No More Mozart!
Public radio is trading music for news in pursuit of listeners (and ad revenues), but it was supposed to be immune from such pressures.
“Radio Silence: How NPR Purged Classical Music from Its Airwaves” by Andrew Ferguson, in The Weekly Standard (June 14, 2004), 1150 17th St., N.W., Ste. 505, Washington, D.C. 20036.
If less classical music seems to be coming from your local public radio station, it’s not just your imagination. Even though the number of public stations has grown to more than 800 across America—boasting a listenership of 29 million—the number of those stations identifying themselves as “classical” has been cut in half since 1993. The stations still playing classical music increasingly fill their designated music hours (mostly at night) with a syndicated service called Classical 24 rather than local programming. Jazz, folk, blues, and bluegrass have also all but vanished from the public radio airwaves. So what’s filling all those hours? News-talk programs such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition have claimed much bigger shares of airtime.
There’s nothing wrong with giving listeners what they want, writes Weekly Standard senior editor Ferguson, but there’s an economic undercurrent driving the changes on public radio—and public radio was expressly supposed to be immune to such pressures.
Public radio began in the 1920s as a spate of low-output, community-run broadcasts mostly aimed at rural listeners. (Broadcast was originally a farmers’ term for spreading seeds across a field.) After World War II, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved the left side of the FM dial for educational radio. Classical music seemed particularly suited to stations free from commercial pressures: “an art form that was good for the polity and good for the soul,” Ferguson writes.
Public radio existed in this blissful state until the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan threatened to cut its government subsidies. At the same time, the FCC began relaxing the rules governing advertising on the public airwaves, allowing “underwriters” to subsidize programming. A vicious circle was created, writes Ferguson. Programmers “stepped up their solicitation of funds from corporations and foundations,” and began studying how to attract “a better class of listener—the kind who could be relied upon to donate money to public radio, and . . . just as important, create a desirable target audience for underwriters.” Radio consultants, such as the influential David Giovannoni, were quick to point out that Morning Edition and All Things Considered attracted the most listeners. (Consultants also characterized news-talk listeners as youthful “citizens of the world,” and classical music listeners as older folks seeking escape.) The listener trough in the middle of the day occurred during the classical music hours. It didn’t take a marketing genius to conclude that adding more news hours would increase the number of listeners.
The situation seems unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon. Bob Goldfarb, a program director in Seattle, says that most stations now broadcast what the station manager wants to listen to. “Nowadays not many of these people have been educated to a taste in classical music. They’re news-talk people. And by now they’ve got a news-talk audience.” It’s a slippery slope. Individual stations pay large fees to NPR for news programming, often more than $1 million a year. As Ferguson points out, “These high costs accelerate and, in turn, require ever more listeners to cover them.”