Copious Notes: Public radio keeps getting better

Jad Abumrad, left, and Robert Krulwich host the seasonal NPR show Radiolab.
Jad Abumrad, left, and Robert Krulwich host the seasonal NPR show Radiolab.

I know what some people think of the news that a performance of a public radio show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me, has nearly sold out the 2,100-seat Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts.

Really? There are 2,100 people who listen to those sedentary stations who are capable of moving themselves from their homes to a concert hall? Isn't NPR for people who have one foot in the grave? Do they do anything except talk in monotone voices and play music that's 300 years old?

I suggest that they broaden their horizons. That's something NPR does very well.

A few weeks ago on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart helped support this notion while making another point. He was torpedoing the tired idea that NPR is a bastion of liberal propaganda by pointing out that one afternoon a few months ago, while AM talk radio was all in a lather over some tete-a-tete between Republicans and Democrats, his NPR station was airing an interview about the colonial habits of ants on Fresh Air, one of numerous shows that destroys public radio stereotypes.

Far from one-note, the hallmark of really good public radio stations these days is to play a wide variety of tunes during a broadcast day, giving listeners an opportunity to hear things that already pique their interests and expose them to content that they didn't expect to pique their interests.

Car Talk, the Boston-based auto-advice show hosted by brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, broke the mold for NPR shows in the late 1980s. It and numerous other NPR networks have been changing things since.

The common denominator in the programming is not an ideological agenda but intelligence. Whether the subject is politics, business, music, science or other issues, NPR approaches its topics with smart questions and presentations that leave listeners feeling that they learned something by tuning in.

The vehicles for this diversity are the programs. Here are a few shows that might surprise you if you haven't tuned in NPR in a while.

This American Life: Each week, the Chicago-based show hosted by Ira Glass announces a theme, then tells several stories based on it. Last week's show, for instance, was named after the Louise Fitzhugh children's book Nobody's Family Is Going to Change. It presents three stories about families; some of them change and some don't.

The topics usually aren't ripped from the headlines. But a couple of weeks ago, the show pieced together parts of stories that it had done several years ago, when Penn State was named a top party school, with some recent interviews and stories to present an illuminating portrait of the school in the wake of the child sexual-abuse scandal that erupted out of its football program. (Airs at 8 p.m. Fridays and noon Saturdays on WEKU-88.9 FM; and 4 p.m. Sundays on WUKY-91.3 FM.)

Q: I have this distinct memory of hearing an interview with hip-hop star M.I.A. just a few days after WEKU switched its format from classical music to talk and thinking it had to be blowing the minds of some of the station's longtime listeners. I also remember thinking that host Jian Ghomeshi was one of the best interviewers I had never heard, because my perspective on M.I.A. was growing wider by the minute. That perception of Ghomeshi has been borne out since, as his show has covered a plethora of topics: politics, science, arts, sports — it's from Canada, so there's quite a bit of hockey — and, of course, music. (2 p.m. weekdays, WEKU.)

World Café: A rerun of a chat between Evan Dando and Julianna Hatfield recently reminded me how long this has been an essential show for hearing music's new voices and appreciating its past. Either host David Dye does a lot of homework, or he simply has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. (9 p.m. weekdays, WUKY.)

Marketplace: If there's been a big business or financial story in the news, I want to hear Marketplace's take on it. A lot of financial-news shows have hosts trying to impress me with what they know, but the American Public Media show works to help me understand what is happening, often in rather entertaining fashion. (6 p.m. weekdays, WUKY.)

The Moth Radio Hour: This storytelling showcase from the Public Radio Exchange just celebrated its 200th episode of quirky, offbeat and poetic tales. It originates from New York but picks up content from around the country and is well known among storytellers and slam poets. The Moth is seasonal and does move around the schedule. (7 p.m. Fridays, WEKU.)

Also seasonal is Radiolab, hosted by NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich and 2011 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Jad Abumrad, which several readers mentioned on a Facebook question about favorite public radio shows. Our local stations also produce some of their own programming, including WUKY's Friday-night lineup of modern- and roots-music shows.

As with any media network, not everything is a home run. But anyone who disses public radio probably just hasn't listened to it lately.