Capitalizing On Capitalism

Jul 1, 2015

Public radio is ready for capitalism. - Ira Glass
Host & Executive Producer of This American Life

This American Life creator Ira Glass recently caused a ruckus in public media circles when he told a reporter covering an April event designed to attract potential podcast funders: “My hope is that we can move away from a model of asking listeners for money and join the free market. I think we’re ready for capitalism, which made this country so great. Public radio is ready for capitalism.”

Public media idealists bristled at the notion, lighting up social media sites to criticize Glass for selling out.

In a recent issue of Current, a publication dedicated to covering public media issues, Glass wrote a commentary to clarify his remarks saying, “I did not mean that public radio should abandon its mission and shoot instead for ratings and profits. I’m a public radio lifer... Our mission is everything to me.” Glass went on to explain how recent public radio creations such as Serial and Invisibilia have changed the game and now enable public radio to attract significant new revenue from underwriters and sponsors. Glass further clarified, “I’m not advocating a cartoony and stupid version of embracing capitalism. I see a huge middle ground, where we keep our mission and our ideals, and bring in more money using the conventional tools of the market economy... I don’t think we’re heading into some corny apocalypse version of public media where our values will fly out the door. I think public radio will handle this new revenue the way we’ve handled all the money we’ve brought in until now: We’ll use it to make the same idealistic and ambitious stuff we’ve always made.”

Frankly, it’s laughable for me to think of Ira Glass as a sellout. Of all the talented people in public radio, Glass has been our most inspired innovator, not only creating compelling new programs, but entire new genres. Indeed, the two podcast hits spawned from Glass’ This American Life team, Serial and Invisibilia, are examples of Glass’ creative genius. Part in-depth journalism, part radio drama, part science lesson, these programs crystalize public radio’s opportunity to attract a new generation of listeners. Tired of the mind-numbing drone of reality TV shows and middle-of-the-road pablum, a hungry audience is ready for an authentic portrayal of life on planet earth – full of nuance and shades of gray. And, Ira Glass and his protégés of writers and producers are ready to deliver. I hope Glass attracts plenty of new underwriting support, and I can’t wait to see how he’ll use it to create the next programs we’ll all be talking about.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s executive director.