Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

Let's Talk: Are NPR Listeners Snooty?

"If Jackson had lived in ancient Rome, would Nero have moonwalked while his city burned?" This is an excerpt from a complaint letter to NPR shortly after Michael Jackson's death and in response to a series of radio stories about the pop culture icon.

The listener was unhappy that broadcast time was devoted to Jackson while other, more important world events were being ignored ("like Uyghur unrest in China, fighting in Mogadishu and dozens of deaths in Afghanistan").

Slate's technology writer Farhad Manjoo can't stand these letters and, even though he's a self-professed NPR groupie, the letter segment on shows like "All Things Considered" make him dislike his fellow public radio listeners. He writes:

Oh, I hate them, hate them, hate them. Every time one of their narrow-minded, classist letters makes it on the air, I contemplate burning my tote bag in protest. The problem, for me, isn't just that some people don't like some things NPR covers. It's that these reflexively snobby pseudo-intellectuals see NPR as their own—a refuge from the mad world outside, a "safe," high-minded palace that should never be sullied by anything more outré than James Taylor (whom, of course, they love). Not only do these letter-writers perpetuate the worst caricature of public radio, but their views don't track with what you actually hear on the air.

In doing research for his article, Manjoo found that the listeners who write in to complain every time NPR does a story "related to pop music, celebrities, technology, or other subjects that appeal to people under 40" are really a small portion of overall listeners.

Manjoo talked to the executive producer of "All Things Considered" for his story:

The first wave of letters tends to be the people who are grumpy about what we've done, particularly pop culture," says Christopher Turpin, the executive producer of All Things Considered. "They feel very strongly that they don't want us getting into the gutter." But that's not the whole story. "What tends to happen is that the day after we air those letters, we get a bigger wave from people who say, 'I loved your piece on Charlie Sheen,' or 'Please, more Ken and Barbie!' " Turpin says. In other words, the grumps are the outliers.

NPR doesn't usually air these kinder letters, Turpin says, because "we don't like to pat ourselves on the back."
What do you think of the letters you hear on NPR complaining about pop culture and technology coverage? Do you often agree with the letter writer or do you roll your eyes because you find them snooty? Do you mind when NPR/KPBS covers the occasional pop culture story?