01.25.14

Shows on NPR, Ranked in Order From Glorious to Unbearable

In this unscientific evaluation of public radio programs, a list of the exquisitely terrifying tales, the twee never-ending stories, and the anchor who’s the only voice in the room.

Full disclosure: I contribute to my local affiliate often enough that I am always awash in totes, and I’ve worked on a few creative projects for them. But, more importantly, I have spent approximately 2,378,271 hours to date listening to public radio while sitting in traffic jams. Here, now, are the results of an exhaustive listening study stretching back to 1998. We’ll start with the great, head to the good and end with the atrocious.

Fresh Air

The good: Terry Gross’s supernatural ability to get people to open up and say the weirdest, most unexpected things imaginable. Remember when Tracy Morgan started crying?

The bad: She’s probably doing it on purpose, but sometimes Terry’s questions make you wonder whether she is an actual person with feelings, blood, a spleen, or just a bright, inquisitive robot exploring the world of human emotion.

Sample dialogue: “So… so I understand that your father was actually killed and consumed by a shark during what should have been sort of a joyous family vacation to SeaWorld. To me, you know, it seems like the worst thing about being eaten alive by a shark would be that moment when you sort of really know, like, OK, now my arm is in the shark’s mouth and of course it probably hurts terribly, too. What do you think the worst part of that experience was for your father?”

Overall score: A+

BBC World Service Newshour

The Good: Feeling like you are actually getting smarter as you listen to the same story about Justin Bieber’s drunk driving (or, as they call it, “drink-driving”) recited in disdainful Received Pronunciation.

The Bad: Their tendency to segue from the above sort of thing into stories of utter horror with absolutely no warning.

Sample dialogue: “This is the Canadian pop stah’s fourth recent brush with authorities… In othah news, nee-uh-ly half of all Syrian women report that they were gang-raped last week.”

Overall score: A

“Act Three: David Sedaris brings us a story about what happens to one bear when he tries to apply to cosmetology school. Stay with us.”

This American Life

The Good: It’s just about the best, most consistent, and beautiful storytelling out there. Somehow, you’ll find yourself DEEPLY invested in, say, the office politics of the Schenectady maintenance department. All of a sudden, it feels more real and important to you than your own family.

The Bad: Even when they get deep in the whimsical white-person stuff, it’s still charming… but how many of Sarah Vowell’s imagined dialogues between herself and President Millard Fillmore do we really need?

Sample dialogue, set to a lilting clarinet solo: “Bears. We’ve all thought about them, probably, maybe even seen one in person once or twice. When I was little, I used to actually doodle bears during math class. But this week, on our show, we’re going to see a different side of bears. Act One: A man sets off to find a wife… and instead finds himself surrounded by bears. Act Two: Sarah Koenig spent eight months in the bear enclosure at the Chicago zoo… and discovered an entire world that most of us could probably never, in our wildest dreams, even begin to imagine. Act Three: David Sedaris brings us a story about what happens to one bear when he tries to apply to cosmetology school. Stay with us.”

Overall score: A-

Car Talk

The good:  It’s like listening to an hour of your goofiest uncles, minus the threat of the conversation veering into your personal life. Their car knowledge is legitimately dazzling. Also, this is a great way to enjoy Boston accents without actually having to be in Boston.

The bad: On rare occasions, the hyuck-ing can stretch upwards of three minutes for reasons that aren’t always apparent to the rest of us.

Sample dialogue: “Ah heeeeh heh hehhhh! MUFFLERS?!?!” [snort] “Ohhh, Josie, yeah. This is DEFINITELY a cylinder issue. And tell that bum of a husband that he better start takin’ you on some dates! Ah HEH HEHH HEHHHH!!”

Overall score: B+

A Prairie Home Companion

The good: Banjos.

The bad: The part of the show that doesn’t involve banjos, which, unfortunately, is most of it. Also, it always sounds like Garrison Keillor’s mouth is full of old-fashioned caramels.

Sample dialogue: “So there I was, just a-tootling down that dusty old Wentachakahaneepeeneekanatche Road, when all of a sudden—” [wolf whistle sound effect] “— a blonde, with legs like the Sears Tower, came into view.”

Overall score: D+

The Takeaway With John Hockenberry

The good: Every now and again, on the brightest and most beautiful mornings, God smiles upon all of us. Hockenberry is out on vacation and Washington correspondent Todd Zwillich hosts instead.

The bad: Everything. Yes, he is award-winning. Yes, he has triumphed over difficult circumstances. But there is no excuse, not a single one in the world, for John Hockenberry. Keillor, at least, knows his place and does not folksily weigh in on genocide. Hockenberry knows no such restraint. There is no story too important for him to insert himself into (remember when Nelson Mandela was dying, and it really impacted his family’s ability to enjoy their African vacation?). And fun drinking game: Every time a female guest has to politely correct Hockenberry after he has explained her field of expertise to her, take a shot. By the time you get to work, you’ll either be arrested or fired.

Sample dialogue: “All this week on our program, we’re talking about that simple summer treat, ice cream. Have you ever had ice cream? Had any ice cream lately? Do you know anyone that makes ice cream? Call and tell us about it. But first, we have a guest on our show. Kim Higgins is a professor of particle physics at MIT. So Kim, MY understanding of particle physics is …” (proceeds to monologue through three minutes and 30 seconds of a four-minute piece).

Overall score: F-