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NPR'S windfall

SUDDENLY National Public Radio is rich. Or at least a lot richer. Loyal listeners and especially members should speak up about how the organization spends its new windfall. The massive gift of $200 million comes from the estate of Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who made fast food an American icon. Joan Kroc was a noted philanthropist who had given money to the University of Notre Dame, for cancer and AIDS research, and to the homeless, among other causes. She died last month of brain cancer.

NPR officials say this is the largest gift ever given to a cultural institution. Most of the money, some $175 million, will go into an endowment fund that will generate money for general operations. The gift is expected to produce an extra $10 million per year. This also means that membership drives will remain an important (if somewhat annoying) part of public radio life.

But that still leaves a good bit of money for general improvements. Some suggestions:

* Bring more local voices to national radio. Listeners love variety, from the sounds of life on Indian reservations to the audio track of busy entrepreneurs running small businesses from nail salons to trucking firms.

* Bring back music and culture programming. NPR's news reports are thoughtful and compelling. Its talk shows are topical and a nice way to bring listeners into conversations. And "Car Talk" is great entertainment. But occasionally all this talk is wearying. Balance could be provided by music shows and radio documentaries.

What's going on outside the often overwhelmingly adolescent world of popular music? Who are the up-and-comers in jazz and classical music? NPR should take more time and programming space to offer answers. And whether radio documentaries are made in-house or by independent producers, documentaries transport listeners around the country and the world or back into history. And their fascinating use of sound gives the mind's eye creative work to do.

* To make room for new content, encourage stations to offer a little less of the BBC. A fine and respected source of international news, the BBC already has a strong voice that can be heard on radio and accessed on the Internet.

* Invest in the Internet. NPR shows can already be heard online, and the NPR website offers added information to supplement its news reports. Now producers can look for new and as-yet unimagined ways to use the Internet, offering interactivity ranging from simple polls to programs that might invite listeners to create their own works of commentary or art.

It will take a lot of work, but it's not a lot to ask. NPR has proudly taken on the mantle of offering rich, unique content. Now it has the financial power to do even more.

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