WUNC, NPR – voices of civility in broadcast news

Apr. 26, 2014 @ 07:25 PM

Public radio listeners – and there are lots of us in this area – are suffering through the price we pay for our passion last week and this. It is the fund drive, that much lampooned staple of listener-financed radio.

Even public radio fixtures such as the venerable Garrison Keillor on
“Prairie Home Companion” or the folks on the quiz show “Wait, Wait,

Don’t Tell Me” take good-natured swipes at the relentlessly earnest, sometimes wacky spiels that station personalities and volunteers invoke to remind us that while listening is cost-free, operating public radio stations most certainly is not.

The fund drive catches me in a time of particular gratitude for our local public radio station, WUNC, and for National Public Radio, the network that provides many hours of programming for local stations.

For me, at least, and I suspect for many other serious news junkies, the broadcast environment for world and national news has gone steadily down hill in recent years. As Leonard Pitts wrote on these pages recently, even CNN, which maintained a bit of even-handedness as opposed to “MSNBC’s perennially aggrieved liberalism (and) Fox’s angry-all-the-time conservatism,” plunged to new depths, so to speak, in its hyperventilating coverage of the lost Malaysian jetliner.

NPR’s newscasts remain models of thoroughness and breadth. Reports are sober, solid and informative. Interviewers are civil and respectful, even as they deftly probe the inconsistencies or evasions of politicians and bureaucrats. Seldom if ever are voices raised or do interviewers preen and showboat. 

NPR’s anchors and reporters aren’t without the occasional leavening dose of humor, and newscasts treat entertainment, popular culture and sports with a spot-on blend of seriousness and playfulness.

So I am deeply grateful that WUNC  -- an NPR affiliate since its resurrection in April 1976 -- provides substantial blocks of  NPR news, including the pillars of the network’s  daily news coverage, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

There are other reasons to cherish WUNC, and many of us do. It has the fifth-highest percentage of listeners in its market of any public radio station in the country. It leads the Durham-Raleigh market for listeners in morning-drive time, almost unheard of for public radio, and is at or near the top of the rankings for the entire day.

About one in six radio listeners tune in to WUNC each week. In the past three months, it topped the market in January and trailed only country-music station WQDR in February and March. There must be a lot of NPR mugs and tote bags throughout the Triangle.

For years after its beginnings as an intermittent AM station based in UNC’s Swain Hall, the station was student-run and offered an eclectic mix of often campus-focused programming. (Carl Kassel, for 30 years anchor of “Morning Edition,” began his 50-year broadcast career at WUNC).

Plagued with equipment problems, the station went off the air altogether in 9170, only to re-emerge six years later as an NPR affiliate. It programming can be heard from High Point to the Outer Banks.

Aside from its NPR programs and those from other national providers, it produces a popular stable of local programming -- “Back Porch Music” since 1977, for example, or “The People’s Pharmacy” since 1981. Frank Stasio has made the mid-day “State of Things” a lively and provocative program -- again, with civility and nary a raised voice.

For all that, I gladly endure the periodic pleas for money. As we’ll hear repeatedly through this and every fund drive, it’s our support that makes that programming possible.

Many of us would be lost without it.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.