Back in the 1970s, NPR was the antiestablishment alternative. By the end of the 1980s, we could no longer claim to be the underdog; we were more like the New York Times of the airwaves. Our audience mushroomed by millions in the eighties, and I believe there were three reasons for that.
Most NPR stations are FM, so the network was going nowhere until the market demand moved radio manufacturers to offer products featuring both AM and FM. Until then, an AM/FM radio was an option that might cost a car buyer an extra hundred dollars. When AM/FM radio became standard equipment in everyone’s car, NPR could finally reach a big audience.
Ronald Reagan, the guy we thought was going to do us in, unwittingly gave NPR a huge boost by partially deregulating radio. Gone was the requirement that radio stations offer minimal hours of nonentertainment programming, with the result that stations all over America promptly fired their news staffs. Radio listeners spinning the dial in search of news found the one place where there was still plenty of it—NPR.
The third factor in NPR’s audience growth in the eighties was Morning Edition, born late in 1979, and one of its commentators, pioneer radio sportscaster Red Barber. Red’s four-minute segment each Friday on Morning Edition from January 1981 until October 1992 was the most