Vermont Public Radio is the most richly endowed media operation in the state. It sits securely atop the nonprofit world as well, and many nonprofits privately bemoan VPR’s ability to suck all the oxygen out of the room.
It does a lot of good stuff. But once again, it has taken a step that makes me question its civic-mindedness. We think of VPR as a news organization; but when you look at how it spends its time and resources, you have to conclude that what it really is, is a lifestyle brand for comfortable white folks. VPR has three primary functions, in this order:
1. Outlet for NPR and other network programming. Carriage fees eat up a large percentage of VPR’s budget.
2. Producer of infotainment programming aimed at those near the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
3. News organization.
The latest emission from Your Favorite Lifestyle Brand is a podcast entitled “But Why?” It’s a platform for children to submit questions about anything and everything, and provide engaging and easily digestible answers.
This follows VPR’s other recent infotainment initiatives:
— “Awesome Etiquette”, a five-minute filler piece for Weekend Edition Sunday, airing right before…
— “The VPR Cafe”, devoted to those of us fortunate enough to eat for pleasure, not survival.
— “Art Hounds”, a couple minutes of listener-suggested arts events. Quite often, the suggester turns out to be someone associated with the event, but whatever.
— “Live From the Fort”, a series of short performances recorded in VPR’s studies, usually featuring Vermont musicians.
— “Vermont Garden Journal”, a weekly tidbit of gardening advice.
— “Outdoor Radio”, a monthly feature about “the sounds and science of nature.”
— “Wintry Mix”, a podcast devoted to winter sports and related things.
— The program most desperately in need of a new title, “Weekly Conversation on the Arts,” billed as “your window into the Vermont arts community.”
There’s more as well. And some of these things are worthwhile. It’s hard to argue with devoting some effort to the arts, since it’s such a big part of the Vermont scene. Providing a classical music network is a fine thing for public radio to do. And hey, if they didn’t have Friday Night Jazz, their staff would be 100 percent lily-white.
(Seriously, the only black dude does the jazz show? That’s diversity, 1972 style.)
But when you add them all together, you have an organization whose mission is less to inform than to divert. And I’m not even mentioning its massive capital campaign, aimed at building an $8 million headquarters complex.
I mean, we’re in the middle of an epochal election for Vermont. We are experiencing perhaps the most complete top-level turnover in state history, and the two major parties are putting forth strongly divergent visions of our state’s present and future. Couldn’t VPR have beefed up its actual, y’know, news department? Even just temporarily?
The media landscape is in the midst of a seismic shift. Newspapers are in decline; local commercial radio is nearly extinct; TV can only do so much (and Vermont’s local TV news is a hell of a lot more informative than most).
There are only three media organizations that are sustaining themselves, or perhaps even in a position to grow. They are VTDigger, VPR, and Seven Days. With the decline of other media, they have additional responsibility. If they don’t step up to the plate, nobody else will.
VTDigger and Seven Days do a lot with their available resources. But VPR is in the strongest position of them all, and it’s failing to fulfill its potential. There’s nobody else that can do what they could do, if they cut back on the infotainment and devoted more resources to news.
It’s not that the news department doesn’t try. They do. And they’ve got good people. But in an organization as deep-pocketed as VPR, and with its seemingly endless ability to raise money, the news department should be larger and more robust. There should be more local programming devoted to issues — more than the few minutes of local content on weekday mornings and afternoons plus “Vermont Edition,” which is sometimes serious and sometimes pillowy-soft.
This isn’t the first time I’ve rung this bell, and it probably won’t be the last. And as I’ve said before, the immortal words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben:
With great power comes great responsibility.
VPR has great power. I expect more from them. They’re not delivering.