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Two Cheers For Public Radio

by Geoffrey Nunberg

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But I also agree with David that there are economic and institutional reasons for the dearth of intellectual programming. As it happens, my sense is that there's actually something of a glut of intellectually challenging content available, a lot of it subsidized by universities and other institutions, but it's hard for it to get wide exposure. To take one example, the Stanford philosophers John Perry and Ken Taylor do a very engaging program called "Philosophy Talk" that runs at 10 a.m. Sunday on KALW in San Francisco. Each week's broadcast is consecrated to a topic--"mental imagery," "dreaming," "legal ethics," "philosophy of music," and so on--that Perry and Taylor cover in "Car Talk"-style banter, interviews and phone-ins, along with a taped segment called "The 60-Second Philosopher" from Ian Schoales (Merle Kessler) of "Duck's Breath Mystery Theater" fame. "Philosophy Talk" has been picked up by a few smaller stations in California and by Oregon Public Radio, but it would be a tall order for it to reach anything like broad national distribution. There's simply too much competition for the time slots on most NPR affiliates, particularly since most of them are obliged to devote a large slice of their daily programming to multiple rebroadcasts of the major news and interview programs and to crowd-pleasers like "Car Talk," "Prairie Home Companion," and "The Thistle & Shamrock," in order to hang onto the kind of audiences that ensure the pledges will keep rolling in. The institutional roots of these national differences run very deep, as Paul Starr has shown in The Creation of the Media. But I like to think that as the proportion of people listening to radio via the Internet and podcasts grows, it will be easier to aggregate respectable national audiences for serious intellectual discussion, even if few local stations will want to broadcast it. Radio plays and the like will be a harder row to hoe, given the relatively high production costs, but maybe the NEA or someone will decide to take a stab at supporting this some day. In the meantime, people desperate for their daily fix of "The Archers," "Dante Vagante" or France Culture can score it online.