The Metaphysics of NPR
Thoughts after Touring Its Headquarters
by Jay McDaniel
The Metaphysics of NPR:
A Whiteheadian Interpretation
The world is a republic of stories. It is nested within the universe which is also a republic of stories. Planets are stories, stars are stories, and galaxies are stories. The stories are infinitely varied and always they are intersecting with one another There are stories within stories within stories.
Each person is a story, too. Or, actually, many stories. Each person is a universe of stories. Some people find it easy to tell their stories and others find it hard. Some stories are sad and some are beautiful, but most are both.
People's stories can be communicated through news and analysis, music and art. Sometimes news tells a story better than art and music, and sometimes art and music tell a story better than news. Music is especially helpful because music is what feelings sound like. But all things considered, It is best to keep in mind all three forms of story-telling: news, music, and art. All are about life and life is about stories.
As we listen carefully to the stories of others, we are moved and touched, especially if the stories are carefully told. Our stories change in hearing their stories; they become part of us. By the power of their stories we are empowered to make meaningful stories of your own lives, to enjoy satisfying relations with others, and to serve the common good of the world. We seek to turn the republic of stories into a democracy of stories, with all voices heard and no arm raised toward another except in greeting.
As we listen we rightly try to pay attention to stories of those who might not otherwise be heard. We feel beckoned by something deep and wide, inside them but also more than them. We want to help build communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
It all begins with the listening.
From the NPR website
"National Public Radio will serve the individual; it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness."
-- Bill Siemering
William "Bill" Siemering was the first Director of Programming of National Public Radio, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He invented the first signature program of public radio, All Things Considered. This followed his authorship of the new public network's first statement of its mission and goals. Siemering went on to create other signature programs including SoundPrint and the predecessor to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which he helped transform from a local to a national program.
NPR, formerly National Public Radio, is a privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization that serves as a national syndicator to a network of 900 public radio stations in the United States.
NPR produces and distributes news and cultural programming. Individual public radio stations are not required to broadcast all NPR programs that are produced. Most public radio stations broadcast a mixture of NPR programs, content from rival providers American Public Media, Public Radio International and Public Radio Exchange, and locally produced programs. NPR's flagships are two drive time news broadcasts, Morning Edition and the afternoon All Things Considered; both are carried by most NPR member stations, and are two of the most popular radio programs in the country.
George Clooney listens to NPR and I do, too.
I'd love to say that George was in the lobby on the day I visited NPR headquarters in Washington DC; and in a way he was there, at least in the photograph on the wall as I entered. I wish we could have talked but I knew why George was smiling. He likes the spirit and the philosophy -- I will call it the metaphysics -- of NPR. I do, too.
By metaphysics I do not mean something above or outside the world but rather the first principles and guiding ideals of things in the world. Corporations and churches, families and governments, shopping malls and country stores, households and farmer's markets -- all have metaphysics: that is, visions of the way the world is and the way it ought to be.
My oldest son, Byrd McDaniel, likes the metaphysics of NPR as well. I was visiting the headquarters because Byrd was doing a summer internship there. I took a picture of him at his desk which I sent to his grandmother along with the photo of George. She promptly responded that George looks a lot like Byrd, which was her way of complimenting George.
As I took the tour of NPR headquarters I wanted to ask my tour guide about NPR's metaphysics, but there were about twelve of us in the group taking the tour and I got the feeling the others would have been put off by the question. They wanted concrete information not abstract ideals.
If you want facts about NPR at a quick glance, I recommend About NPR on its website. Indeed, its website is excellent, averaging about 21 million unique visitors a month. I learned on the tour that NPR seeks to be at the forefront of digital innovation, and it recognizes that many of its younger viewers -- my son Byrd, for example -- are more prone to check websites and download podcasts than listen in the car, partly because they take public transportation. The leading edge seems to be the development of NPR related smartphone applications.
As the tour guide talked to me about this, it occurred to me that the impulse to innovate may be part of NPR's metaphysics. It reminded me of the philosopher Whitehead, who says that that the future of the universe is open even for God. I'm not sure what people at NPR think about God but I do know that they are open to novelty. In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead writes: "The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe." The folks at NPR are not pure conservatives.
So what is the metaphysics of NPR? I offer my own version in the column on the left, and as I do so let me acknowledge that not everybody likes NPR and that some people may well loathe it. There are critics on the left and right.
