Sunday, February 20, 2005

Weekly Standard on NPR and Classical Music

Andrew Ferguson has another article in the Weekly Standard on NPR's slow abandonment of classical music programming in favor of endless news/talk formats. I posted about a previous article of his on the same topic.

Ferguson's main point is that NPR admits that it is trending towards the news/talk format because it is more popular. But on that rationale, he says, why have NPR at all? The marketplace already exists to serve popular interests, and the whole point of having government-funded media is to give outlet to formats that are valuable but not necessarily popular:
One comment, from WETA's president, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, struck us as revealing. "We're in the business of trying to create a larger audience," she told the Washington Post, explaining the board's decision. * * *

Perhaps only students of public broadcasting will see the revolutionary nature of Mrs. Rockefeller's remark. For the point of subsidized radio has never been to maximize its audience, and certainly not to maximize its income. It has always been sustained instead on an odd, but sturdy, rationale: Public broadcasting needed to exist because its programming wasn't terribly popular. The dissemination of certain kinds of music and arts programming was a good in itself, and the government had an interest in roping off a part of the marketplace for its preservation. After all, if arts programming were sufficiently popular, the market would take it up--as the market has, for example, in the cataract of commercial talk and news stations flooding every region of the country, the very stations that public radio has now chosen to compete with. Pursue Mrs. Rockefeller's line of reasoning, on the other hand, and you're led quickly into absurdities: If a public radio station is in the "business" of drawing big audiences, why not fill its airwaves with Green Day or Alicia Keys and really pull 'em in?
Ann Althouse disagrees:

Andrew Ferguson, writing in the Weekly Standard, doesn't like that his local NPR station is going from classical music to all news and talk. And he's arguing that this format change is a reason why public radio ought to be privatized. I would argue the opposite: public radio is most justifiable in the news and talk format.

I listen to WERN here in Madison, but only if it has a news or talk show on. If I turn on the radio and hear classical music, I turn it right off and am, in fact, irritated that they are using the public station for that purpose. I don't hate classical music -- Ferguson calls it "beautiful and intelligent music." But it is only listened to by a small segment of the population, no doubt the more affluent folks who are perfectly capable of purchasing all the easily available classical music they want on CD or as digital files.
I disagree with that generalization. I grew up listening to classical music on NPR, but I wasn't even remotely affluent, and I certainly couldn't have afforded to buy recordings of all the music that I heard on NPR. Yes, richer (and older) people might appreciate classical music more often on average. But if NPR has any purpose at all, in my opinion, that purpose includes providing a free resource that allows poorer people to share in the classical artistic heritage that they otherwise would miss. One might as well argue that because rich people are more likely on average to appreciate the works of classic authors like Shakespeare, government-funded schools should forget about teaching the classics ("Let the rich buy their own lessons on Shakespeare!"), and instead focus English classes on the more popular works of John Grisham and the like.
But the audience for classical music does not deserve special favors. They got what they wanted in the past precisely because they were the affluent people who would respond to fund drives. Now that the baby boomers have filled up the affluent demographic, the same dynamic is pushing out classical music, because not many baby boomers care about classical music. Quit whining about the advantage you're losing and ask yourself whether you ever deserved that advantage in the first place.
There were probably plenty of baby boomers in charge 10 years ago as well. I don't think we're dealing with a generational change as much as a philosophical change.
It's not enough to say that classical music is "beautiful and intelligent." Nearly everyone thinks the music they like is the best.
Speaking as an inveterate elitist snob here: If everyone thinks the music they like is the best, most of them are wrong. Would Althouse espouse such relativism in any other context? Everyone has their own tastes; therefore, Rembrandt is no better than Thomas Kinkade, and Citizen Kane is no better than Scooby Doo 2?
I do realize that there has always been an argument about cultivating a new audience for classical music, and that telling people who already like it to buy their own CDs is not enough because we need new people to encounter it on the radio, where they can learn to like it. But why should the government care which genre of music people decide to like? Why isn't the marketplace enough?
I don't get this. Ferguson's whole point is that if one views NPR as serving the marketplace, the rationale for NPR disappears altogether. Conversely, note Althouse's point above that NPR is "most justifiable in the news and talk format." How so? On Althouse's reasoning, why should the government care how or where people ingest their news? Why isn't the marketplace enough there too, particularly if NPR is simply aiming for popularity along with every other news outlet?

Stuart Buck

8 Comments:

Anonymous Henry Clay said...

There's another piece to this. In Washington DC there are two full-time NPR stations, WETA in Arlington VA and WAMU at American University. WAMU is now almost exclusively talk, with a variety of popular local talk shows. (www.wamu.org) Plus we have a vibrant Pacifica station here (89.3), AND we have CSPAN Radio on our dials here -- did you even know it existed? It is so hard to imagine that the news-obsessed DC-area residents are craving another opportunity to listen to news source.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Brett Bellmore said...

Nothing complicated about it; The people running NPR view it as essentially a government subsidized propaganda outlet for liberal opinion. The rise of conservative talk radio, far from rendering talk and opinion on NPR redundant, increases it's importance, requiring them to jetison secondary purposes such as music.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stuart Buck wrote:

The marketplace already exists to serve popular interests, and the whole point of having government-funded media is to give outlet to formats that are valuable but not necessarily popular:...So, what proportion of its budget does NPR receive from government funding?

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