A few months ago I was a guest on Soundcheck, a music talk show on WNYC, New York City’s public radio station. I had been asked to debate a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic on the topic of quota systems for symphony orchestras. While I found it incredible that intelligent people were having such a debate, I nevertheless managed to make the point that most people wouldn’t opt for open heart surgery at a hospital whose slogan was “Diversity is our number one priority,” nor would you likely bet your home on an NBA team that put diversity before speed, height and ability. Why then should the arts be different?
At length the question arose how one might expose more minorities to classical music. Here’s what I wish I’d said: “First, public radio stations like WNYC could return to a classical music format. That would give minority students the opportunity to listen to classical music at no cost. This would also alleviate the so-called color-identity problem: the problem of minorities being unable to identify with musicians who do not ‘look like them.’ Since the students cannot see the pigment of the musicians’ skin, they will not feel as though they are unable to relate to themâ€¦Anyway you could do something other than talk about the problem, which is all you’re doing now.”
And how they love to talk. In the past decade more than 52 public radio stations have dumped their classical music format for news-talk, hoping to attract larger audiences and more “underwriting” dollars, while redefining “public service” to mean balancing Rush Limbaugh from the left. Even large grants organizations like the Ford Foundation now award multi-million dollar grants not so much for fine arts programming as for public affairs programming.
Public radio has not always been a schizophrenic operation. It was conceived as an educational instrument to provide the masses with an important dose of high culture that commercial radio could not or would not provide. That concept remained in effect until the 1990s when a new generation of Baby Boomer station managers took over. Like many Boomers, they had gone into radio journalism to “make a difference,” and while they supported the idea of non-commercial radio, their idea of public radio was more the government-funded British Broadcasting Company than endless hours of college disc jockeys playing Strauss waltzes. The ability of high culture to make a difference in people’s lives simply didn’t occur to them. Nor did it help that like most Boomers they were, in Andrew Ferguson’s phrase, “utterly ignorant of the [fine] arts.”
There were other incentives to dump classical music. Indeed there is something almost conservative about an elitist art form composed by a passel of dead white guys. Thus by the late 1990s the classical music format was as endangered as the James spinymussel, and NPR had all but completed its transformation into America’s first government-funded news service. The American BBC now stood in direct competition with commercial (read conservative) talk radio, though with the considerable advantage of government funding.
Not surprisingly, as NPR sought to appeal to a larger audience, its programming began to take on the dumbed-down tone of the network evening news or the daily newspaper. A typical program schedule offers shows one might expect to find on local AM radio following the morning farm report — programs like Car Talk —where two painfully unfunny mechanics try to diagnose car problems over the phone and haw-haw at their own lame jokes, Zorba Paster on Your Health, and It’s Only a Game, a sports radio show. (Gee, we don’t have enough of those.)
THE LAST PUBLIC RADIO holdouts to move to an all news-talk format was WETA-FM in Washington DC. The District of Columbia boasts two public radio stations, and by 2005 both had moved to news-talk formats broadcasting essentially the same programs. It was as though the state government had built two drivers license facilities next door to one another so the secretary of state could hand out twice as many government jobs.
Last January, in an unprecedented move, WETA-FM dropped its redundant news-talk format and returned to classical music. To general surprise donations poured in. What’s more WETA is now drawing twice the number of black and Hispanic listeners. A station spokesman told the Washington Post that its spending on radio is down by $1.5 million since it dropped the very expensive NPR and BBC programs that made up the bulk of the previous format. Suddenly WETA’s chief executive Sharon Percy Rockefeller is talking about diversity and public service again, only this time she doesn’t mean taking on Sean Hannity. “Our change to the classical format will maintain the diversity of programming on the local radio dial and provide a clear public service to the people of Washington,” she said.
If liberals are as concerned about exposing minority kids to classical music as they claim, they will encourage other public radio stations to follow WETA’s lead in returning the classics to the public airwaves. Otherwise they’ll only prove once again that they are all talk.
Christopher Orlet writes the Existential Journalist blog.