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NPR vs. KCBS (News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, October 2012)

KQED radio vs. KCBS (with a brief nod to KGO) (written for BECA 370, News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, October 2012)

Our example of public radio is the San Francisco NPR affiliate, KQED, whose programming follows the familiar NPR format. Reports and shows are announced by a deep, sonorous baritone voice with an air of detached sophistication. The transitional music clips tend towards cool jazz, chamber music, or mellow electronica. Everyone speaks with a cool demeanor; the tone reassures listeners that they are smart, discerning adults. A good example of the opposite approach would be KGO, whose streaming trailers emphasize loud booming drums and crunching distorted guitars pounding out atonal hip-hop-influenced heavy metal sounds while announcers shout headlines urgently over the music. The emphasis here seems to be on a steady stimulation of the adrenals; the excitement and passion are sustained continuously, whatever the subject. However, on the day that I am writing this report, KGO is covering the 49ers game, so in this paper, commercial news radio will instead be represented by KCBS, who offer a less extreme contrast.

The top headlines on KQED at 2 PM on Sunday, October 14, 2012, were: 1) the death of former Senator Arlen Specter; 2) Obama and Romney taking a break from their campaigns to prepare for the next debate; 3) Egypt’s President backing off from ousting the unpopular prosecutor general because the judiciary opposed the move, suggesting to KQED that there is some balance of power within the current government (an angle not noted by Al Jazeera the day before); 4) an attack by gunmen in a northern Nigerian village that left 12 people dead; 5) families of 9/11 victims being invited to view upcoming terrorist trials on closed circuit TV; and 6) Ben Bernanke defending Federal Reserve policies at the IMF meeting in Tokyo.

The headlines were followed by a program called “On The Media”, which focused on media manipulation and analyzed how low information voters make their choices among candidates. An experiment was performed by a psychologist showing pictures of unfamiliar candidates to a group of volunteers. The subjects were asked whom they would vote for. We are told that the participants were not necessarily successful at picking winners, but were very accurate at picking losers. One question they were given was, “Which candidate looks more likely to attack you physically?” The one they chose tended overwhelmingly to be the loser, which leads me to wonder how they explain Chris Christie.

The hosts of the show pointed out that historically, the US economy does better under Democratic administrations, yet Republicans are still thought of as being better guardians of the economy. (Is this still the case? They did not cite any current polls.) The point of the show was that a large group of citizens do not make voting decisions logically, and are thus easy targets for manipulation by media described in the show as “craven”. The psychologist then said, “Voters cannot manage the task of competent retrospection.” While I often feel this way myself, I suspect that rather than encouraging citizens to use their critical thinking skills when following the news, the effect seems more to make NPR listeners feel superior to the other people out there who aren’t as smart as them. Real problems such as how corporate money is used to manipulate opinion are not addressed. Instead we’re told it’s merely a matter of all those silly voters who don’t know what’s good for them.

KCBS gets the listener’s attention with trumpet fanfares and fast whirling 16th-note rhythms, stopping short of the bombast of KGO. The announcers are assertive and relentlessly cheerful, even when they are reporting upsetting news. There was no overlap at all with KQED on KCBS’s top stories at 3 PM, which were: 1) Felix Baumgartner’s successful skydive from the outer atmosphere; 2) a story on Darryl Issa’s investigation of the Obama administration’s handling of the Libyan consulate attack that began with the phrase “Democrats are defending Obama” but did not quote any or explain how they were doing so; 3) a popular local job fair; 4) a new biographical comic book about Olivia Newton-John emphasizing breast cancer awareness; and 5) the Ford Motor Company seeking out proposals for a “Green grant” they’re offering to environmental innovators. A segment called “Animal Update” talked about chemotherapy treatments for pets. The traffic report followed. Then we had a special “law report” segment that noted a controversy on the legality of the decision of a school to eliminate funding for women’s volleyball and replace it with cheerleading. (A judge ruled cheerleading was not a legitimate sport.) The remaining time in this sample was filled with a local story of a 19-year-old student who fell from a third story balcony in Rohnert Park; should we blame unsafe balconies or teen drinking?

Overall, I felt that KCBS was neither great nor horrible, but that NPR is not as brilliant as they appear to believe they are. Blaming the victim is not a sufficient media critique. Dig deeper, please.