The Radio Geek’s Guide to American Public Radio

I recently saw a petition to get the US government to fully fund PBS and NPR. Now, I’m sure the writers of this petition have nothing against other public radio producers, NPR’s competitors Pacifica, PRI and APM. All compete for airtime against each other and locally produced material, as well as foreign public radio producers BBC and CBC. What they have in common is that they rely primarily on listener support rather than commercials.

Commercial radio station WYNX’s Bill McNeal on behalf of Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor™

I tend to hate metonyms. To the displeasure of many, I don’t call all soda Coke, nor do I call facial tissues “Kleenex,” all brands of gelatin “Jello,” nor all adhesive bandages “Band-aids.” If that makes me a bit like that annoying guy from The Velveteen Touch of the Dandy Fop,” then so be it. I also hate that that sketch’s title incorrectly synonymizes “dandies” and “fops” but I’ll save that rant for another blog.

Pacifica's Amy Goodman  Car Talk
                  Pacifica’s Amy Goodman                                            NPR’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi

Ira Glass  Garrison Keillor
                                 PRI’s Ira Glass                                                             APM’s Garrison Keillor

On Facebook there is a “What NPR personality are you?” quiz. The possible outcomes include This American Life‘s Ira Glass and A Prairie Home Companion‘s Garrison Keillor. Neither are on NPR. So, for that tiny fraction of people who give a crap, here’s the handy break-down of America’s various public radio producers to set the record straight for the dozens that may care.

Pacifica Radio

Pacifica Radio
Pacifica is the oldest player in public radio, established in 1946 and launched in 1949. It was founded by Lewis Hill and other conscientious objectors. Over they years, they’ve run afoul with the government on numerous occasions for pushing the progressive envelope. They’ve also garnered many awards for their unflinching coverage of topics avoided by most media outlets. I think all of their funding comes from listeners and foundation grants, not the US government. The Berkeley-based network is fairly decentralized, with most of Pacifica’s 100 or so affiliate stations producing the bulk of their own programing. They do produce some nationally-heard programs, including:

Democracy Now!Free Speech Radio NewsFrom the VaultInformativo PacificaSproutsExplorations and Flashpoints.

National Public Radio

National Public Radio
NPR is far and away the best-known public radio producer. It was established in 1970 to replace and absorb the content of the earlier National Educational Radio Network, founded in 1951. NPR is based in Washington D.C. and is carried by 797 public radio stations. With its Opera and Baroque programs and frequently creaky-sounding newscasters (Daniel Schorr is 93!), many of the stereotypes about public radio listeners as tweed-jacket wearing, polite, boring intellectuals owe to the confusion of NPR with all public radio. Programs produced by NPR include:

All Things ConsideredMorning Edition, Weekend Edition (Saturday and Sunday)Talk of the NationFresh AirCar TalkJazz ProfilesNPR World of OperaThe Thistle & ShamrockWait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!On PointThe Diane Rehm ShowLatino USAJustice TalkingOn the MediaJazzSetOnly a Game, Piano JazzSays You!Sunday BaroqueWorld Cafe and Engines of Our Ingenuity.

Public Radio International

Public Radio International
Minneapolis-based PRI began in 1983 as American Public Ratio. They changed their name to PRI in 1994. They also distribute BBC and CBC in the US. Their motto is “hear a different voice.” Indeed, the sound of PRI is instantly recognizable to the radio nerd. PRI receives funding from station fees, corporate underwriting, listener support and corporate grants. Less than 2% of their funding comes from  government agencies. PRI tends to cater to a hipper, younger, more cosmopolitan set, with many on-air personalities having voices that just don’t sound NPR-ish. Case in point: the love-him-or-hate-him Ira Glass. PRI programs include:

This American Life, Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?To the PointThe WorldAmerica AbroadAfropop WorldwideAsk Dr. ScienceBob Edwards WeekendCapitol News ConnectionCrossing EastEchoes, Here and NowJazz After HoursLiving on EarthMusic from Chautauqua, Pittsburgh Symphony OrchestraRadioWestThe Record ShelfRiverwalk JazzSelected ShortsSound & SpiritThe Sound of Young AmericaSounds Eclectic, Studio 360The TakeawayTo the Best of Our Knowledge and Zorba Paster On Your Health

American Public Media

American Public Media
APM is the second biggest American public radio distributor after NPR. It’s also the newest, established in 2004. APM overs a diverse range of program like PRI but differs from them in that APM produces and distributes almost all of its own programs to 780 public radio stations. APM began in 1967 as a Collegeville, Minnesota classical station. It gradually grew to operate 42 stations in the Upper Middlewest, California and Florida, making it the largest operator of public radio stations. The most recognizable voice is the somnambulistic timbre of Garrison Keillor, whose whistling nostrils are not only heard on APM’s flagship A Prairie Home Companion, but also on The Writer’s Almanac. Other programs include:

MarketplaceAmerican MavericksAmerican RadioWorksAmerican RoutesComposers DatebookFuture TenseMinnesota OrchestraPerformance TodayPipedreamsThe Saint Paul Chamber OrchestraSaint Paul SundaySound OpinionsSpeaking of FaithThe Splendid TableThe Story, and SymphonyCast.

If your local public radio station(s) don’t carry your favorite programs, you can always listen to them online. In addition, some of the biggest successes have been packaged on best-of CDs.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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