NPR recently announced they would cease broadcasting Talk of the Nation in June, thus pulling off one of the most bald-faced betrayals since Judas in the Upper Room or Dylan in Royal Albert Hall. The betrayal cut along many lines and was felt, by this reporter, acutely.
The reason given for the cancellation was the clamor of member stations for “a magazine-style news show at the middle of the day, something along the lines of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.” But it seems to me Talk of the Nation was meant to give voice not to the Torey Malatias of the world but to the grain farmers of Nebraska, the taxi drivers of Detroit, the P.E. teachers in Denver. It was, that is, Radio for the National Public. No matter what reason given, that NPR is cancelling one of the only shows that did this directly cannot be seen as anything but treachery.
So NPR threw the National Public under the bus. They also threw Neal Conan, the host of Talk of the Nation under the bus. This would not be quite as tragic if Mr. Conan wasn’t so talented. After all, between 1999 and 2008, there were 186 motorcoach fatalities, so lots of people are thrown under the bus. But Mr. Conan is unparalleled in the gentleness with which he queried guests, listened to callers and drew them out. There was never a hint of condescension or agenda. This, I think, is primarily what made the program such a joy to listen to: it envisioned, and enabled, a world in which diametrically opposed demographics—along nearly every metric—could speak. (Contrast with the times when Celeste Headlee has played host and she, infuriatingly, pretends to listen to a caller, then hangs up, thinking if she repeats the caller’s name and location, she is somehow engendering dialogue, which she isn’t.)
Mr. Conan also meant the world to me personally, and I’m not alone in this. Here’s one of the most touching exchanges on NPR I’ve ever heard. It comes from the program “Closing The Circle: Revisiting Stories from 2012.” This is from a farmer named Richard Vernon, in South Union, Kentucky. The exchange happened after Mr. Vernon called in to check up on the man. Their conversation was substantively over but Mr. Vernon didn’t want to get off the phone. You can read below but better to listen:
God bless you, Neal. If you only knew what your program, especially your voice, means to me every day. It reaches out to my heart and my mind and my soul and every one of the people who work for the radio. If it had not been for y’all the last several years, through this recession, there were times in my tractor when my cattle were bawling, hungry for something to eat, and the wind is blowing sideways, 35 mile an hour, snowing, and I don’t have enough feed to give them. And I want to get out of the tractor and give up and walk away and just be lost. But instead I stayed in the tractor and listened to you guys that I can get through this day. So thank you guys for being what you are to all of us, people like us that are just barely hanging on by a thread.
I listen to podcasts of Talk of the Nation as I bike to work, as rosy fingered dawn touches the Hudson, and when I bike home from work, the sun setting over the same. Actually, I alternate between podcasts of the Interdependence Project and Talk of the Nation but, aside from the particulars, they are, to me, one and the same: an hour or two of respect, openness, thoughtfulness, consciousness.
Now NPR is silencing TOTN and we are left only with the sycophantism of Terry Gross, the smugness of Ira Glass and, infuriatingly, the adenoidal whine of Ira Flatow. We are left bereft not only of Neal Conan’s charm and grace but, more importantly, of the chorus of voices to which Talk of the Nation gave space and volume. I’ll keep listening to NPR not because I want to, but because it’s what Neal would have wanted. But I’ll never, I fear, hear again from the Rich Vernons of the world, in the sideways blowing wind, cattle bawling, hanging on by a thread.