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The Incredible Lightness Of Npr

I used to go jogging at five p.m so that I could listen to National Public Radio’s newscast. I did this for ten or fifteen years. I tried to avoid the 5:30 to 6 NPR slot because that was usually consumed by long lifestyle pieces in which I had no interest. I also wanted to avoid “Marketplace” at six, which, while informative, is irritatingly over-produced. But NPR at five--that is how I’d get my hard news fix.

I stopped jogging in the late afternoon about five years ago when I started going downtown. I would listen to NPR when I was driving home, but I found myself switching after awhile to sports-talk radio. There was too much fluff and not enough news. But I said to myself today, as I grew restless around five, that I should try again. Maybe NPR is back to its old self. So I set off at five for a stroll through the Botanical Gardens with my Sony Walkman set at NPR.  

The show led off with Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and his meeting with Obama. That was fine, but there was no analysis of the visit, and nothing I didn’t already know, except maybe that it lasted longer than originally planned. After the Netanyahu report, there was something about some retired generals proposing that the Pentagon use more fuel-efficient vehicles--a marginal story at best

Still, the news had only started. But the next story was about a group of soldiers, which the announcer described as “America’s Battalion,”  who were leaving from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for Afghanistan. I am very interested in, and worried about, our war in Afghanistan, which I fear could turn into Obama’s Iraq, but this was not about the war. It was a bunch of personal interest stuff--man-on-the-street 5:30 slot kind of  fluff--replete with people citing Bible verses. And it went on and on and on.   

The 5:00 news was now at least half over, but the next segment was a science feature that had nothing to do with the news. I am interested in neuroscience, but the person reporting the feature had one of these 'science for dummies"  condescending styles, as if he were introducing the planets to first grade students. I couldn’t listen to him.

Maybe, I thought, the last feature would go back to Netanyahu’s visit or perhaps what happened in the economy. But no such luck: it consisted of letters to the editors about similar features that had been in past shows. That was something that used to happen only on Thursdays, but now it seems to have become a regular feature. I turned off my radio at this point, and concentrated on the geese.

Am I being unfair? I guess it all depends on what you want from radio. Some people might covet an audio version of what they would get in the lifestyle section of the newspapers or in the last fifteen minutes of a network TV newscast, but I don’t. I don’t think radio is a particularly good medium for that. If something is billed as news, I expect to hear something that bears immediately on the country’s future.

If I take a walk again, I will probably go at six. Marketplace might be irritating (“OK kiddies, let’s do the numbers”), but at least I might learn something about what happened that day.

--John B. Judis