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On the need for a Radio Free Europe -- for America
The lyrics to R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe" don't make any real sense. The chorus, of course, returns to the phrase again and again, but otherwise the band's debut single never really had anything to do with the international broadcasting agency of the same name. It might have been a missed opportunity.
■ The purpose of Radio Free Europe (the broadcaster) "is to promote democratic values and institutions and advance human rights by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established". And in several of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Cold-War-era Radio Free Europe reached 30% to 60% of adults every week.
■ There is a nobility of purpose to the handful of international broadcasting agencies that have used the capacity of radio signals to cross borders in order to communicate with people whose governments wanted them to remain in the dark.
■ Humans have a powerful urge to know what's going on. If there's a loud noise, heads turn. If a crowd starts moving, others want to know why. If the lights go out or if storm clouds emerge on the horizon, people are compelled by our nature to look for new information. It is the lack of human interaction that makes solitary confinement so psychologically consequential, and even much milder forms of isolation from "what's happening" are painful to the human psyche.
■ Suppose someone were to apply the mission "to promote democratic values and institutions and advance human rights" not to people living under oppressive regimes, but rather among the public at large in the United States. It is undoubtedly a worthwhile goal: Americans perceive a dearth of faith in democratic institutions generally, and surveys of specific principles of democracy reveal that troublingly large minorities aren't firmly committed to the freedoms of civil society, opposition parties, speech, or the press.
■ In other words, it is sensible to ask what a Radio Free Europe for ourselves might sound like. It would be unlikely to sound similar to either most syndicated talk radio (in which openly anti-democratic voices are overrepresented, especially at the top), nor like the traditional model of public radio (which is gradually learning to broaden its appeal beyond older, left-leaning, and affluent white listeners, but still has work to do).
■ It would need to sound not only broad of mind and curiosity, but also relentlessly live. This is one of the appeals of cable news programming: To have the television tuned to CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC is to feel as though the window is open to the world all the time -- even though those networks tend to have the effect of isolating their viewers inside politics-saturated echo chambers. Life is far more vast than just politics, and it's certainly more than the two-dimensional perspective most often served up in "reporting from Capitol Hill".
■ The mission itself is simple, and more important than we likely give it credit for being. It's a common mistake to think that people are attracted to programming on television and radio because of the content, when in fact most of the appeal -- perhaps 80% of it -- is in the delivery. People are not attracted to Tucker Carlson or Lawrence O'Donnell or Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow because they are saying anything new -- they're tuning in for the equivalent of mental comfort food.
■ If civic-minded funders and organizers really got behind it, a truly vital (as in, both lively and important) programming stream could be created to feed that intense public hunger to feel connected to what's happening right now, while promoting democratic values by talking about the many non-partisan aspects of life, from science and health to money and technology to entertainment and even just the weather. It takes thinking about what ought to be said first, then finding the right fit for how and by whom it could be said in an engaging way. (The BBC has found a way to make a popular show about math; Americans are capable of doing the same.)
■ That we lack such a conversation is a shame, and it's one we once had the initiative to address where it was missing abroad. The evidence is mounting that Americans need to think about looking inward with the same eye to promoting worthwhile values.