Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Slowly Going The Way Of The Buffalo

Do you listen to classical music? Most people don't that much. What about listening to it on the radio? It's getting harder and harder to do since there the number of classical stations is diminishing. Especially where it used to reign as king: public radio.

Which is sad, I think. Classical music is the best music. Many people don't appreciate it because they can't fathom anything more complex than Britney Spears' digitized, breathy wailings. But a lot of people that would, I think, enjoy it very much have never been given the opportunity to discover its joys. Classical music is qualitatively better than pop music, rock, etc because of the higher levels of complexity and, quite simply, the greater beauty that it has.

One of the reasons that people don't have the opportunity to be exposed to and enjoy classical music is the way that classical music has all but died on public radio. An excellent article by Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard gives the low-down. The culprits? Money and talk-radio.
"Public service became a euphemism for ratings," Goldfarb [a former public radio consultant who is now program director at KING, a commercial classical station in Seattle] says. In one recent presentation to program directors, for example, Giovannoni [a radio consultant who brought the techniques of modern research to public radio] congratulated those who had contributed to the growth in public radio's nationwide ratings. "Five years ago, you generated 57 percent of all public service; today you generate 68 percent." Indeed, in many of Giovannoni's public radio reports, the words ratings, listenership, and public service are used interchangeably.
For many individual stations, the commercial track they stepped onto in the 1980s and 1990s has become a treadmill: to draw listeners, they have had to pay expensive fees to NPR for its news programming--fees often topping $1 million a year. These high costs accelerate and, in turn, require ever more listeners to cover them.

It seems obvious to me that it isn't necessary nor was it intended that NPR move into competition for ratings and money with for-profit stations. A wonderful part of being non-profit is that one only has to worry about breaking even and feeding a niche market. NPR has moved away from that, and now there's little that differentiates them from any other radio station. They have to be underwritten by so many "underwriters" (not advertisers) that the mentions these "underwriters" get are almost as frequent and annoying as commercials on any other radio station. Which is why it would be such a laugh if NPR did get cut loose from the federal government (not that it will ever happen). They wouldn't sink without subsidies, their "underwriters" would just now be called their advertisers and business would proceed as usual. Though maybe we wouldn't have to put up with the sermonising people like Bob Edwards do about how NPR is this great moral force because it's "public radio".