NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio

Article excerpt

McCauley, Michael P. NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 216 pp. $29.50.

Until the 1970s the history of American radio news was largely the story of commercial broadcast journalism. That changed when National Public Radio went on the air with its signature program, "All Things Considered," in 1971. How a small, fractious, and underfunded movement such as public broadcasting could rise to challenge enormous, entrenched commercial interests, such as CBS, requires historical explanation. Michael P. McCauley sets out to describe the rise and fall and rise again of NPR news and also to offer explanations for how such an unlikely set of events occured.

The stated purpose of the book is to "understand why NPR holds such powerful appeal for certain listeners." If readers take this to mean the book will focus on the network's listeners and their bond to NPR news programs, they may be confused by how the book unfolds. At times the book is explaining NPR's unique organizational culture, at other times it is explaining the network's distinctive "civilized voice," and sometimes it is explaining the role of audience research in targeting NPR's core audience. Although these explanations are clearly related to one another, the book does not always make the relationships clear. The book is best when read as a story, filled with the drama of NPR's nearly aborted birth and near financial collapse.

McCauley, who has worked in public radio and has taught electronic media management, among other broadcasting and journalism courses, at the University of Maine, portrays the abiding angst of NPR workers: their frustrations with management, their struggles with NPR's purpose, and their endearing commitment to do more with less. The overarching narrative, however, focuses on the management and mismanagement of NPR, exploring the achievements and failures of NPR's presidents and programmers.

Perhaps the study's chief achievement is its impressive contribution to the oral history of NPR. McCaulcy began collecting oral histories in 1995, documenting the recollections of NPR's principal powers. …