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NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio [Hardcover]

Michael McCauley
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 8, 2005 0231121601 978-0231121606

The people who shaped America's public broadcasting system thought it should be "a civilized voice in a civilized community" -- a clear alternative to commercial broadcasting. This book tells the story of how NPR has tried to embody this idea. Michael P. McCauley describes NPR's evolution from virtual obscurity in the early 1970s, when it was riddled with difficulties -- political battles, unseasoned leadership, funding problems -- to a first-rate broadcast organization.

The book draws on a wealth of primary evidence, including fifty-seven interviews with people who have been central to the NPR story, and it places the network within the historical context of the wider U.S. radio industry. Since the late 1970s, NPR has worked hard to understand the characteristics of its audience. Because of this, its content is now targeted toward its most loyal listeners -- highly educated baby-boomers, for the most part -- who help support their local stations through pledges and fund drives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Any history of a large corporation must cover finances and bureaucracy to some degree, but McCauley's account of NPR's past rarely ventures beyond these subjects. The author, who worked in radio for 15 years and is now a communications professor at the University of Maine, says he wanted to understand what makes NPR appeal to listeners, but rather than offering background on its acclaimed programming or talented journalists, his book is largely taken up with dry accounts of hirings, firings and budget difficulties. Certainly, such considerations are crucial, for NPR has long struggled with them: in the early years, it had to fight for funding from lawmakers and lobbyists who preferred television, and then, just as it was hitting its stride, it fell into a damaging debt crisis. Politicians on both sides of the ideological spectrum are forever finding fault with it, and internal politics have also been complicated, with clashes of philosophy and management style often hindering the network's projects. McCauley interviewed many of the people involved with NPR's evolution, but his writing is short on quotes or anecdotes that would bring NPR to life. The final chapter is more engaging, as he discusses NPR's use of new media, like the Internet and satellite radio, and discusses the network's possible future trajectory. Overall, though, this methodical, often monotonous narrative rarely addresses the substance of NPR's charms and is unlikely to appeal to the listeners who have made it successful.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


In a highly readable work, McCauley offers a well-documented look at the people of NPR.

(Johanna Cleary American Journalism 1900-01-00)

A book worth reading. Recommended.

(Choice 1900-01-00)

[A] valuable contribution to the historiography of radio.

(David Dzikowski The Communication Review)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (June 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231121601
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231121606
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,647,507 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well researched history, lack of critical faculty October 8, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First, the good: McCauley's research is admirable, and if what you're looking for is a history of NPR as a network/institution, this book excels in that respect.

However, I take issue with McCauley's general approach. From its first pages, it is clear that he is a cheerleader for NPR. Which is fine - a lot of people love NPR, and I'm not of the belief that scholars should mask their passions. However, McCauley's love of the network produces a rather biased narrative.

There is an overwhelming lack of critical views in the book. While McCauley occasionally raises criticisms that circulate about NPR, he quickly dismisses them with little reasoning or support. This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book. I'm not asking for McCauley to advocate such criticisms, but I at least expect a project such as this to address them thoroughly, even if to construct a well reasoned counterclaim. In this respect, McCauley inadequately addresses NPR's alleged catering to elite, upper middle class audiences, acceptance of corporate underwriting and address/inclusion of minority audiences and programming. (In the book's final chapter, McCauley essentially argues for the ghettoization of minority audiences by creating entirely new NPR networks, which he concedes is financially unreasonable.) There is also no address over the highly controversial position NPR took against the LPFM license beginning in 1999.

Thus, the book paints a rather rosy picture of NPR without really investigating the issues. But as I said, it does provide a concise institutional history, and that is the source of this book's value.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I'll confess that NPR (the book, not the radio network) was not quite what I expected. I anticipated a semi-lightweight book that combined weighty historical events with a deft, humorous hand, sort of like NPR itself. Opening it up, I looked forward to reading misty-eyed reminisces with Scott Simon and Terri Gross, or Bob Edwards and Susan Stamberg relating their experiences during the early days of NPR.

