In what might seem like a strange or unusual move, Ira Glass quietly became the sole owner of his juggernaut public radio series This American Life earlier this month. In a deal with public radio station WBEZ, where Glass began the show 20 years ago, and Chicago Public Media, the celebrated radio host will now have complete creative control over the show's content while WBEZ and CPM will receive a portion of profits from This American Life and its podcast cousin Serial.
The very concept that a public radio show might have profits to share might seem strange or unusual to some, but it should come as no surprise to those of us who've been paying attention to how this country is slowly privatizing almost every aspect of public life.
Needless to say, the strategy that led us to where we are now was brilliant.
First, American businesses simply bought off enough legislators and regulators in this country that they were able to lower their tax rates to something that could be politely called negligible. Next, they waited a few years while the decline in tax revenue led inevitably to the collapse of public services. Then they swooped in as saviors of the very public services they crippled by donating money to them. This, in turn, led to even more tax breaks and then to the corporate branding of formerly public, and theoretically non-corporate, areas of life, like coliseums and stadiums.
On a trip last week to visit Washington D.C., I was first confronted with the presence of corporate advertising on the side of a North Carolina Department of Transportation roadside assistance vehicle. Not even South Carolina seems brazen enough to consider that. Then again, this could be because our state government is still happy to hand out multimillion dollar tax breaks to multinational corporations for the "privilege" of letting them locate here. Or it could be because South Carolina is 10 years behind everyone else in the nation.
At any rate, by the time I reached Virginia, it didn't surprise me to see that the signs for the rest areas were carrying the image of a well-known corporate mascot, the GEICO gecko.
All of this comes years after cities began selling branding rights to their very expensive publicly funded sports arenas, civic centers, and other public spaces to corporations. Even supposedly "radical" Paris-of-the-South, Asheville, N.C. happily acquiesced a couple of years ago to U.S. Cellular for the "naming rights" to the Asheville Civic Center. Progress, it seems, is learning how to greet the free market with open arms in hopes that it will save your dying city, the very city that capitalism helped to bleed dry.
Which brings us back to Ira Glass and his formerly publicly owned radio show. In the case of This American Life, this isn't a case of corporations swooping in to "save" failed public works. Instead, it is about how one of our nation's most cherished public voices became a free-market cheerleader. Glass, among other public radio paragons, appeared at an event called Hearing is Believing back in April. There the radio host reportedly proclaimed, "I think we're ready for capitalism which made this country so great. Public radio is ready for capitalism."
And that sounds great, doesn't it, at least until you remember that public radio was explicitly created as a reaction to and a remedy for profit-driven media. While most public radio and television programs have been remarkably tame compared to their capitalist counterparts, at the very least these publicly owned shows didn't exist solely to advertise products that existed on one level to make your life easier and on an entirely more substantive level as a means to keep afloat the whole ridiculous concept of the free market.
The fact that corporations are buying up the public sphere, and that public radio is essentially selling itself out to corporate interests, should be of concern to everyone. Unfortunately, it's a story that probably doesn't neatly work in a three-act episode of a beloved radio program in which the host speaks in measured, pseudo-intellectual tones.