Pop Goes the Culture
One man’s quest to preserve and defend the good, the true, and the beautiful
Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
His first ambition, after he left NPR, was to start a magazine. Myers loves magazines. I put the point mildly. When he walked me through his large office-studio not long ago, I saw that every spare foot of wall space in nearly every room was lined with back issues of the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the American Spectator, the Atlantic, Harper’s, and Commentary and the London Spectator and even—I shyly lowered my gaze—The Weekly Standard, dating back to this magazine’s founding. Every issue of every magazine is neatly labeled and catalogued. When he refers in conversation to an article he read, say, 20 years ago in the Wilson Quarterly—this happens often—he is likely to duck into the next room and produce the thing itself.
Steeped in journalism of this sort, Myers didn’t see why an orthodox religious believer couldn’t edit an intellectually wide-ranging magazine and attract a similarly minded readership.
“I had Christian friends on Capitol Hill,” he says, “and when they came home from work in the evening, they’d watch MacNeil/Lehrer,” the earlier incarnation of today’s hyphenlessNewsHour. “It would never occur to them to get their news from The 700 Club. They would read the Atlantic, never one of the Christian magazines. I thought, why does the secular culture have Harper’s and the Wilson Quarterly and MacNeil/Lehrer, and all that Christians have are these kinds of pop-entertainment, jokey, show-biz cultural outlets?”
In the mid-eighties he was offered the editorship of an evangelical magazine with the hard-to-live-up-to title Eternity. He brought out issues dedicated to primitivism in American art, Tocqueville’s understanding of religious freedom, androgyny in popular culture . . . and was fired by the board of directors within a year.
“It’s not that they thought what we were doing was evil,” he says. “Just frivolous. There wasn’t any preaching in it. What use was it?
“Here is where the religious right and the secular left are in complete agreement: They both think God doesn’t care about culture.” The secularists believe this because God doesn’t exist; the religious conservatives believe it because God is beyond such questions. Which is why religious culture nowadays bears such a close resemblance to the larger culture, where most talk of religion is considered in bad taste.
“Richard Weaver had this phrase, ‘our metaphysical dreams of the world.’ He meant the way we understand reality and our place in it. I think most practicing Christians have a metaphysical dream of the world that has more in common with their secular neighbors than it has with Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Edwards.”
After Eternity (so to speak) and a few years of freelancing, Myers hit on the idea of an audio magazine—partly for economic reasons (it costs less to record an article than to print one) and partly because sound is what he knows, from his training at the old NPR.
He has two full-time staff and a modest budget supplied by a grateful base of listeners, who respond with donations to his own direct-mail version of a pledge drive, though unlike public broadcasting he never uses aging and adipose doo-wop groups as donor bait. How he puts together an intellectual product of such variety and sophistication on such a schedule seems slightly mysterious to his loyal subscribers, including me; how he’s made a living at it is an even greater puzzle.
“We’ve never really had a strategic marketing plan for circulation,” he says. “It’s mostly word of mouth.” From what he can tell, most of his audience work in the professions. A typical subscriber, he says, “is somebody who says, ‘I wish I’d taken more arts and humanities in college.’ So a lot of what we do is remedial for them.”
He has big plans for the next few years, with a particular attention to music. He’s planning a series of podcasts on the standard classical repertoire—one piece per podcast—and another on sacred choral music, which he’s pursuing with a special ardor.
“I hear interviews with the singers and conductors who perform these works, and so many of them say they don’t really believe what they’re singing,” he says. “And meanwhile, the people who do believe it don’t know anything about it!” He has a wounded look. “It’s just a horrible, horrible thing.”
Journalism, and spoken-word journalism especially, may be a wobbly vehicle for Myers’s work of cultural restoration. And while it’s been enriched in the last few years by Touchstone and Books and Culture and a few other publications, the field is still wide open. Most of the middle-brow secular magazines that Myers consumed in mass quantities as a young reader have gone the way of public broadcasting, letting the obsession with pop culture crowd out any cultural expressions that are more demanding and rewarding than Bruuuuuce and the thumping oeuvre of Easy Mo Bee.
It’s strangely inspiring—and hearteningly American—that some of the task of “preserving cultural treasures” has fallen on a former NPR programmer in rural Virginia who fills his leisure time pondering old issues of the Wilson Quarterly. But then Ken Myers isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.