Nope. This book may be a relatively quick read (130 pages, not counting the extensive end-notes), but it is a dense, meticulously researched, and quite serious history of the genesis and evolution of NPR. Particular attention is paid to the political processes that spawned it, as well as to the funding and leadership crises and challenges that it has experienced.

In short, while this isn't the fun stuff, it is the "brass tacks" important stuff.

While on-air personalities are not ignored, they get no more text allotted to them than NPR producers, news directors, and human resource managers. Thus, NPR (the book) is a non-profit corporate history. As someone with a high tolerance for the minutiae, I liked it. And others may as well, provided they know what they are getting into.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Had me going until the end... August 24, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
McCauley's book started off strong with a detailed documentation of NPR's first 25-30 years. Without focusing too much on the personalities behind the stories, he does a very good job discussing the network's ups and downs - the portion on "Project Independence" is the best I've ever seen on the topic. The book is a relatively easy read as the other commenter mentioned (130 pages with about 45 pages of bibliographic information), plus McCauley's writing style is neither too "academic" or pedestrian.

That said, the final chapter ("A civilized voice") seemed out of place. For me, it was a rambling clunker compared to chapters 1-4, which were written neatly and cleanly. McCauley offers some suggestions for NPR to survive in the next several decades, but goes from one point to another while not really providing any depth or detail in his suggestions.

The particular bone I have to pick is with HD Radio technology. McCauley pays it very little lip service earlier in the book and then never brings it up again. Why? Why not use HD's multiple channels to help put diverse messages and content out there for NPR to possibly gather larger audiences? While I am not a huge advocate of HD Radio technology (I think it has some very exclusionary features), anyone who denies its existence and eventual prominence isn't paying attention.

The other problem I have with chapter 5 is McCauley's seemingly "oh well" attitude toward using public radio as a tool for diversity. Rather than challenge the status quo of NPR programming and operations, McCauley concludes with Bruce Hornsby wrap up ("that's just the way it is"). After all, since the majority of NPR's listeners (and the ones who donate the most) are college educated, why even try to reach those who are not?
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside History of NPR July 21, 2005
No scholar or writer knows more about the history of National Public Radio than Michael McCauley, and his book is packed with fascinating tidbits and shrewd insights about an institution many of us are addicted to. Very little of substance has been written about NPR, and this book, which contains fragments from scores of interviews the author conducted with NPR insiders, is the place to begin. The footnotes also make good reading. --Scott Sherman
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excise the last 35 pp., which are footnotes and sources, and what remains is a rather compressed study of a major network and its history. Regular listeners of NPR will resonate with McCauley's references to specific programs and announcers (including photos) throughout the years as well as be reminded of the controversies, obstacles, challenges, political attacks that have dogged a public network whose goal of being "a civilized voice in a civilized community"--a clear alternative to the commercial media--will strike many as a resounding success. Others may find such a stated goal as overly modest, especially for a network that also acts as an impartial, unbiased "window" unto the world at large and at home--offering information and entertainment that is far more diverse and universal that what the word "civilized" has (unfortunately) come to signify in modern "populist" America. And, of course, some on the fringes will be determined to see the book as more "leftist propaganda" from a liberal voice among the insidious forces that presumably control the media (fortunately, the absurdity of that last statement is recognized by most thoughtful Americans for what it is).

I may be more than a little Pollyannaish with that statement. During their respective post-election press conferences on Nov. 3, our contrite President said he planned to work for consensus, assuring the American people: "I do believe there is hope for civility; I also believe there is hope for progress." The vindictive Senate minority leader, on the other hand, said: "The American people have made their wishes clear. Our top priority for the next two years should be to deny President Obama a 2nd term. The people we elected tried to dismantle the free market. We will stop the liberal onslaught.
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