February 19, 2005

Public radio needs classical music?

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. Yet Ferguson's argument is studded with points about a dysfunctional marketplace:
Public radio in the United States is remaking itself according to a wholly new sense of its mission. Originally conceived as a service for preserving and encouraging minority tastes ignored by the market -- particularly in the arts, not only in classical music but also in jazz, bluegrass, cabaret, folk -- public radio is being transformed into the nation's first government-funded news service....

"We're in the business of trying to create a larger audience," [WETA's president] told the Washington Post, explaining the [format change]. Her line of reasoning is shared by the new generation of station managers who have gained control over public radio in the last 15 years. According to their conventional wisdom -- though whether it's wisdom or merely convention has yet to be determined -- news and chat inevitably bring in more listeners, and more affluent listeners, than classical music or jazz. And affluent listeners draw higher-class advertisers (called "underwriters" in the painstaking lexicon of public broadcasting) and respond more generously during pledge drives.

... [But] 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....
If poor, minority, or marginalized persons were big fans of classical music, I might think about this differently. 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. It's not enough to say that classical music is "beautiful and intelligent." Nearly everyone thinks the music they like is the best.

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? Just because it doesn't favor the music you like? There is some problem with radio stations being too much alike, but playing a lot of classical music is an inadequate solution to that problem. Why should only one minority taste get government support?

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