Monday, February 06, 2006

Is Public Radio Growing Out Of Touch With The Public?

This blog rarely focuses on programming content. I generally leave that to the experts -- producers, writers, and hosts. I've also refrained from mentioning the now-Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers' stellar year, but restraint is no longer possible. Stick with me. There is a public radio programming payoff at the end.

On Only A Game, Bill Littlefield and Paul Attner from the Sporting News decided that people were having a hard time getting excited about this game because the "wrong teams" made the Super Bowl. On Weekend Edition, Chicago Sun Time's columnist Ron Rapoport said "we're going in to this game kind of disappointed" because it lacked star power.

How could they be so wrong?

Nielsen ratings show this Super Bowl had the highest ratings since 1996, the last time the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. That's more viewers than the years when New England and New York were in the game.

The nation was interested in this game. The people who were disappointed in the match-up were the sports writers and commentators covering the game. It seems as if they all hung out together and came to the conclusion that if they weren't excited by it, no one was excited by it.

I suspect this happens all too frequently among many NPR commentators, not just those who cover sports. Most of us don't question their expertise. They're on NPR after all.

But this was an easy catch, especially for a Steelers fan. Two separate NPR programs missed the pulse of the nation on the Super Bowl. If it can happen with the nation's biggest media event, on what other issues might it be happening and going unnoticed?

6 Comments:

Blogger Aaron Read said...

I think this is a case where disgust at several negative aspects of the game is, consciously or unconsciously, overriding any positive aspects.

Of course, I'm primarily speaking about the horrible officiating that plagued many playoff games and the Superbowl. When fans of all the teams...including fans that had zero stake in the Superbowl...are screaming for weeks about how awful so many of the calls were - you know there's a problem. When John Madden is calling the game live on national TV and he says that's a bad call...then you know you've got a crisis.

I think there is also "something" wrong with the overall system, and the sportscasters/writers are more attuned to it than most of us are. There were a lot of really odd happenings with teams winning that probably shouldn't have, and teams losing that probably shouldn't have. And I don't mean just to lousy penalty calls...I mean things that just were inexplicable. But all these little things really started adding up. And the final picture was pretty ugly. That's where the sentiment that the "wrong" teams made it to the Superbowl.

Also you had the Colts, who frankly played better than the Steelers all season. Granted, granted, football playoffs are where fortunes can turn on a dime...but the entire sports world really thought this was the Colts' chance to win the rings.

While I agree that the Steelers and Seahawks certainly both earned their place in the Superbowl, I think the actual game was so disrupted by lousy plays and lousy calls that I can understand why many fans I know...some of whom have watched every Superbowl since #10 or 12...said this was the worst ever.

- Aaron

P.S. It doesn't have to be a good show to be the most-watched. Reality TV is a prime example of that. I don't think it's necessarily being "out of touch with the public" to tell your listeners when they're wrong. I expect people on NPR to know more about various subjects than I do...that's why I listen to them.

10:14 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments Aaron. You raise valid points but they stray a bit from my original position. YOu're talking about quality of the games, I'm talking about the public's interest in the Super Bowl leading up to the game. Public radio's sports experts were donwplaying the public's interest in the game. Despite the poor officiating and the poor play, this Super Bowl had more viewers than those very exciting last-minute wins by the Patriots. Our experts called this as poorly as the NFL officials called the Super Bowl. I'm just asking if it is because they don't get out enough.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The superbowl may only be the tip of the iceburg. Have you ever watched somebody who doesn't normally listen to public radio listen to public radio? It can be a painful experience because it makes you realize just how elitist the programming can sound. For example, those fundraising pitches where a host points out that the car guys aren't just mechanics, they also have PhD's from MIT (we wouldn't want to talk to some greasy tech-school educated mechanic, now, would we?)... or the animal challenges where hosts read notes from listeners who claim they have the "smartest dog ever" because Rover is forced to listen to Morning Edition in his kennel every morning. In a world where the only mechanics worth talking to have post-graduate degrees and the dogs are incredibly smart, it's no surprise that they wouldn't have a clue about what "real people" think about sports now would it?

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I agree the pitches about the mechanics having degrees are unnecessary. After all, Car Talk is about the personalities, and spending time with these two guys on air... not so much about the car problems.

But what's wrong with giving folks the idea that public radio may make them better citizens? More informed? Or, for lack of a better word, smarter?

Being smart is still something to aspire to, right?

6:06 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Yeah, I did go off-topic...sorry about that. Still bitter about the Patriots losing to Denver. :-)

Still, my final point I think addresses it perfectly: when it comes to topics I am not knowledgable in, I expect and demand my NPR hosts to know more than I do. And when they're telling me that the public is wrong, I'm inclined to believe them. Or at least take what they're saying as "food for thought".

Perhaps their PHRASING is more the issue here...that they were letting their analysis that people shouldn't be interested in this Superbowl, become wishful thinking...but I don't really begrudge them that. Especially not when it comes to sports.

Anyways, this is touching more on just how much of the "public" that public radio is representing these days. The answer is, of course, not much. It never has. And here's the important part: IT NEVER CAN. There's no way any one format can possibly diversify enough to serve the majority of the public. And the harder any station/network tries...the worse they do, both in terms of audience feedback and in terms of fiscal health.

So what if NPR has been haven for white, liberal, elitist snobs? It's not like there's a shortage of other formats for the rest of the country to listen to on the rest of the dial. I cringe whenever I'm forced to listen to some Godcaster saying praise God and pass the checkbook. Or to some screamfest on commercial talk radio. Or to both kinds of music - country AND western. But I just turn the radio knob until I find something I like, I don't complain about how those stations aren't representing me.

(and I know someone out there is just itching to use the "my tax dollars are paying for public radio" argument. Go ahead, I DARE you to try it. Please get me started about the corporate welfare Clear Channel and CBS/Infinity get from their massive campaign contributions)

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John brings up an excellent point here. It hasn't been raised before probably because no real sports fan in their right mind - even if they are the most reliable NPR listener - EVER takes sports seriously on the network. My first experience with how clueless NPR can be came when Frank DeFord showed just how out of touch someone can be with his commentary almost a decade ago about how college football is that big of a deal, or, I guess more appropriately that it shouldn't be that big of a deal. There are very, very, very few times NPR's sports reporting matches what the rest of the network does - it is embarrassing to be a sports fan AND work in this business. Junk it or do it better. Get Debbie Elliott to tell you how it's done !

1:07 AM  

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