Just in case you weren’t listening, yesterday was NPR’s 40th anniversary. Four decades ago the radio network went live just as protests over the Vietnam conflict were really boiling over. It was a tumultuous time, but a fortuitous one to launch a news network. In the LA Times, author Steve Oney, who’s currently writing a book about the history of NPR, writes an op-ed about the past 40 years of NPR and the state of the network today.
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 Corp. 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. KCRW and hundreds of others like it 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.