National Public Radio began in 1971 with one program, All Things Considered, a nightly news magazine designed to present the hard news of the day but also explore new narrative forms and voices on the radio. In the beginning, the new narrative form thing really caught on, and soon there were other programs and specials doing long documentaries, dramas like Star Wars, and totally experimental new stuff on NPR Radio Playhouse and Options. I walked in the door in March of 1983 with a bag of tapes and an idea for a story and was given access to editing rooms and production studios with editorial feedback from the most creative minds in the business — Larry Massett, Joe Frank, Alex Chadwick, Art Silverman, Keith Talbot, and Ira Glass, to name a few. Back then, the third floor at NPR was swarming with creative genius.
But two weeks after I got there an announcement came down from management on the fifth floor saying NPR was nine million dollars in debt and a third of the staff would be laid off. The hits were across the board—producers, engineers, news announcers—but one who went down was Keith Talbot. I’m not sure what his official title was, but basically Keith Talbot was in charge of finding new ways to tell stories. Keith’s job was to go out and find artists working in other mediums and convinced them to try radio, then he paid them good money to produce stories, then he put their stories on the air. For example, Keith found Joe Frank and Jay Allison, and Ira Glass began his radio career as Keith’s understudy. With Keith gone, the creative people lost their leader and their programs.
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Then in the fall of 1983 there was a conference in New York for all the independent producers from around the country. One of the invited panelists was Robert Siegel, who was then NPR’s director of news and information. I don’t remember the subject of the panel discussion, but I do remember Siegel saying Larry Massett’s “Trip to the Dentist,” in which Larry hallucinates on nitrous oxide, would no longer be played on All Things Considered. Things were going to be different now. NPR was going to become a respected news source, with bureaus around the world. No more fucking around.
It took about 26 years to accomplish, but last year when Alex Chadwick was fired and Day to Day was cancelled, NPR finally eliminated all creative vestiges from within its ranks. I don’t really know how and why this happened, but of course I have a theory. I see it as the rise of narrative fascism, the idea that there’s only one way to tell the truth. It happened to all our news organizations. It happened to our culture. The result is the news has become PR for an unassailable and nearly invisible corporate power structure and the notion of finding new ways to tell a story is virtually outlawed.