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NPR: EXPOSED AND ENDANGERED?

HE DOESN'T MEAN to be maudlin about it, says National Public Radio's Scott Simon, but there's a chance that by the time he arrives in Salt Lake City next week to speak at a fund-raising dinner, he may no longer have a job.

Simon is one of the most distinctive voices on the air: a reporter whose copy and delivery sound more like poetry than news. But, like everyone else in public radio these days, he says, he faces the prospect of budget cuts that could mean the demise of his program, NPR's acclaimed and popular "Weekend Edition.""This is a time of ugly choices," said Simon in an interview from his NPR office in Washington, D.C.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, no fan of either public radio or TV, has promised that by 1998 the government will have yanked out all federal funding for public broadcasting. In the meantime, the House has approved a 15 percent cut for the 1996 fiscal year and a 30 percent cut for 1997. The Senate has been more generous, but the final compromise will still be grim, says Simon, and will certainly mean the loss of on-air jobs.

The cuts, ironically, come at a time when the public radio network is less iconoclastic than any time in its 24-year history. Over the years, as it has tried to become a primary news source as well as an alternative voice, NPR has toned down and become more main-stream. (Not that it isn't still the most unique news around, sometimes delivered by reporters with speech impediments.)

The budget cuts also come at a time - either ironically or fittingly, depenDing on your point of view - when Simon and his colleagues at NPR are verging on ce-leb-ri-ty-hood. True, only 12 million people listen to public radio's most popular program, "Morning Edition," compared with 25 million for Rush Limbaugh. Still, NPR reporters, commentators and hosts are far from the unknowns they were in the early days, when producers had to explain what NPR was each time they tried to set up an interview.

NPR is so relatively popular these days that commercial TV has launched a sitcom, "The George Wendt Show," based on NPR's "Car Talk"; Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg had a cameo in the movie "Dave"; in Salem, Ore., someone named a restaurant after foreign correspondent Sylvia Poggioli; Scott Simon is being harassed by groupies and stalkers; and there is now a traveling photo exhibit called "NPR Ex-po-sure."

The exhibit travels to Salt Lake City next week, where it will be on display at the Salt Lake City Art Center from May 6 through July 2.

If you're an NPR junkie you'll finally get to see what Maria Hinojosa looks like. And Andrei Codrescu and Bailey White and Noah Adams and the Car Guys and 45 others (unfortunately the enigmatic and possibly exotic Sylvia Poggioli isn't on the list).

If you are a Scott Simon fan you can also meet him in person when he is guest speaker at a fund-raising dinner Friday, May 5, celebrating KUER radio's 35th annivesary. (KUER airs many National Public Radio shows, as does KCPW, based in Park City.)

If you're a faithful NPR listener you probably feel that the NPR folks are your buddies, even though you've never seen their faces. When it's done right, there's a peculiar intimacy about radio, an illusion of one-on-one conversation. And nobody does it bet-ter than Scott Simon.

Simon's cadence and his narrative scripts are so lyrical and sensitive (his critics would say "florid") that a "Chicago Sun-Times reporter once wrote that if the world came to an end, Simon would be the best reporter to break the news. "He'd be comforting, cogent, lucid, perceptive, sad, telling you that life and the struggles of civilization hadn't been for naught." He can make even a pledge-drive plea sound personal and com-pel-ling.Simon is a nearly 20-year veteran of NPR. Starting in his 20s as a free-lance reporter in his native Chicago just five years after NPR first went on the air, he has covered five wars (six, he says, if you count the Chicago City Council).

His award-winning coverage of an American Nazi Party rally in Chicago is still a role model for aspiring radio journalists, with its ground-break-ing mixture of sound-portrait techniques and hard-news reporting. Like the best stories on NPR, this is more sound feast than sound bite.

Even commercial TV started to take notice. In 1992, NBC offered Simon a six-figure salary to host its "Weekend Today" show. Simon's last essay before his departure from NPR was filled with the usual intelligence and warmth:

"Over the past 15 years," he said to his listeners, "it has been my privilege, and I do believe a blessing, to have been a part of a group of people who have created one of the most cherished institutions of American life. For millions of Americans those initials, NPR, have come to signify civility and conviction, protected from sanctimony by a sense of humor."

To care so much about the work you give to others, he said, "reveals something sacred in human beings."

Simon came back to NPR in the fall of 1993. He had enjoyed his TV experience, he says, but he and NBC were never able to resolve a fundamental disagreement about what type of show Simon would do. He wanted more news. They wanted more "sleazy celebrity news stuff," Simon says, "more shower-head repairs."

He missed the challenge of radio news reporting. As soon as he landed back at NPR he was off to Sarajevo.

While he's in Utah, Simon will report two or three in-depth stories that will show up a few weeks later on "Weekend Edition." If in fact there still is a "Weekend Edition."