THE SOUND AND THE STORY: NPR AND THE ART OF RADIO By Thomas Looker; Houghton Mifflin 421 pp., $24.95
AT a time when federal funding for public broadcasting in the United States is still being hotly debated, it's helpful to have some firm opinions from a former National Public Radio broadcaster on the role noncommercial radio should play in a society driven by television.
Radio journalist and university teacher Thomas Looker, who worked with NPR for eight years, argues eloquently in ''The Sound and the Story: NPR and the Art of Radio'' that many Americans today are not exercising their ''independent imaginations'' to the extent that they once did. Increasingly, he suggests, they are becoming passive receptors of external imagery and should let radio help them to repossess their lives.
He says that when even our experience of music is overlaid with vivid images that abort the growth and development of the private picture-making processes (such as the images on MTV), ''nothing less than our fundamental capacities as imaginative beings are challenged and diminished ... and perhaps even threatened with extinction.''
Looker's five-month observation of National Public Radio in action covers the on-air experience, the history and administration of NPR, the art of radio reporting, the people at NPR, and radio's place in American life.
The minute-by-minute accounts of on-air procedures (including production technique and editing) are not offered as a college textbook, but do the job just as effectively and are livelier than many Radio 101 courses.
After all, how many professors in the communications department say it more succinctly than this:
''Creating a news program for the radio is neither wholly a science nor
wholly an art. It is, in essence, an act of the human imagination: separating fantasy from truth, judging what's significant and what's not, deciding what will hold a listener's attention and what will turn it off.''
In his book, Looker suggests further that the ultimate ''unnamed source'' of all reporting is ''the inner activity of the mind and the heart.''
Every reader of ''The Sound and the Story'' stands to learn something. Politicians might see Looker as a not-so-subtle lobbyist with a good feeling for the medium. Fund-raisers may find some useful ammunition for their raids on corporate boardrooms. Radio fans will get to know the people behind their favorite voices -- never more so than in the opening chapters which take us into the NPR studios in Washington at the crack of dawn.
If some of the descriptive writing in these early pages seems a little ornate -- even inappropriate -- for the swoop and thrust of live radio journalism, stick with it. The crude realities soon break the silence and the darkness.
The babble of ''chipmunk and even Donald Duck voices'' from respooling tape recorders mixes with the rising tide of story discussion and debate, scriptwriting and revision, as ''Morning Edition'' and newscast production moves into high gear.
And when the two-hour transmission is over, the participants -- like host, Bob Edwards -- keel back in a daze of euphoria and exhaustion, muttering choice words they'd never want to be caught using over the air and wondering at the miracles they have wrought.
After all, as Looker puts it: ''The psychology of aural communications is unfair and demanding; the fabric of connection and expectation woven between broadcasters and their audience remains extremely fragile.''
This book, by Looker's own confession, is ''intensive rather than all-inclusive,'' but it is comprehensive enough to produce convincing evidence that National Public Radio has come astonishingly close to the goal set by one of its founders, Bill Siemering. His dream, recalled in the book by one of the architects of ''Morning Edition,'' Jay Kernis, was that public radio would speak in many voices; that it would hold a mirror up to American audiences and say: ''Here's what you did today, here's what you thought about, here's what you sounded like. Here's what we thought about as a nation.''
As the author takes us minute by minute through ''Morning Edition,'' through weekday afternoons and ''All Things Considered,'' that ''thoroughbred of the public radio stables,'' and through the various ''Weekend Editions,'' we are left with little doubt that whatever the politicians decide about federal support in the years to come, this is a radio service that will always affirm that ''we are the ultimate arbiters of the awareness that flowers within our mind's eye.''