NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio/Voice of America: A History

By Davie, William R. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio/Voice of America: A History


Davie, William R., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* McCauley, Michael P. (2005). NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, pp. 185.

* Heil Jr., Alan L. (2003). Voice of America: A History. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, pp. 538.

Two radio services distinguish our national voice to the world, and both have had more than their share of trials and triumphs. Despite the lofty visions that gave rise to the Voice of America and National Public Radio, government-funded broadcasting irks some, while others are happy to spend tax dollars-so long as they have some control over its channels and content. Regardless of how the reader views it, both authors set forth intriguing looks into behind-the-scenes struggles that infused life into public broadcasting, and kept federal faucets from dripping dry at critical times.

Michael P. McCauley's historical review of National Public Radio offers insights necessary for understanding the birth, growth, and maturation of NPR. This is not a book about NPR's entertainment and music programs, though; it's about the people and events that shaped three decades of its growth in radio journalism. Major players, such as Kevin Klose, Frank Mankiewicz, and Douglas Bennet, make key decisions affecting NPR, while familiar names like Barbara Cochran and Lawrence Lichty figure in the process.

Because less homage is paid to NPR's on-air stars, it may disappoint readers hoping for greater context there. Only a few sentences cover the controversial exit of Bob Edwards from Morning Edition in 2004, for example: "Some Managers said Edwards fell out of Morning Edition's future plans when he insisted on remaining as the program's only host-an assertion Edwards vigorously denies," McCauley tantalizingly reveals, but the full story is lacking. He is committed to writing in such a way that, "when all is said and done," he could look each one of his subjects "in the eye, and still be comfortable with what has been written." The reader may not be as comfortable though-if left puzzled by what exactly has taken place.

The book is more useful covering NPR's off-air controversies: the frustration employees felt after President Delano Lewis failed to deliver on his financial promises; the conflicts created by the Minnesota Public Radio challenge, particularly its showcase program, Prairie Home Companion. Former NPR President Frank Mankiewicz's shunned Garrison Keillor's show, which he regarded as "yuppie" fare. In places where political axes grind and budget deficits threaten its lifeblood, McCauley's account of lastminute heroics and hardball tactics on NPR's behalf proves invaluable. At 185 pages, the stories are as crisp and concise as a feature on All Things Considered, and readers teaching broadcast journalism should certainly appreciate that.

More detailed is Alan Heil Jr.'s chronicle of the Voice of America, which draws inspiration from his thirty-eight years of service to its "straightarrow news, public-service programming, and enlightened comment of value to people everywhere." From 1962 to 1998, Heil rose from news writer to become a deputy director, and took seriously VOA's global commitment to tell the truth-good or bad.

When critics asked why it is still necessary to have such a global service of broadcast news when CNN is available in hotel rooms of foreign capitals throughout the world, his answer is simple. Four-fifths of the listeners gather news from VOA's foreign language broadcasts-not only in hotel rooms though-but in the refugee camps around the world, where radio is their main source of news. One Chinese professor told a VOA staffer, "I owe my life to you," and explained how as a youth he attended "VOA university," by learning the radio service's "Special English" (a 1,500-word vocabulary with a single idea per sentence). …

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