The Magazine

Time for National Private Radio

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The death of classical music on Washington's NPR station.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, FOR THE EDITORS
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ON THE EVENING OF FEBRUARY 10, the board of directors of WETA-FM, the only commercial-free classical music station in Washington, D.C., voted overwhelmingly to eliminate its music and arts programming. At the end of this month, someone will flick a switch and--thud!--WETA will fall to earth as just another all-news, all-talk station, and the nation's capital will be left without a public radio station devoted to beautiful and intelligent music.

WETA's transformation is a blow to the cultural life of the Washington metropolitan area, of course, which despite its succulent demographics in income and education levels has always struggled to maintain institutions that promote the fine arts. Yet our local station's fate should be of more than local interest. It confirms and will likely accelerate a trend already gaining momentum in public radio nationwide. A few days before WETA cheerfully announced its own death as a music station, WFDD in Winston-Salem, which has broadcast classical music to the North Carolina piedmont for more than 30 years, announced that it too was scrapping music in favor of all talk all the time. Together they join more than 50 public radio stations who in the last several years have given themselves up to news 'n' chat exclusively, leaving their music-loving audiences out of luck.

Something big is happening here, in other words, without fanfare, and with only token public deliberation. 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 would like to draw the attention of members of Congress to this sly conversion, and to its likely long-term effects. In the coming months congressmen will be sifting through the government's books in search of outlays that have outlived their usefulness. The $80-plus million now being spent to build a federally subsidized news organization, under the auspices of National Public Radio, would be a good place to start.

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. 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.

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?