Public radio’s signature show about the media isn’t really about the media anymore.
It’s a change that some listeners of WNYC’s long-running On The Media may have gradually noticed over the past several years. Last month, co-hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield felt the need to finally explain to their audience the show’s new direction.
During a segment in OTM’s last show in 2019, Gladstone and Garfield explained that their days creating a program centered on “the news about the news” were over.
In its place, OTM’s focus has shifted to dissecting narratives, or, as Garfield put it, “the stories we tell ourselves based largely on what we heard for our whole lives, often through the media.”
“We’ve always relied on history to provide context,” Gladstone added. “But to question that history, to focus on the systems that have pushed our history forward, to examine the cracks and the jerry-rigging and what we may have once viewed as the best of all possible machines — that seems increasingly to be our job now.”
It’s a broad and often ambiguous focus, one that even Gladstone couldn’t completely pin down during a lengthy interview with Current. “Where we may proceed in the future isn’t clear,” she said.
Gladstone described the show’s change as a natural evolution over the 20 years since she and Garfield took the show’s helm.
OTM’s focus has always been broadening, she explained. It began as a show about the news business but expanded to topics like freedom of information and protecting anonymous sources. As the media industry cratered in the mid-2000s and blogs and social media began filling the void, the conversation about media went from “one to many” to “many to many.” The show tried to reflect this in its coverage, Gladstone said.
More recently, OTM began exploring the “post-fact” phenomenon of the Trump era, how conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream, and the rise of ideologically-driven news outlets.
“When the Trump administration came in, you realized this was a pitched battle over reality itself,” Gladstone said. “There was no agreement over what was true and what wasn’t true.”
Gladstone explored these themes in a terse 2017 book The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, which she described it as a “little pamphlet.”
“I think it’s something hard for the media elites like ourselves to understand,” she said. “We’re used to mattering to some degree. We’re used to being heard because often we set the parameters of this discussion. And I think the great awakening is the rage that was boiling underneath that many of us had no notion of.”
In that spirit, the show’s focus now hinges on “a discussion of how we tell the story of ourselves to ourselves,” Gladstone said.
In explaining on the air how OTM found its new niche, Garfield cited Gladstone’s five-part 2016 series examining poverty in the U.S. as a turning point.
The purpose of that series, Gladstone explained, was to “explore our national myth about poverty” by peeling back tropes like the self-made American man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps.
“We were going to mythbust,” Gladstone said. “And we did that by telling real-life stories of the people who were trying to make it. We also looked at things like the impact of the ZIP code we live in.”
Similarly, OTM dedicated a recent episode to examining how the abortion debate is often framed around Roe v. Wade but actually goes well beyond the parameters of that landmark Supreme Court decision.
Not ‘Columbia Journalism Review for the radio’
The show’s change in focus prompted longtime listener Blake Eskin, an assistant professor of journalism and design at The New School, to consider ending his donations to the show.
“This week, yet another interesting hour of radio from @onthemedia that does not even pretend to be about media,” Eskin tweeted in December about the abortion episode.
He added: “I will be donating to something else that is committed to examining and improving the media.”
In an email to Current, Eskin said the show’s shift from media criticism had prompted him to stop assigning it to students.
“For the past couple of years I used to assign On the Media to my intro-level Journalism + Design undergraduates, and it helped them build news literacy and understand the media ecosystem,” Eskin wrote. “This fall I dropped OTM from my syllabus after too many discussions that began, ‘Well, this isn’t really about media but…’”
Gladstone takes issue with any assertion that media criticism is eroding. Much of it is coming not from columnists with legacy outlets but from independent bloggers, she emphasized.
“During the last couple of elections, there were people who have made it their business to simply follow one political reporter or another at the Post or the Times,” she said.
This saturation of media criticism allows OTM to do something different for a broader audience than “Columbia Journalism Review on the radio” for media professionals, Gladstone argued.
“It was never our intention to write exclusively for other journalists about little things like a fight going on at the New Yorker,” she said.
Criticism of the show’s new focus isn’t limited to listeners. A handful of public radio program directors have also been “vocal and upset about the show not being about the media” over the years, said Katya Rogers, OTM’s EP.
“It’s more a fear of what their listeners think, from my experience,” Rogers said.
She and Gladstone say most feedback has been positive, however. Journalism professors are still assigning the show to students, Rogers said, which is how many of OTM’s interns discover it.
The show will still sometimes delve into media issues — an upcoming episode will focus on local news deserts. But listeners can also expect future episodes to delve into deeper postmodern, philosophical questions.
Gladstone said she wants to use the show to examine the concept of “human dignity,” for example.
“Dignity seems to motivate people on all sides of this tremendous argument we’re in now,” she said. “People feel they aren’t listened to, that they’re ignored, that they don’t matter.”