The end of public radio?

Conservatives have been fairly consistent in the last few decades, railing — as it were — against public radio and light-rail.

Who knew that one could be used to get rid of the other?

Jeffrey Dvorkin, who once was the National Public Radio ombudsman, writes on his blog today that the radio folks are worried that mass transportation will lead to a decline in radio, especially public radio.

But there is one aspect that deserves a little mulling – the complex relationship of Americans and their automobiles. People who were stuck in their cars during their long commutes to and from work were captives of NPR programs. After all, there is only so much of Blue Oyster Cult that can be endured.

During my stint as NPR’s Ombudsman (2000-2006), I noticed that a lot of email came in around 9 am local time. I concluded that listeners who heard the program in their cars would arrive at the office, steamed about something they had heard. They turned on their computers and fired off an email usually to express some level of exasperation about NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Dvorkin points to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. In it, Richard Florida declares the era of urban sprawl over.

While we are in the early development of this new economic geography, one trend is clear: The history of economic development and of capitalism revolves around the more intensive use of urban space. The coming decades will thus probably see greater concentrations of people, increasing densities, and further clustering of industry, work and innovation in a smaller number of humongous cities and mega-regions globally. Alongside that will come ever more concentrated economic opportunity and deepening social and economic divides between people and places.

Florida doesn’t exactly say that this new economic age will eliminate the long commute and then — as Dvorkin theorizes — public radio.

I always got a cheap laugh when I said that NPR’s success was based partly on the listeners’ addiction to their cars and that there would be trouble if people decided to start taking the bus. Hence “public radio hates public transportation.”

  • David Brauer

    My wife is a regular public-transit user and her tuner-enabled mp3 player is set to … MPR.

    I doubt the bus-riding chattering classes are a threat to public-radio hegemony.

    The real killers are: telecommuters like me who never leave the home.

    If high oil prices get folks out of cars AND buses/trains, then public radio does face an obstacle.

    Then again, we just bought a $99 Boston Acoustics radio with a better speaker so we can listen in the kitchen in the morning.

  • c


    can’t you get radio on your iphone? and if not i am sure it will be an upcoming facet of the iphone and then you can continue to ride the bus, and text to npr.

  • Dvorkin’s commentary ignores one important truth: a lot of radios don’t come with cars attached to them.

    Commuters who use overground transport (e.g. buses and above-ground trains) can listen on portable radios. Those who travel on underground transit systems can listen to podcasts.

    Those of us who use transit are no less “stuck” than those who are stuck in their cars. It’s not like we have knitting groups and coffee klatches on the bus. Everyone is in his/her own world usually, reading the paper or listening to a portable radio/MP3 player, etc.

    It’s important for public radio to tell listeners who are abandoning their cars for public transit that yes, they can take public radio with them.

  • If this theory has any merit, two things should happen:

    1) NPR and all local stations will need to make most of their stories and programs available as an mp3 download

    2) Apple should add an FM tuner to iPods (a very old feature request)

    Keep in mind that transit workers still have regular NPR/PRI/local podcasts they can listen to. But yeah, I can see live NPR changing a bit if more people use public transit or carpool with people who don’t like NPR.

  • brian

    I think Public Radio’s listenership could be hurt by an increase in the use of public transportation/telecommuting since most people get hooked on Public Radio by listening in the car (or at least I was). Luckily (for radio at least), I doubt we will stop using cars as out main form of transportation any time soon.

  • Joel


    But if you telecommute, can’t you listen to public radio while you work, without the worry of complaint by neighboring coworkers?

  • Mary L.

    Others have made similar comments above. But I’ve always thought that it was interesting to see that since the walkman came on the scene, people on public transportation listened to that (or the iPod) and people in cars still loved radio. Even though you can listen to either your iPod or the radio on the bus, it still seems to fall out: bus/iPod; car/radio. Weird.

  • Nicholle

    I have come to some interesting times going to a feeling of false security to one far more aware, during this time public radio has come along for the ride… even walking if need be.. after all radio travels by air in the spectrum of light..

    I especially like the local voice.. and support for our community through honoring the reality of the day not based solely on corporate investment, of some fantasy.. though i believe there are those which contribute, and more so as a widening gap created by the socio-economic time..coming to account.

    The gap could be lessened if we were all able to obtain higher education, sadly as it seems to be growing that even less can afford an education than previously.. and a widening gap in understanding occurs. Making a public indiscriminate voice so incredibly valuble to address reality. and if we could all afford to obtain an education it would protect society dispelling ignorance.. giving man a fair standard to judge by and the tools he needs to have a chance rather than become an easy societal pawn.

    So in the mean time the there is beauty from sorrow..

    I am thankful for the diversity linking time and various cultures especially as opportunity has lessened. I believe it is an inspiration on many levels enriching all aspects of our community..and even remembering better times.

    I think the statement is rediculous..and without offense ignorant.

    When we can get real, and face our truths, we will feel safer (addressing reality)..walking.. if need be. Public radio can and i believe reflects a balanced unbiased picture.. I want to contribute.

    But I am thankful for the opportunity to strongly disagree, I haven’t had a lot to say lately.

    Can’t send enough love..

    Glad to here the majority of public radio listeners seem to be doing so well in someones opinion.. I reflect (currently) not all of us..but appreciate thier support and value of public radio!