A wake-up call to Vermont Public Radio

What follows is a tough assessment of our state’s public radio outlet. First, let me make clear that VPR is a strong organization that does a lot of good things. It’s my #1 spot on the radio dial. But in the words of Uncle Ben:

With great power comes great responsibility

VPR occupies an outsized space in our media landscape. It is the only media outlet that is not seriously strapped for money. It is deeply resourced and amply staffed.

VPR occupies a King Kong-sized space in the nonprofit landscape. It is a fundraising machine. It barely has to even ask for money*, so loyal and responsive is its listenership. When it does have to ask, it has a monster-sized megaphone at its disposal. I have no idea how VPR’s success impacts other nonprofits — especially those with parallel missions, like VTDigger or the Vermont Symphony Orchestra or the Vermont Humanities Council — but I do know that VPR rakes it in.

*Its spring fund drive was cancelled after listeners responded overwhelmingly to brief pre-drive pitches; its summer drive was whittled to practically nothing. Most public radio stations would kill for a response like that.

Numbers? Well,in FY 2013 (the most recent figures available), VPR’s total revenues were $8.27 million. Its neighbor to the east, New Hampshire Public Radio, which serves a population twice as large, took in $6 million that year. Of course, NHPR has to compete with other public radio services in all of its markets; with the exception of the Connecticut River Valley, VPR has a public radio monopoly. Plus, it’s the only NPR affiliate that reaches the Montreal market.

Anyway, that gives you a taste of VPR’s financial might. Now, remember the words of Uncle Ben:

With great power comes great responsibility

By that standard, VPR falls short.

It is overstaffed (especially in management), its news/talk operation isn’t very productive (given available resources*), it carries an air of insularity and self-satisfaction, and in many ways it seems to be going in the wrong direction.

*NHPR produces two daily hour-long programs to VPR’s one, and its news operation is more productive and more hard-news oriented than VPR’s.

A lot of this has been floating around in my mind for a long time. But what crystallized it all was VPR’s newest local program: Awesome Etiquette.

Really.

“Awesome” = word used by public radio programmers desperate to youthify their audience.

“Etiquette” = effete, clearly aimed at VPR’s core demographic of comfortable white folks.

Awesome Etiquette joins a lengthy list of VPR content that’s soft, feature-oriented, and clearly aimed at its core demographic of comfortable white folks. Other examples, in no particular order:

Art Hounds, Gardening Journal, VPR Cafe, Eye on the Night Sky, Outdoor Radio, Live From the Fort, Conversation on the Arts, Public Post, and the daily Commentaries, its roster dominated by comfortable white folks. In addition, VPR’s flagship “Vermont Edition” spends a lot of its time on arts, culture, and features.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these programs. But:

With great power comes great responsibility

When I look at the whole list, and add in the fact that some of the News Department’s product is on the softer side, I see a media powerhouse that is underserving its audience and failing to justify its dominant position in our media and nonprofit landscapes. When I look at the output of struggling outlets like the Times Argus, Rutland Herald, and Burlington Free Press, and at what VTDigger manages to produce with a fraction of VPR’s financial heft, then I conclude that our public radio service is falling short of its potential and failing to fulfill its mission.

VPR seems intent on becoming a lifestyle brand more than a platform for serious news. In addition to the lengthy list of soft programming, it also organizes a vacation trip or two every year featuring a VPR personality, plus numerous in-state meet-and-greets with VPR staff. Those events are designed to inculcate “donor loyalty” — more and bigger gifts from its core demographic of, well, you know. They also send a subtle message that Our Major Donors Are More Important Than Other People.

I repeat, VPR does a lot of good stuff. Its staff includes a lot of good, talented folks. But if the core mission of journalism is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, well, VPR spends a lot of its time and treasure comforting the comfortable. And one more time, say it with me:

With great power comes great responsibility

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9 thoughts on “A wake-up call to Vermont Public Radio

    1. Amanda Legare

      Hi Bud – I agree 100 percent. The only time ‘DEV asks for money is for other causes. So in turn we have to support their advertisers, who they are now calling, as does VPR, “underwriters.”

      Reply
    2. Dave Katz

      Don’t know, for sure, but Ken Squire would be happy to hear that. His WCVT was not a commercial success, sadly, but he sure took particular delight in blacking the eyes of the yup-meisters who run VPR. I haven’t tuned in VPR in a looong while–it speaks to an exclusive and influential subset of the Vermont audience, and is quite content to mirror, support, and bolster that group’s assumptions and preconceptions.

      Reply
  1. brucepost

    Thank you for highlighting Mr. Dooley’s standard for journalism: “… comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable….” Perhaps when a non-profit has a Board of Directors that is, shall we say, made up of many of the “comfortable” set, journalistic punches get pulled.

    Reply
  2. Matt

    Some very interesting thoughts. I remember years ago that someone told me former VPR prez Mark Vogelsang was a Republican, something that surprised me coming, as we were, off of the 1990s fights against public funding. That anecdote – is it true? – has always connected with my perception of VPR as not being willing to go very far outside of the proverbial box.

    Unless you live, as I did for years, in Central Vermont, you have the choice of picking up the interesting program on WAMC on our west, NHPR on our east, and even a touch of WFCR in WMass in the extreme south. Yes, their programming is much more vibrant and their reporting is a bit more edgy.

    Is their lack of vigor and relevance perhaps because they are fat with cash and therefore comfortable? Or because we are nearly the oldest state – with lots of comfortable retirees with moderate-Democrat/-Republican sensibilities? Having left my 30s behind, I’m no youth, but – with the exception of Vermont Edition most of the time – the other features you mention are a giant snooze. (Charlie Nardozy on gardening: let me get my pillow, thank you.) They do seem to be directing their programming choices to retirement homes in Stowe and Shelburne. On the other hand, some of the most astute consumers of public radio and classical music flee the VPR choices when in their homes, opting to stream public or public-style radio from around the country.

    I wonder: Are they so well-off because they avoid funky? If they scheduled a Saturday afternoon program of live music with a young, upbeat, international (read NON-WHITE) flavor generated by the multi-ethnic youth of Chittenden County, for instance, would their financial spigot dry up? How big are the risks to VPR for trying something edgy?

    Reply
  3. Chuck

    I listen to the VPR BBC World Service stream over the net. Perhaps, the powers that be at VPR should listen to that stream and learn.

    Reply

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