Worthy road trip companion: public radio

Forget the stereotypes and listen to what's really being broadcast on the West Coast public airwaves.

The debate over federal funding for NPR is approaching crunch time, and whether or not you think taxpayer money should fund public radio, it's time to get beyond the stereotypes. A Los Angeles Times columnist urged NPR to fight back against its opponents, but seemed to take a defeatist attitude:

Face it, NPR, you could go content-free, relying only on those quirky music snippets and reporters saying their names, and you'd still come across as a granola bar disguised as a radio network. That's the power of perception, not to mention stereotypes.

I've been on a West Coast road trip for nearly two weeks, and my traveling companion has frequently been public radio. I've been struck by a couple of things. One is that there is much more variety than you think: jazz and classical music, yes, but while driving through southern Oregon I came across a station with a mid-day country music program.

Oregon's network of public stations is quite wonderful, by the way. There's almost always a public-radio station within reach. They also do a great job of regional reporting. In Eugene, KLCC has a long-running show called "Northwest Passage," which has a good regional news summary plus some excellent book and performing-arts reviews, like what to watch for in Ashland.

In San Francisco, KQED hooked me with a long discussion of ACT-San Francisco's production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. The host interviewed the director, one of the actors, and two college professors who are Pinter experts, and the result was a fascinating exploration of Pinter's work, the meaning of theater, the art of language (and the pause), and the many different interpretations of a play about family dynamics that sounds both darkly funny and skin-crawlingly uncomfortable to watch. 

The play's director had worked with Pinter, so we got insights into the playwright (and interestingly, the use and symbolism of stairs in Pinter's plays). The simple fact is, I will likely never see this play, but the intelligent radio discussion (with clips from a live performance) were riveting radio. Plus, the show was call-in, and the listeners added interesting interpretations and asked great questions. The audience was almost as impressive as the experts. I was exposed to culture, and it made getting lost on the way to Fresno not only bearable, but educational.

It was also a relief from two staples of California radio: ubiquitous classic rock stations (Grateful Dead and Santana anyone?) and innumerable Mexican music stations that blast overly-peppy fiesta music all day long.

Another public-radio moment I happened onto in Fresno, an otherwise strip-mallish place. The local station (KVPR) has some college-town lefty programming for the Democracy Now crowd. I quickly had my fill of Joan Baez talking about Amnesty International. But better was an evening show called "Valley Writer's Read," which features the work of writers in the Central Valley reading original works.

The night I tuned in, a former Cal State professor, Gene Zumwalt, was reading an essay called "Beyond the Roses" that told the story of the anti-War days on campus in the 1960s and early '70s. It was a fabulously evocative piece that really brought to life the campus tensions of that time, that tried to convey to today's students that those calm, boring campus buildings and quads were once a place where dramatic, and sometimes very bad, things happened. The essay was a beautifully written memoir, and I love the idea that the local station was giving that kind of radio time to local writers.

The thing public radio seeks is "driveway moments," when you sit in the car to finish a segment that's so interesting you just can't get out. Left, right or uncategorizeable, that's when it's at its best. It's a lot more than "Car Talk," Ira Glass, "Prairie Home Companion," and "All Things Considered." Or it should be. There's good local stuff out there that is non-commerical and worth hearing even if "the market" doesn't agree.


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