Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of NPR.
But if the U.S. military had killed Osama bin Laden back then, many NPR stations would not have been able to bring you live coverage. In fact, they’d have had to wait for that day’s edition of “All Things Considered” to arrive by mail. It was called “bicycling”: transporting the physical recording to a station, playing it, and then sending it on to the next station. Larger radio networks, like CBS, had interconnects for live programs, but Bernard Mayes, KQED-FM’s first station manager and NPR’s first board chairman, says most stations couldn’t afford that.
“It took a lot of doing to get the stations to improve … their quality of their studios and their signal and their staff and their training,” Mayes says. “All that had to be done before we could say this is a whole system that’s working well.”
KQED hired Mayes, a former BBC broadcaster, to run the radio station it acquired from the Presbyterian Church. KXKX-FM became KQED in 1969, modeling its membership format after KPFA’s in Berkeley. KQED was pretty unique among the 90 original NPR stations: partly because it was not owned by a college or university. Educational broadcasting, pushed by advocates like former FCC commissioner Frieda Hennock, was one of the few places to hear radio without commercials. Now, Americans would get a taste of noncommercial news radio. Unless they lived near Canada and could get the CBC, or had heard the BBC, that was a new idea that took some getting used to.
“People were not used to having noncommercial anything,” Mayes recalls. “To persuade people to listen to (NPR) was to change their habits. And this was not easily done, because there were not skillful broadcasters available to do it until we had managed to gather them all together in one roof.”
Mayes recalls that a number of the stations were skeptical, too. Many did not like sharing their local audience with a new cousin way off in Washington, D.C. Some wanted these shows branded as their own.
“The stations were very jealous of NPR. The station managers of educational broadcasting were almost unified against NPR, because they wanted to have their own stations on the air. They didn’t want NPR to take– ‘This is NPR broadcasting’. [They wanted,] ‘This is K-whatever-it-is’ or “W-whatever-it-is’. … And for some time, NPR was not popular with the local stations.”
NPR’s founders met in Sausalito to figure out how to make the service work. Contrary to popular belief, and in line with the decentralized ethic of public broadcasting, NPR was not really intended to be a “network”: a hub for synchronized broadcasts. Rather, the stations were (and still are) free to air programs from NPR as they see fit. Within each program, the sound had to be unique: authoritative, but not bookish. Engaging, but not cloying. Compelling, but not loud. And of course, reflecting the country it would serve.
“It should be an American system with American voices,” said Mayes, an American citizen from Britain. “It’s no good having a high-flown, English accent talking to people in Boise, Idaho!”
But some figured those Idahoans wouldn’t be listening to NPR for very long. Questions soon abounded as to whether this new service would last, whether it would fold, whether it might even be absorbed into PBS. Congress never intended to fund public radio, only television. There would be no NPR if the words “and radio” hadn’t been strategically slipped into what was initially known as the Public Television Act of 1967 (and followed by intense lobbying) to make it the Public Broadcasting Act.
The fight began to resolve itself the way many fights in broadcasting get settled: the numbers came in. Eventually, Mayes says, NPR could afford national research on its listeners that showed the audience was growing and that people were tuning in to their local public radio stations for NPR programming. Commute times were golden: those hours in the morning and evening when drivers trapped in their cars provided an engaged, and somewhat captive, audience.
Today, Mayes counts “All Things Considered” as NPR’s finest achievement. Few news programs have survived 40 years (“Meet the Press” is approaching its 65th anniversary; “60 Minutes is nearly 43 years old), especially after enduring repeated attacks on its funding from Presidents and Congresses past. NPR could use even more diversity in Mayes’s opinion, especially local voices on the stations and those from the American South on the network. Still, after all these years, it’s still something he’s proud to have shaped from the very beginning, calling it a “national treasure.”