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The History and Politics of Public Radio

NPR is not the first radio station. Public radio has been around for a long time. In the 1910s universities began to transmit weather updates to farmers. When New York’s WNYC was established in 1920, one of its founders suggested that the government establish large stations throughout each region and “cut out the weaker, less-reliable stations that broadcast poor programs.”

Drawing on both original research and earlier scholarship (including—full disclosure—my own work), James T. Bennett’s The History and Politics of Public Radio surveys those two strains of noncommercial broadcasting, one scrappy and bottom-up, the other centralist and elitist, with an eye on the subsidies and regulations that have boosted the centralist tradition. It covers funding fights (which do not always fall along expected left/right lines), political manipulations (Washington’s funds often come with Washington’s strings), and historical ironies (jazz has become an NPR staple, but the New Deal–era advocates of educational broadcasting “absolutely Hated jazz”).

This book does not dismiss the concept of noncommercial radio. Instead, Bennett’s libertarian critique argues that noncommercial radio can be detached from the state—indeed, that it’s better that way.