Monday, October 30, 2006

Is Radio "Public" if Nobody Listens?

Both Charlie Sykes and Patrick McIlheran have commented on WPR talk show host Ben Merens' column this weekend in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but I thought I'd add an observation. In the piece, Merens argues that somehow debate doesn't actually take place during election seasons, and his show is the only one that talks about the issues, blah, blah, blah.

I suspect Merens' frustration stems, in part, from this interview he conducted with gubernatorial candidate Mark Green. Listen to Merens as he plays the role of Doyle campaign spokesman, peppering Green with follow-up questions that are either not relevant, or show a misunderstanding of the issue they are discussing. Observe as he can't totally grasp the idea of spending more money in schoolrooms rather than on school administration - you could pull a guy off a barstool at three in the afternoon, and he'd get how it works.

Of course, all the callers are likely university professors sitting at home with the munchies, so Green wasn't getting a fair shake to begin with. But you can hear Merens' voice drip with exasperation when Green gives answers that actually don't make him sound like he wants to burn down hospitals for dyslexic puppies. Merens badgers Green to come up with programs he would cut to balance the budget. If I were Green, I would have simply said "I'd start with this radio show."

There is a larger point here, too, that Patrick touches on. Public radio exists solely because nobody listens to it. If people did listen to it, it wouldn't need tax money to survive. Imagine the conceit inherent in the decision to provide public broadcasting: you have a product that can't sustain itself on its own, but you think it is so important, you feel you have to use public money to keep it on life support. The ideas are just so good, that people have to be able to listen to them - even though nobody really wants to.

I am certainly opinionated, but I don't for a second think any of my ideas are so profound that they deserve public funding. I, of course, think conservative ideas are mostly pretty good. But it wouldn't in my wildest dreams occur to me that somehow public tax dollars should support a conservative radio station, in the event stations like WTMJ and WISN weren't available.

(Dork Alert) And if we are willing to throw around public money for things only a few people listen to, then I may be one step closer to my dream of a radio show featuring Jennifer Connelly reading passages from H.L. Mencken. That might be my giant bag of popcorn equivalent.