Why it matters that Kim Kardashian is on public radio

Kim Kardashian gestures while filming in Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, April 9, 2015. The Kardashian family arrived on Wednesday in the capital of their ancestral Armenia and earlier on Thursday met with Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan (AP photo/Artur Harutyunyan, PAN Photo)

In the big scheme of things, Kim Kardashian appearing last weekend on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! isn’t a huge deal. The show isn’t journalism, but public radio fans know a groundbreaking descent into garbage when they hear it.

And NPR listeners apparently are as mad as they were when the news organization started taking underwriting from Walmart.

“I will admit it,” NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen writes. “In my not–quite five months as NPR’s Ombudsman, I’ve found one reliable source of joy: the Monday morning email—there’s at least one each week—from a listener outraged by whatever bad taste joke Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! has told on its latest episode. This Monday, the inbox was overflowing.”

Many in the public radio world went nuclear — threatening to cancel memberships. So Jensen had the unpleasant duty of wasting her time talking about Kardashian too.

So I asked Michael Danforth, the show’s executive producer. When I talked to him earlier this week, he said, “Of course we tried to book her, because she’s huge. She is a favorite in our lives.” He called it “a totally normal booking. We always try to book people who are culturally relevant.”

Danforth said the team was surprised Kardashian agreed to the appearance, and called her “self-effacing,” although he added, “One thing we’ve learned is she’s got a very polished and easy public persona” and isn’t about to go off message. He seemed truly baffled by the strong listener reaction. “I did not anticipate it,” he said.

She mostly gives NPR a pass. So does Emmanuel Hapsis, she points out.

He writes a pop culture/arts blog for public radio station KQED.

I went to grad school. My favorite writer is an experimental classicist. I’ve read Ulysses in its entirety. And I also know all the names of the Kardashians and why they’re mad at each other. Learning that information didn’t cancel out my degrees or any of my brain cells. Neither did listening to this radio segment. Kim Kardashian is a part of our culture, whether we like it or not. She doesn’t have the power to destroy you or your favorite public radio show. But she could probably school some of us on how to lighten up.

We get that. But we also get something else. Popular culture is often created by media, which then insists it has no choice but to continue to elevate the irrelevant to relevance because popular culture demands it. You create a beast, feed the beast, and then insist you didn’t have any choice.

Like I said, Wait Wait isn’t journalism. And absolutely the public radio audience is far too quick to pounce on perceived slights to the intellect; controversy over a split infinitive can occupy it for days.

But I’m not convinced the public radio authorities entirely understand where the public radio listeners’ concern is coming from.

When you stop being a leader, you’re just a follower. When Kim Kardashian appears on public radio, public radio is a follower. The listeners want leadership.

But Wait Wait is probably the wrong place to look for it.