Public Radio's New Jeans

All radio—like all politics—is local. At least it is for we who still subsist without Sirius. So when I moved from north Mississippi to north-central Kentucky last fall, I was surprised to encounter National Public Radio stations that play contemporary semi-popular music. My antenna is now usually located somewhere between Louisville and Lexington, and I get a steady stream of Dar Williams and Death Cab for Cutie from both ends of that corridor. I’ve since learned that this sophisticated, folky-rocky music format called Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) is the next big thing for public radio. If it’s not on the air in your area yet, you can glimpse the future on at the pages for “All Songs Considered” and “World Cafe.”

Of course, I’ve looked to the left of the dial for most of my music for a couple of decades now. But in the places I’ve lived, that’s usually meant volunteer-run community radio stations such as WWOZ in New Orleans and Memphis’ WEVL. Those cities are the Rome and Constantinople of America’s musical church. So it’s no surprise that they nurture community-based roots-music stations leaning, respectively, toward rhythm and blues and rockabilly. But when I’ve strayed from those holy lands, I’ve always found public radio to be about news and classical music, and maybe some jazz at night.

Now we have public radio that plays Wilco, Kathleen Edwards, and the new stuff from Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Sure, there’s more sensitive, introspective singer-songwriter material than I can stomach. But I also got to catch up on James McMurtry and hear his seven-minute anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-Wal-Mart anthem, “We Can’t Make It Here,” in heavy rotation. On the whole, an old rockabilly should be happy for once. And I was, at first, and I still am, a little. But I’m also growing vaguely uncomfortable with this new musical regime.

My discomfort crystallized one day in my Introduction to Journalism class (which consisted of five young African Americans, a young white woman with spiked hair, and two middle-aged working-class “non-traditional” students). We were talking about the roles played by various news media outlets, and I was describing the local National Public Radio station to the half of the class who had never heard it. I made my strongest possible pitch for NPR’s daily news shows, and then I heard myself issue a warning: “Now between the news shows, they play music for middle-aged white guys like me.”

AND THAT’S THE problem. The “whiteness” is a big part of it. The rhetoric of the Triple-A music programmers is all about intelligence and sophistication. Well, there are few artists working today who are more intelligent or sophisticated than the hip-hop band The Roots or the R&B singer-songwriter Erykah Badu. And I don’t hear either of them on NPR. But it’s not just race. I also don’t hear an artist like Dale Watson, whose hard-core truck-driving ballads and cheating songs are way too country for Nashville.

At the core, this emerging public radio format is just another form of promotional niche marketing aimed at a narrow demographic of the upper crust. I didn’t like public radio music programming back when it catered solely to the Eurocentric tastes of its previous generation of big donors. I thought then that public broadcasting’s mission to serve those underserved by the commercial marketplace should include rappers and garage-rockers and bluegrass bands, as well as string quartets. All that has changed now is that white baby boomers have become public broadcasting’s sugar daddies, so the content is shifting to reflect pop music tastes honed on 1960s and ’70s collegiate bohemia and roots-romanticism.

I share some of those tastes. And I’m glad there is a new radio outlet for at least some deserving “alternative” artists. I also realize that the format’s shortcomings aren’t entirely NPR’s fault. As long as our public broadcasting system is donor-based, it will have to keep one eye on the listener’s bankbook. So while I’m grateful to hear Lucinda Williams singing with the North Mississippi All Stars during my drive to work, I also can’t pretend that this is anything other than public broadcasting’s old elitism in a new stonewashed pair of jeans.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His book, Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, has just been published by Paulist Press.

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