR listenership of being upper middle class whites with college degrees and foreign cars. 

Tucker Carlson suggests that public radio ought to fund itself privately, and he is more than happy to do his part and make his own private donation to that funding model.

But if conservatives want to challenge any general “NPR liberal bias,” they ought to understand first what exactly they are talking about.  

Conservatives who criticize NPR often make the mistake of mixing up the different functions of NPR news production, the independent public radio producers, and the operations of their local public radio stations. Conservatives who make that mistake are as wrong as someone who mixes up the functions of the federal government and your neighborhood community association. 

When those kinds of mistakes blur into conservative calls for “defunding NPR,” the argument devolves into near-uselessness, like calling for the abolition of the Department of Education to solve a problem with your local school board. Like your local school board, public radio is mostly all about local support, from local listeners.

Now I can argue right along with the very best conservative ideologues that public radio is much more imbued with government support, than what might be suggested by annual budget numbers from the CPB and NPR. Let’s remember that there are valuable broadcast licenses and broadcast facilities held by public universities, and that much of public radio funding is foundation and institutional support for which there is government support in the form of charitable tax exemptions.

All the more reason, in my view, for what I am about to say, and what I hope to say in the future as Michigan Radio affords me the extraordinary privilege of a place at its table; conservatives should not be talking about de-funding public radio. Conservatives should be asking for their place within public radio. And local stations in particular, more closely aligned with their markets and listenership than “NPR,” ought to be the first to be making that space. 

Michigan Radio’s staff is a joyously diverse collection of broadcast professionals. I can think of very few institutions that accomplish their goals of promoting diversity as smoothly and as seamlessly as public radio. Gender, racial and ethnic diversity have all been part of the founding fabric of public radio for as long as it has been in existence. Public radio has actually made the accomplishment of that goal look easy. 

Ideological diversity has been public radio’s challenge. Now, Michigan Radio is taking on that challenge. It isn’t easy, with such a lean operation that is devoted first, last and foremost to accurate and comprehensive news programming. Indeed, what is striking about a visit to Michigan Radio by a private-sector outsider is what an amazingly lean operation it is. Walk down the hallway, and the chances are excellent that the next person you pass is “famous.” “Famous,” as in, “Oh I listen to you all time!”  Those voices that you hear on the radio are the same voices that produce the content. It is an amazingly efficient and accountable organization.

I propose to offer views and commentary that I believe might not often be heard on public radio. I hope to do so in a way the audience will find interesting, compelling and challenging.  

Charles Brown is an attorney from Livonia. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.