06.17a. Public Radio is Dropping Classical Music. From The Weekly Standard ($)

According to data from the trade group M Street Group, the number of noncommercial stations identified as "classical" has been cut in half since 1993, while the number of noncommercial news-talk stations has tripled.


An interesting academic paper about the evolution of public radio, "Guys in Suits with Charts," by a historian named Alan G. Stavitsky, describes "the transformation of public radio from its educational, service-based origins to an audience-driven orientation."


" Public service became a euphemism for ratings ," Goldfarb says. In one recent presentation to program directors, for example, Giovannoni 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.


A public radio veteran who laments the demise of arts and music programming recalls a public radio convention in the early '90s, just as the new generation of programmers were beginning to redirect their stations away from classical music. One of the public radio researchers hooked up a group of 40 or so program directors and station managers to a "dial machine." The idea was to play a series of musical snippets, from classical through jazz and pop to hard rock, and the machine would record their reactions in real time on a graph, from high (favorable) to low (unfavorable).

"The graph recorded a perfect slanting line . . . from left to right," the veteran told me. Classical was at the low end, the least favored. Then the consultant brought out a graph showing the reactions of a group of longtime public radio listeners to the same series of musical snippets.

"The graph of the listeners showed a perfect slanting line again, but from right to left--exactly the opposite. If you overlaid the two lines, you got an x figure. The tastes of the PDs and the listeners were opposite."


Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, recently left a legacy of $235 million for NPR to spend as it pleases. Of the many ideas floated by network officials in the newspapers and trade publications about how to spend Mrs. Kroc's money, none has involved expanding music or arts programming; the first decision taken--after every employee was given a bonus--was to hire 45 more reporters for the newsmagazines.


"They were from a mix of stations, big and little, different formats, mostly classical, some jazz," Horwitz says. "The idea was to help the stations learn to make money-- increase revenue, excuse me. So all day Saturday the consultants get up and present this huge amount of research and data, showing, or at least claiming to show, that when you got rid of music and arts and programmed news and talk instead, you spiked your numbers. Ratings go up. Donations go up. Underwriting goes up.

"Then it's late afternoon, and the consultants say, 'Okay, you've seen the data. Now you've got the night off. We want you all to go away for some downtime. And when you come back tomorrow, tell us how you're going to fix your station.'

"Sunday morning--it was just sad, pathetic. It was like an AA meeting. It was like total defeat. You had these PDs getting up, hanging their heads, and they're saying, 'Hi, my name's Bill, and I . . . I . . . I've been programming opera!"


"The irony is, the economics for a classical music station are very good. It's very cheap to do classical music programming, and it's very cheap to do well. You've got an installed base of listeners in most communities, and they object very strenuously when you drop a full-service classical station.

"But there are two problems for these guys. There are only 24 hours in a day. And as 24- hour news has become ascendant and dominant, the music is going to feel the squeeze from news and talk. That's just the way it is.

"The other problem is, a lot of these people are living in the past. They see themselves as educators. They go back to that early tradition of educational radio, when the object was to teach people something about the music. They say they're the bearers of the flame--the canon and all that.

"But I'm sorry. That's not the way public radio understands public service today."

The natural question is why we continue to use government money to support public radio. It is an especially interesting question because the federal government is now run by Republicans, and public radio is a huge source of free Democrat advertising.

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