Just how public is public radio?

Commercial-free and sponsored by Wal-Mart.

by Adri Mehra

Like many young Americans who grew up in moderate households equipped with a radio in the kitchen and the car, I was fed a steady aural diet of National Public Radio.

I marveled at my parents’ ability to multitask around the house while actively listening – perhaps preheating the oven during Garrison Keillor’s monologue on “A Prairie Home Companion” or paying bills in between chuckling at the Click and Clack Brothers on “Car Talk.”

Two things have changed about this rose-colored little portrait: I don’t live at home anymore and NPR sucks.

For one thing, NPR has increased its corporate sponsor identification spots from perhaps one or two at the top of each half-hour 20 years ago, to what appears to be one or two every-other-minute of programming today.

Similarly, local NPR stations hold incredibly pathetic and supremely arrogant on-air “pledge drives” every fiscal quarter, during which time they all but stop reporting the news cycle entirely and ultimately break their public trust by ceasing to fulfill their simple tax-subsidized mission.

Whatever happened to the classic, responsible idea of an unassuming annual fund drive?

Coupled with the incessant underwriting “commercials” from the likes of some of corporate America’s worst moral offenders – Wal-Mart, Merck and Monsanto – wouldn’t that be enough to keep “public” radio afloat?

“Public” may be too strong a term at this point, particularly when you consider that nearly a quarter of NPR’s $120 million budget last year came directly from the soiled and bloodied pockets of the very fat cats they’re supposed to rail against on our behalf.

And I’m not even buying that figure. According to NPR’s own Treasurer’s Report released in May 2005, a whopping $52 million came from unidentified “other grants and contributions.”

And how much comes from those endlessly cherished and duplicitously solicited membership dues that are demanded four times a year?

A paltry $2.2 million, or about 1 percent of the $200 million donation given by McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc three years ago, whose husband presided over a corporation that represents crass capitalism at its worst and is perhaps the leading contributor to a culture of death by obesity in this nation.

What’s more, NPR has lost much of its objective credibility since those halcyon days of Keillor in the kitchen I alluded to in the late 1980s.

Many argue that the onset of war is the true litmus test of fair and dimensional reporting and, in this respect, NPR failed miserably in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003.

In March 2003, Robert Jensen, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, found himself slated for an interview by NPR’s “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon after a day of antiwar rallies on the Austin campus.

Jensen had done his homework before the interview and knew from Simon’s post-9/11 guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal that the NPR host had adopted a strong pro-administration stance on the “war on terrorism.”

Needless to say, Simon was fairly obstinate and contrary in the interview and Jensen was not invited to participate with callers in the next segment.

So what do we have, America? National Pentagon Radio, funded by corporate America and Listeners Like You.

Good night, and good luck.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]