But why, VPR?

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.

9 thoughts on “But why, VPR?

  1. Stephen Beck

    I stopped listening to VPR/NPR about a year ago. I read something from 7Days, the best of Vermont issue, and they referred to Jane Lindholm as Vermont’s very on Terry Gross. That clinched it. I was done. There is more to it, but in a nut shell that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  2. notinto@vpr

    Agreed. I gave up on them one Sunday morning when they did a promo for a story about what kind of wine someone should bring to a house warming at a vegan household.

  3. katrinkavt

    I am in agreement with you on this one, altho I think Vermont Edition has a good mix of topics. Reporting can be superficial and in some cases, unbalanced. One example: When a reporter leaves a land use hearing after the developer rests – and before the opposition presents their case – that reporter has not “covered” that hearing. The story is about as informative as covering one side of a debate.

    When your core reporting is strong you can entertain a few of these many off-shoots. I expect they are offered to appeal to a wider or younger demographic, while sacrificing (in my opinion) in-depth reporting such as Digger’s EB-5 work. Local papers haven’t the staffing or expertise to do this very often and as you said, we’re counting on these sources for substantial local and state content. John, any chance you could ascertain whether that $8 million will be directed to this end?

  4. rp

    Good post. I thoroughly enjoy most of what VPR produces but as an aging white reasonably incomed male I fit into their target audience. Of course NPR as the major carrier supplies a lot of news/etc. programming but it would be nice to have VPR do some insightful (or is that incite-full?) programming such as frequently happens with Digger and 7Days.

  5. newzjunqie

    When I drove for a living I listened to a mix of music, Coast2Coast am, NHPR 5-6 VPR 6-7 then Q106 Imus. When VPR fundraising drives became increasingly in-your-face aggressive, I simply switched to NHPR. But in contrast vastly differing fundraising styles with VPRs’ a brazenly strongarm machination. At onset, an announcement: We have a deal for you! Hand your money over — sooner rather than later — as in NOW and you won’t have to put up with:
    A. Programming obnoxiously interrupted
    B. Held hostage by tortuously droning sales pitch
    C. Waterboarded if above do not yield desired results
    Sound like a win-win?

    Actually no. ‘Just give us your money and the torture will stop’ doesn’t cut it & reminiscent of dystopian edict ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves’. Personally there is *nothing* I want or need badly enough to be arm-twisted into purchasing. Has a Detroit-style thuggery feel, the more effete “VT Way” which panders primarily to braindead automatons as this would probably not be tolerated by many sane, thinking, conscious persons. Programming is tailored to attract the aforementioned so in actuality a society representing for the most part, compliant Stockholm-Syndromed captives proving majority of supporters must have the mentality of lab-rats, have wondered if they are CIA experimental subjects.

    Some nonprofits especially media outlets, not just VPR, receive public funding & monthly donations, advertising revenue while conducting quarterly fundraising drives. They should be required to prominantly state this on website & during fundraising b/c appear to infer that ALL of their funding comes from donations, an unfair advantage over for-profit MSM which have made drastic cuts & a shell of what they once were as they have no profit. I suggest they become nonprofits — it pays better. News is all I care about, the rest of VPR programming is far away from my reality & world. I tune in to VPR when driving, have great reporters, when JVH left the Herald their news dept took a nosedive, following arrival at VPR news dept improved, news-related shows are excellent.

    NPR is a another publicly funded pravda-like MSM construct which mouths the political & social agenda of the left with warm, friendly propaganda which amounts to brainwashing while also messaging coordinated agenda of foundation sponsors. Linking to BBC further cements the partnership as a globalist accessory. How much of VPRs’ voice is actually coming from the parasytical nonprofit grant-funded community? Not a fan of ‘columnists’ who speak as one boring voice. Mostly a faux-gentry, educated fools club place to call home.

  6. nortryder

    I think you might be confusing “epochal” with “apocryphal”. Other than that you are pretty much right. I stopped listen to most “news” media years ago and the only thing I’ve noticed is that my blood pressure is a bit lower now.

  7. Dave Katz

    Yeah. Driveway retching moment for me was when some woman was describing how “her’ meadow looked so wonderful through the wine in the glass while sitting in the chair on the deck from which all this smug goodyness was beheld…..Oh, and the trials and tribulations of running a bed and breakfast inn.


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