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28 February 2007

Deborama's WWW Number 14 - Radio Wrap-up, NPR vs. BBC


So Deborama's WWW has featured two sites from NPR (National Public Radio). I thought I could find some good sites within the vast and lavishly funded BBC empire to give a bit of transatlantic balance, but you know what? I just couldn't. So the website of the week is the homepage for NPR. Compare and contrast with the radio homepage of the BBC. Do you see what I mean?
I don't know what it is about the BBC, but I feel a rant coming on. They have some wonderful shows on radio. DH and I are addicted to The News Quiz, The Now Show and Dead Ringers (which has sadly migrated to TV and pretty much never looked back.) DH loves and I can enjoy the priceless and matchless I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the source of that wonderful game Mornington Crescent. I am not quite so taken by Just A Minute. But they also have a few features that cause us both to reach screaming for the dial, not the least of which is the Archers. While most people have a fond chuckle about the occult lingo of The Shipping Forecast, and recognise its vital importance to a minority community, the Thought for the Day comes in for rather more cruel yet well-deserved send-up, and the community that it is aimed at becomes ever more a minority each year. Other special-interest shows make no attempt to appeal to a wider audience; Gardener's Question Time springs immediately to mind.
The BBC does not play to their strengths. Perhaps it is part of the "tragedy of the commons", and the need to be all things to all people, when some of those people have regrettably low tastes and expectations. I think their website illustrates the problem very well. It hardly draws you in, does it? If you were not looking for something specific you would click away with a yawn, and if you were looking for something specific, well, good luck. The radio-player features, for podcast, listen-again, etc., are so infamously hard to negotiate that numerous third-party feed sites have sprung up to fill the gap. Their attempts at involving the public are laudable and sometimes innovative - such as the provision of a blog platform called backstage.bbc.co.uk, but since they are dealing with licence fee money here, it is all very over-designed and top-down. Like most outreach efforts in the UK, whether from the government or a quango or a charity, I just find it baffling and pointless. Some of the public-involvement schemes are just ridiculous, as if they were saying, hey, we don't have a British Rush Limbaugh, maybe the BBC can fill that gap! And some of them start out clever but then get beaten to death, like the thousands of Best of British contests.
So let me turn my attention to NPR. National Public Radio has spent the last 26 years of its almost 40 years of life struggling for survival, as its already meagre public funding fluctuated between a trickle and a locked-shut tap, depending on the ill-winds of Capitol Hill. It is the ultimate political football. You might almost say that the BBC has a duty of excellence, so that it will not be used as a morality lesson by the neo-cons about the pernicious influence of public money on the arts and the media. Despite all this, NPR's programming is almost all of an excellent calibre. It is open to the charge of elitism, but most people ignore that, because God knows, intellectual elites have few enough havens in the US as it is. One of the things I have always loved about NPR is its serendipity. This American Life, which I featured last week, is all about serendipity and good story-telling. I knew if I went to the site and clicked on something, I would strike gold and I did. I found this. Again, compare and contrast with the insipid "Thought for the Day" from the BBC. Why do they have to get it so wrong?
And what else has NPR got? Car Talk! (How I miss it.) Hearts of Space. And of course, All Things Considered, the best news programme anywhere ever. From Minnesota Public Radio, two of which have been syndicated by NPR, A Prairie Home Companion, St. Paul Sunday and The Morning Show (another one I miss terribly.) (I see from the MPR website that This American Life is coming to the Twin Cities.)
In addition to its excellent programming, NPR's use of the web really puts the BBC to shame, in all areas except perhaps news coverage, where I cannot fault the BBC at all. But where in the Beeb's vast empire is anything to match the simple but incredibly useful Books page, which I like so much I have added it as a feed on my Google homepage? No, I'm afraid I have to say that NPR wins hands down, delivering so much more with so much less to work with.

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