Thursday, 12 January 2012

US not-for-profit radio serves a glass way over half full

Mike Daisey
I was on Twitter yesterday and saw a couple of mentions of this guy, Ira Glass who, it turns out, is in Australia to appear at the Sydney Festival. So I did the normal thing when you see several unconnected people talking about the one thing: I checked out the website for This American Life online. That led to me listening to Mike Daisey's monologue, 'Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory' via the podcast. Go on. I can wait. Listen to it, it takes about an hour.

This post is not about Mike Daisey the performance artist but I used his photo because there are virtually none available online for Glass, which is not too surprising because he's a radio host. This might have something to do with the culture of public radio in the US, for all I know. Maybe public radio hosts in the US don't show their faces because they're too busy making outstanding radio programming for their audiences. Or something. There were virtually no news stories in the past 24 hours about Glass, too, and so I decided to do this post to rectify a perceived lack. The podcast impressed me intemperately and I think more people should know about Glass and what Chicago Public Media, his employer, do. All this information is from the web but readers may find this little digest to be of value. If you are an American reader and you think I've missed something please feel free to use the comments section.

[UPDATE 17 March 2012: It has been revealed that Mike Daisey fabricated some elements of his story. Daisey is unrepentant, even though TAL has been forced to edit the piece for accuracy and publicly apologise. Daisey says he is "not a journalist".]

[UPDATE 27 March 2012: Mike Daisey finally publicly apologises for including untruths in his monologue about Apple's Chinese suppliers.]

The one news story about Glass's appearance in Sydney mentioned that Glass is "Best known for his weekly radio show ‘This American Life’ on Public Radio International (PRI)." And this is true. But the program is actually made by Chicago Public Media, although out of premises in New York City.

PRI is a producer and distributor of radio programming and it reached 14 million weekly listeners in the US in 2011 via 887 radio stations, and the website says: "PRI leads by identifying critical but unmet content needs and partnering with producers, stations, digital networks and funders to develop multi-platform resources to meet those needs." The annual report says that production expenditure in 2011 was around US$13.5 million and PRI bought programming worth about half that amount in the same period. Total revenues for the year were US$23.7 million, with 21 percent being grants and gifts, seven percent corporate sponsorships, and 58 percent station revenue (presumably, sales of programs). There's a list of donors as long as your arm in the annual report, and they range from Allianz to Turner Broadcasting. PRI has supplied programming to the ABC in Australia.

Public radio in the US seems to have kicked off in 1970 as a result of a Lyndon Johnson law, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Chicago Public Radio started in 1943 as a broadcaster of programming for schools and was one of the first charter member stations of National Public Radio in 1970. In 2010 they changed their name to Chicago Public Media.

For some, the idea of American public radio is almost as implausible as the notion of healthy and nourishing fast food. But it's real. In Australia we're used to public-good broadcasting because we've got Aunty, but then again we've also got the Labor Party. For Americans the idea of a Labor Party in a democracy is about as implausible as multi-party elections in Communist China. In terms of public media perceptions, one of the touchstones is James Murdoch's 2009 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In those pre-NoTW days of carefree outspokenness, James Murdoch really hit the accelerator in this attempt to frighten the BBC into scaling back its activities. The wash also reached Australia where it animated various members of the commentariat into slamming the ABC. I've come across Americans who deprecate the notion of publicly-funded radio on Twitter also, the reality being that NPR receives most of its money from sources other than the government. "In 2009," says Wikipedia, "member stations derived 6% of their revenue from federal, state and local government funding."

All this could have been said more economically, to be sure. But regardless of how NPR and its member stations get money, their not-for-profit status remains a stubborn bird-flip to the likes of the Murdoch clan. Not only that. Going by the quality of programming that Mike Daisey's contribution represents, NPR stands out as a leader in the US media space and is lightyears ahead of such trash buckets as Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network.


jtimmo said...

public radio in the state seems to be amazing and that is just from listing to the various podcasts about normal everyday people - pity someone in Australia can't do the same type of shows

Matthew da Silva said...

I only listened to the one show but I believe the quality is high in other programs on This American Life. In Australia we have govt-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which keeps many ppl happy. But I think the big diff w the States is the greater amount of donated money avail over there. Good content costs money to make.