ATC went through a substantial rise in audience in the two years I was there. The launching of Morning Edition brought a lot more attention to NPR in general, and the election and dramatic events of those two years certainly helped. But our regional reporters also helped increase our national audience and our editorial policy hooked more listeners. Provocative commentaries increased our audience, even if people were upset by what they heard.
The most controversial renegade I put on ATC was Richard Elman, my old friend and colleague from New York City. As I’ve said before, Richard was not political, but he had a wicked eye for hypocrisy and he mocked the sacred instead of the profane. Frank Mankiewicz and most NPR staff reporters, hated Elman’s commentaries, but if you walked into the newsroom when Richard was on the air every reporter had stopped working and was listening to him. I would obnoxiously point out that Richard was great radio!
I could not broadcast everything Richard sent me. In one commentary on President Reagan, Richard said the president was made of “poly-scrotal Bakelite material” and was operated by a box in his back, which is why Nancy was always standing next to him with her arm around him. Richard’s point was that Reagan was a puppet, but even I knew this metaphor was a bridge too far for public radio. If anyone has any old Richard Elman commentaries, let me know.
Mankiewicz complained about Richard’s commentaries and eventually ordered me to take them off
the air. I did so, but kept Richard broadcasting on ATC as a book reviewer with a much more conventional tone. I was sitting in a bathing suit with Mankiewicz around a pool in Los Angeles at a NPR national convention when someone came up and told Mankiewicz that Elman was still on the air. He turned red in the face as he looked at me. Without thinking, I suggested, “Hemmingway defined courage as grace under fire.” Mankiewicz had the courage to laugh but Elman was off the air for good.
I had already ruffled NPR’s feathers. On March 30th, 1981, only a few weeks into the new administration, John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan. We devoted the first half hour of ATC to the events themselves. In the second half hour we covered the reaction to the attack, with comments from his daughter, historians, political leaders in Washington and the usual commentators.
The Associate Press that day carried stories that in classrooms across the country African-American students had stood and cheered when they heard of the attack. We broadcast one 30 second comment by an African America woman saying that Reagan’s death wouldn’t matter to her, because Reagan had never done anything for her people. The secret service arrived twenty minutes later. Much to their irritation, one of my producers had destroyed the original tape, which had come from a small station in the Midwest.
Many NPR stations were infuriated that we broadcast this woman’s comments. I was asked to participate in a conference call with the managers of more than three hundred stations. I explained that our job was to report the news, not to make it, and this was something our audience needed to know. It may not have satisfied everyone, but it shut them up.
My most egregious decision was to broadcast the phrase “mother-fucker” during the evening news broadcast. Here’s the context. We were doing a story on Vietnam Veterans’ poetry, and the most powerful poem ended with those words directed at the audience, “You killed him you mother-fucker.” The phrase was essential to the impact of the poem. In my mind, it was the only phrase that encapsulated the obscenity of that prolonged war that destroyed so many of our young and millions of Vietnamese. I knew the broadcast might get us in trouble, so I voiced the poem myself.
Americans’ attitude toward “the seven words you can never say on radio or television” seems peculiar to me. First of all, the censored words all have Anglo-Saxon roots while the acceptable words have Latin roots. Rome began its final conquest of the Anglo Saxons in 43 AD. They had such a profound effect on English culture that it is still okay to refer to a woman’s “vagina” or a man’s “penis” (both words with Latinate roots) but not to refer to the same objects by their Anglo-Saxon words “cunt” and “cock” – which, incidentally, are warmer and friendlier. Still forbidding those words on American radio and TV in 2017 is an example of enduring cultural imperialism!
All that being said, I should have run the decision by Barbara, but I knew she’d veto it. No one on my staff tried to stop me. Broadcasting those words reminds me of how much incredible freedom we had during the two years I produced ATC, because management was completely focused on making a success of Morning Edition.
There were consequences. The mandatory conference call with station managers did not go well. Barbara exported me to the position of Executive Producer of All Things Considered. When someone found money for a long-held NPR fantasy, a television version of ATC, they asked me to produce it. Fearful of my editorial unpredictability, they made Al Pulmutter my executive producer with a heavy hand.
We called it All Things Considered on Main Street, a hodge-podge of stories with no particular theme. There was some terrific journalism, such as Bill Buzenberg’s piece on immigrant detention centers and some entertaining pieces like Cajon music in Louisiana. We got a respectful but unenthusiastic review in the New York Times. A second attempt was unlikely. It was time to move on.