Critics on the Left and Right
For example, on the left there is Noam Chomsky, who thinks that NPR is limited to a narrow spectrum of liberal views and polite journalism, failing to inform Americans of what is really happening in the world today: namely the domination of the world by corporate capitalism and American imperialism. See Noam Chomsky Comments about National Public Radio. On the right there is Fox News, which thinks NPR is, in Charles Krauthammer's words, the polite academic left of America. Krauthammer is disturbed not only by the content of some of NPR's views but also by what he sees as a smugness or self-righteousness in its tone. See Charles Krauthammer on The O'Reilly Factor.
As I listen to these critics I suspect that there is partial truth in what they say. While I generally like the content and practices of NPR, I do not want to pretend that it perfectly embodies the ideals it espouses. But I do think that the ideals of NPR -- the aspirations -- are decent and that, more often than not, NPR approximates these ideals much better than, say, many cable news networks. When it comes to evaluating an organization, it seems important to recognize its ideals and honor them. The words of Bill Siemering, NPR's first Director of Programming and inventor of All Things Considered, offers the key. You will find them in the column on the left.
A Republic of Stories, Infinitely Varied
If we take his words seriously, we are invited to see the world in a certain organic, differentiated, and dynamic way. It is a world consisting of experiences and differences, stories and connections, some of which are terrifying, some of which are beautiful, but all of which are worth hearing. My own version of NPR's metaphysics is an amplification of what Siemering says.
You will note that I speak of the world as a republic of stories. I borrow the phrase "republic of stories" from the community arts writer and activist, Ann Goldbard, who uses the phrase in her recent book The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future.
Here is an excerpt from her book:
"We are in the midst of seismic cultural change. In the old paradigm, priorities are shaped by a mechanistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured, and weighed; human beings are pressured to adapt to the terms set by their own creations. Macroeconomics, geopolitics, and capital are glorified. They form the foreground of the world depicted by powerful institutions: banks, militaries, energy corporations, major news media. People are expected to make sacrifices for profit-margin, to go to war for oil, to accept environmental damage that threatens future generations—and often, to do all this for no palpable reward beyond “improved economic indicators.” Within the old paradigm how we feel, how we connect, how we spend our time, how we make our way and come to know each other—these are all part of the scenery.
In the new paradigm, culture is given its true value. The movements of money and armies may receive close attention from politicians and media voices, but at ground-level, we care most about human stories, one life at a time. Our deepest debates, our obsessions, our consolations, and our most purely discretionary choices about where to deploy our resources and attention are conveyed through sound, image, and movement, in the vocabulary of art."
My point, then, is that, with its focus on art and life and music, NPR is an exception to media voices which pay attention primarily to money and armies at the expense of human stories. NPR seeks to give us fact and stories. And it invites us into a certain kind of epistemology: a way of knowing.
Whereas knowing in so much of the Western world highlighted the role of seeing in human life, NPR -- through its radio programs and its podcasts -- invites to remember the primacy of listening, of hearing other people and paying attention not only to what they say but to their tone of voice and what they cannot say, but sometimes (as in the Tiny Desk concerts) can sing.
A metaphysics of stories begins with the listening because it is only through listening that we can learn about other people's stories. To be sure, we can listen with our eyes as well as our ears, with our feelings as well as our reasoning, but always there is a reception of something new and unfamiliar, something that is new to us and informs. And alwayw we will bring to our listening a delight in multiplicity as well as togetherness, in differences as well as commonalities.
Of course when we hear stories we may first think of human stories: that is, the joys and struggles of individual human beings as they move from birth to death. Or we may think of communities of human beings which likewise have their stories: neighborhoods, villages, cities, states, and nations. But it is also true that hills and rivers, trees and stars, have their stories.
At least this is what the philosopher Whitehead proposes. He proposes that all actual entities in the universe are stories which inherit from the past and add to the future. If he is right, then when we listen to stories we are listening to the way things really are. Even science is a way of listening to stories and trying to discern the patterns they replicate over time. People are stories, but molecules are, too.
It seems to me that NPR invites a recognition of the primacy of story in human life and, perhaps, in non-human life, too. It is not unique in this. Many organizations want to help us hear and respond to stories in caring and respectful ways. Occasionally churches and synagogues and mosques do this, too. They can supplement the mission of NPR.
This doesn't mean that facts are not important. It just means that facts are about stories. One of the ways that people tell stories is by singing them and hearing others sing them. We best close, not with any more of this analysis, but with a Tiny Desk Concert by Adele. She tells stories, too.