Don’t get me wrong, I love NPR. I ought to, I’m the vanguard of their new target demographic, liberal, affluent, tech-savvy, inhabiting a sort of DMZ between Gen-X and the Millennials, raised listening to Terry Gross, Car Talk, Weekend Edition, The National Press Club, but those were my parents’ shows. I perked up for This American Life, and the wry irreverence of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me has been given a youthful makeover in Ask Me Another, with a healthy dose of “things that should appeal to my ilk.”
While PBS continues to navigate badly between the Scylla of the merely uncool, desperate cable-inspired knock-offs, and the Charybdis of deathly uncool reruns of The Lawrence Welk show, all aggressively sponsored by a panoply of the worst corporations in the world, like Chevron and ADM, NPR seems to have transcended, and found a real audience. All the old radio shows are new again, and for the most part, relevant, and plugged in, whatever that means.
So I drink my no-whip mocha, shout-singing trivia answers back to the car stereo in the manner of hit songs from the 90s, and look forward to the next episode of Radiolab. Radiolab is everything that PBS is not. It is fresh, it is progressive, it is artistic, effortlessly cool, rewarding the listener with a healthy sense of having confronted problems of the human condition in a complex and thoughtful manner, and having learned something. It is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America. It is not boring, or dry. I enjoy listening to Radiolab. Radiolab is a seductive, destructive, irresponsible and harmful lie.
Radiolab is the TED talk, and the Malcolm Gladwell just-so story; it is the Thomas Friedman op-ed, the black turtleneck, the easy answer. It’s low-calorie entertainment dressed up as learning, and rotten to the core. Working backwards, it masks all its sponsorships, the usual underwriting credits, in answering machine messages from ordinary listeners. Breaking out of the standard format of bland underwriting messages makes them more seductive and effective, while simultaneously making the listener even more complicit in the transaction. It joins advertising and content at the hip, polluting the content, which itself is massaged with the same techniques. Combine this with the Radiolab auditorium tours, and you have an institution primarily financed by its entertainment value masquerading as a public good.
Surely there are better targets for opprobrium, one suggests. Lash out at entertainment that doesn’t even pick up intellectual subjects. What about the 24-hours of endless “two-minutes hate” that pretends to news on cable channels? Doesn’t Radiolab conjure up a thoughtfulness in its listeners, introducing the masses to sympathetic scientists, fascinating conundrums, the multiplicity of our universe? How can one compare Radiolab to the coal-fired stupidity of a Marco Rubio answering with a pearly grin, “I’m not a scientist, man,” then contradicting science?
It may be that the name “Radiolab” was meant to rhyme metaphorically with “dabble” – just a couple of guys playing around in the recording studio. But what it says is “I am a scientist.” The show lives on this whiff of credential. The sound-effects, the back and forth conversation, the faux-one-host-explaining-it-to-the-other, as if more informed, the reenactments, documentary phone calls, all these are tools used to fabricate believability. Believability in a story.
Even an expert’s questioning is levered in, as in a story made from an older live show about Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds.” The expert is allowed in his own words to undercut the entire thrust of their narrative, expanding what is the well-known, dog bites man story of panic into the more complex story of battling media (newspaper vs. radio), cleverly announced then dismissed in a way that gives the illusion of the challenge being addressed without actually deviating an iota from their original track.
Simple, naïve, and conventional narratives are dressed up as complex thought, and audience and announcer alike allowed to end on a self-congratulating smile. In Radiolab and similar entertainments, the middle and upper-middle-class intelligentsia are allowed to dodge hard questions, and continue a comfortable life, satisfied with the true-enough, and the prima-facie convincing simulacrum. The soft danger of such easy thinking is more deadly for society than the open opposition of the ignorant and angry.
I’d never understood the violent persecution of the nearly ideologically similar that dominates many intellectual and political disciplines. But lazy generalization, and the embrace of corporate convention are ripe for a purge from liberalism. The only beneficiaries of thinking that the hard work has already been done, are those who already maintain themselves in a position of power. Bertrand Russell said, “Revolutionary action may be unnecessary, but revolutionary thought is indispensable…” I love NPR, but this pseudo-wisdom of the comfortable crowd is going to wreck theworld. Radiolab is enjoyable, but not everything enjoyable is also good.
Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at The New York Times, and publishes the newsletter, “Don’t Read Me” (http://www.tinyletter.com/benjaminharnett). In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Wag’s Revue, and the Columbia Review.