Forty years ago this week, a former television news correspondent inaugurated a momentous era in American journalism by speaking the following words into a microphone: “From National Public Radio in Washington, I’m Robert Conley with ‘All Things Considered.’”
The opening broadcast of what would become the flagship program of a news-gathering behemoth got off to a rocky start. The lead story wasn’t ready. For the first six minutes, Conley ad-libbed. But once the tape made it to the control room and began rolling, listeners heard something they could not have imagined on a commercial network — a 24-minute audio documentary about a country that seemed to be coming apart.
As it happened, a record number of Vietnam War protesters had descended on Washington that day, May 3, 1971, hoping to close down the government. Federal troops were out in force. By evening, more than 6,000 demonstrators were under arrest. Through it all, NPR reporters from the Mall to the Pentagon kept their recorders running. They captured the voices of defiance (“We’re gonna shut the [expletive] city”) against a backdrop of roaring police motorcycles and thumping Army helicopters. It was a strong debut.
Much has changed at NPR. From an understaffed outfit that attracted a weekly audience of 3 million in 1976, it has grown into a worldwide news organization with 18 foreign bureaus, and in 2010 it drew a weekly audience of 27.2 million. Listeners now tune in to a full menu of programs that includes not only the drive-time staples of “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” but also such cultural fare as “Fresh Air” and “World Cafe.” In an era when mainstream media are losing ground (network TV viewership was off 3.4 percent last year), NPR’s audience is expanding — up 3 percent in 2010 and 58 percent since 2000.
Along the way, NPR has provided coverage — and the soundtrack — for many moments of history. In today’s information mash-up radio is a graybeard, but it remains the most intimate medium for conveying information and emotions. Voices are powerful instruments, and from the start NPR has showcased memorable ones. Its far-flung reporters and U.S.-based anchors have become personal links to complex events and distant places.
Nonetheless, as “All Things Considered” celebrates its 40th anniversary, NPR finds itself at a troubling pass. The difficulties began in October when the network fired commentator Juan Williams, who had remarked on Fox News that airline passengers in Muslim garb made him uneasy. In January, NPR’s vice president in charge of news resigned because of her role in the clumsy dismissal. The problems escalated in March with the release of an undercover video by right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe that captured an NPR fundraiser making disparaging remarks about the tea party. Vivian Schiller, the organization’s chief executive, took the fall. The network became, once again, the target of conservative members of Congress.
NPR has faced crises and political opposition before. In 1983, after overreaching financially, it came within 48 hours of going off the air. A last-minute loan averted disaster. In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, charging liberal bias, threatened to cut all federal funds to public broadcasting. He was unsuccessful. In 2004, Ken Tomlinson, appointed by President George W. Bush to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, went after NPR on the same grounds — with the same results.
The current threat feels more ominous because NPR has a structural problem. The network has an uneasy relationship with its member stations. It is in competition with local outlets for the digital future. Hundreds of stations don’t want their broadcast audiences to bypass them and listen to NPR.org on the Internet. Yet as its brisk growth attests, NPR is one of the few “good news” stories in today’s mass media.
The explanation for NPR’s increasing popularity is obvious: the high quality of its work. Although “All Things Considered” rarely airs 24-minute documentaries now, day in and day out it produces great journalism. Just in the last few weeks it broadcast a tough but fair story by Melissa Block about the fierce emotions released by the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which highlighted that conflict’s ongoing relevance; a moving piece by Wade Goodwyn about the suicide of an Iraq war veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder; a thorough report by Gloria Hillard about crystal meth addiction in Riverside County, Calif.; and dozens of other stories you couldn’t find elsewhere.
As long as NPR does this kind of work, there should be many more happy birthdays for “All Things Considered.”
Steve Oney is writing a book about the history of NPR. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.