Being The Listener’s Surrogate

Brooke Gladstone’s Transom manifesto from 2004 was recently quoted in Bill McKibben’s article about public radio in The New York Review of Books. Here’s more.

from Brooke Gladstone

Here’s what I like about most public radio news magazines. The reporting is solid, the subjects are important and relevant, and the level of discourse is high. The audience is respected. These are the keys to public radio’s success. While more and more news outlets slice up consistently smaller pieces of the audience pie, public radio consistently gains listeners, so it’s doing something right.

Here, in my humble opinion, is what’s wrong: As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seeks to balance the four humors (so as not to be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic or melancholy) by bloodletting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.

There are strong personalities and neutral ones. Hot ones, like Scott Simon or Susan Stamberg, Jacki Lyden or Robert Siegel, are risky. People will love them, but they will also loathe them. The neutral personalities that hold most of the on-air positions on public radio today are safer. They bring us the news, they keep the discourse high. They are polite to the guests and the listeners. We don’t hate them. We don’t love them. We don’t know who they are.

When you read a newspaper (increasingly, public radio’s model) the reporter generally is absent. When you watch TV, the reporter is showing and telling, with pictures and charts. When you watch TV, in the back of your mind is the certain knowledge that tens of thousands of other people are watching with you. With radio, you can almost feel the breath of the reporter on your cheek. Radio is personal.

Only on radio do hosts and reporters serve as the listener’s surrogates. Only radio can maintain the illusion of a one-to-one relationship. Listeners need that person to guide them through the story, paint the picture, explain the situation. Listeners respond, actively, to the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the vocal transmission of amusement or fear. It’s like dynamite. It can blow up in your face. But skillfully applied, it provides context far more intensely than an avalanche of words.

Click here to read the rest of Brooke Gladstone’s Transom manifesto. Brooke’s quote also appeared in the book Reality Radio.

Brooke Gladstone

Brooke Gladstone

Brooke Gladstone's freelance pieces (on topics ranging from orgasmic Russian faith healers to the aesthetics of Pampers) have appeared in the London Observer, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The American Journalism Review and In These Times, among others.Brooke started out in print journalism, writing on defense policy, strip-mining, cable television, and public broadcasting (the latter for Current.) She also wrote and edited theater, film and music reviews for The Washington Weekly. Brooke's world changed in 1987 when NPR's Scott Simon asked her to fill in as senior editor for his still-new program, Weekend Edition Saturday. They finally gave her the job, and a couple years later, she became senior editor of the daily news magazine, All Things Considered. In 1991, Brooke was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Stanford and a year later she was in Russia, reporting on the bloody insurgency of the Russian Parliament and other interesting stories for NPR. In 1995, Brooke was packing for home while NPR was creating its brand new media beat. That became her job, and so it has remained, sort of. After six years on the media beat in NPR's New York Bureau in midtown Manhattan, she was tapped by WNYC several subway stops downtown, to help relaunch On The Media. She took over as managing editor and co-host and On The Media was reborn in January of 2001. It has since doubled its audience and won quite a few awards by brazenly showing how the journalism sausage is made. Brooke has won several awards too. She's most proud of the one recently bestowed by the Milwaukee Press Club for lifetime achievement, called the Sacred Cat Award. However, much to her dismay, On The Media's staff stubbornly refuses to perform any of the associated rituals.

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  • Joseph Tracy



    While these comments broach a topic that is being foolishly and to my mind snidely overlooked by the shapers of NPR they are too timid to hit home and turn the heads that need to be turned. The aspiration to neutrality has transformed NPR news into a kind of propaganda for a world that exists only on NPR. The audience is offered insipid, test marketed and predigested news-pablum which we are expected to treat as real information. Topics of serious import are treated so sparely and with so little hard information that we are left, not with information to consider, not with thoughtful and provocative commentary that truly reflects the diversity and sophistication of American discourse but only the topic itself. As though telling us there is a world wide struggle over financial issues , and that America wants something sorta like this but China doesn’t will inform us about a complex topic that needs to be looked at by more than an executive branch sound bite.

    Also why is there no correlation between predictive accuracy, and the attention paid by NPR to the voice of that accurate prediction. The people who accurately predicted what would happen in Iraq or who foretold the causes and and nature of the financial collapse are given no place to comment on more recent military adventures or to address the ongoing economic crisis.

    I am not alone in these feelings. I find people who used to listen regularly to NPR who now simply don’t bother or if they listen, think of it as a kind of news gossip. NPR may soon find yourself in the same boat as Obama: abandoned not because you are bi-partisan, not because you press for reform, not even because you betray your own standards, but because you serve no purpose at all with any discernible will or courage.

    Meanwhile the music coverage gets better and better while the music itself gets less and less spirited.

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