Just like President Eisenhower’s proposal in the 50’s to build the interstate freeway system crisscrossing the country revolutionized car travel for all Americans, the start, in 1970, of commercial-free, public radio — National Public Radio (NPR) – has revolutionized how Americans listened to radio.
The radio is an invaluable companion, particularly in the car, as I noticed recently during my trip in the South. But that was not always so.
I remember the time when it was little else but commercials, music, new commercials, and with the occasional news report. There is still of lot of radio like that and, in addition, there are now two types of stations that have grown rapidly in influence in recent times: religious stations and conservative talk shows with Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and others.
Rush is the biggest. He is on 600 stations around the country and strong in the South — he can be heard on 22 stations only in Georgia. I tried and tried to listen to him in the car, between noon and 3 pm every day, not the least to try to understand his enormous popularity, but in the end his demagogic ramblings became too much.
Thankfully, I managed everywhere, even where it is often difficult to get hold of a good newspaper or even a good cup of coffee, to find a public radio station, often near a college or university. And with that came all the wonderful programs, “Morning Edition”; “All Things Considered”, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” from Philadelphia, and “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor from St. Paul, Minnesota. Or news from the BBC, “Market Place” from Los Angeles with economic news, “Car Talk” with everything about cars, and lots of classical music.
There are now 920 public radio stations in America with almost 27 million listeners every week. NPR has become America’s second largest radio network and an invaluable element in the American political, cultural and social debate. I find it difficult today to imagine, like probably millions of Americans, an America without NPR, shielded from serious information and debate, shut out from the big world out there.
Many on the right hate NPR, calling it leftist and elitist, and in budget cutting times, it is often a target, although the savings would be miniscule. So far, those attempts have failed and I am happy for that in my car through Georgia.