Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 November, 2006

The Role of NPR

The National Endowment for the Arts recently laid into NPR for its turn away from music and towards more news/talk radio.

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts blasts public radio, saying it fails to fulfill its obligation to provide music that commercial stations won't touch. The NEA says public radio -- once dominated by classical, jazz and other minority forms of music -- is retreating ever further from that mission, choosing to focus on news and talk.

National Public Radio pleads guilty to using its new resources to build a stronger news operation, but rejects the NEA's notion that public radio is abandoning its cultural mission. Rather, NPR maintains, it plans to use the Web and other emerging technologies to introduce a new generation of listeners to music you can't hear on the radio.


NPR is turning towards news and talk because, it claims, people who listen to this programming donate more $$. I was saddened, but not surprised, to read that, as of last year, there were only 28 commercial classical radio stations left in this country.

Personally, I prefer to hear music on the radio where I can listen to it on good speakers and news over the Net where sonic fidelity is not a big deal. Besides, the advantage of sitting in front of my computer while listening to the news is that I can go out on the Net and pursue topics of interest further. I can get more background, more context, and more of the story by using the Web. The Internet should be a tool for both news and music.

It has been a while since I thought of this. Earlier this year, my friend Andy in Chicago lamented that WBEZ, the flagship station of Chicago Public Radio, was dropping all music programming in favor of all-talk and news. I found this editorial by Steve Johnson at the Chicago Tribune's webpage and I think it aptly demonstrates the problem as outlined by the NEA:

Can you believe that WBEZ-FM 91.5 is dumping jazz, world music and blues? Neither can I.

I thought the city's public-radio station would never get around to making this smart decision, a big improvement over its current personality divide.

It's not that I hate jazz, blues or world music. A little of each goes a long way for me, to be sure, but they are all fine, even splendid, at certain times -- like during brunch and over tinny speakers in college-town clothing stores.

But even melodic jazz (as opposed to the numbingly virtuosic kind; I get it, dude, you can play your horn) is no match for a lineup of first-rate public-affairs programs, and the latter is just what WBEZ aims to put in place of the nighttime and overnight music it now plays.


That Ivy League education of his made him into a real aesthete: "Music by colored people is OK to shop to, but not worth a dedicated listen." What an asshole.

But this shift to all-talk apparently also entails a shift away from local jabber in addition to dropping music. (How can CPR drop blues programming considering the role the city has had in the genre?) Check out this letter at the Jazz Institute of Chicago webpage:

In a letter to Robert Feder's Chicago Sun-Times TV/radio column published Thursday, May 18, 2006, on p. 55, the astute Joe Cappo, recently retired as longtime publisher and columnist for Crain's Chicago Business and Crain Communications and legendary advertising columnist for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times, sums it up:

"In the past six months, WBEZ has canceled 'Odyssey,' cut 'Eight Forty-Eight' down to an hour and replaced these two locally oriented programs with endless hours of news from BBC and Canadian broadcast sources. Are we sure that BBC can produce enough news and features about its former colonies to fill WBEZ's plan to go all-talk? Why can Wisconsin Public Radio produce a substantial number of news, talk, call-in, discussion and other local informative shows and we get only an hour a day? Wait, wait, don't tell me."

Joe Cappo underscores a central point in WBEZ's ongoing and shameful failure to produce quality local programming -- the station's resources and priorities have been in partnering with NPR and PRI to develop nationally-syndicated programs with no connection to Chicago. With a multi-million dollar budget and a top-heavy management of vice-presidents and producers, this gang that can't shoot straight currently offers a grand total of *11* hours of local programming *per week* ! -- EIGHT FORTY-EIGHT (5 hours), WORLDVIEW (5 hours), and HELLO BEAUTIFUL (1 hour). Yet we are supposed to believe that they will now be able not only to fill out 80 or so additional hours on WBEZ within a few months but *168* new hours on their new station, WBEW!

At the same time, of course, without discussion or solicitation of opinions from outsiders or staff, Torey Malatia has decreed an end to all music programming -- a key part not only of the station's mission and history but of the city and the country's history as well. Jazz, blues, gospel, swing, Latin, and world music are the sounds of the people who built Chicago and made it an international music and cultural capital -- Black Americans, Latins and Hispanics, and the worlds' immigrants.

The dismissal of music programming and its replacement with endless jabber -- which, listeners are assured, will now include jabber *about* music! -- also is indicative of a basic misunderstanding about what arts and culture are, how they can and should be presented on television and radio, and what the purposes of public media are. While one also *can* talk about music, drama, poetry, or visual art, talk is never a substitute for the art itself. That WBEZ will now join commercial radio in abandoning support for music that is an essential part of the city's history and heritage -- and that is among the great legacies of Chicago's Black, Hispanic, and ethnic and immigrant communities -- is simply a betrayal of its mission to serve and educate the public.


I think the best point made here is that the situation "is indicative of a basic misunderstanding about what arts and culture are, how they can and should be presented on television and radio, and what the purposes of public media are." I agree. Public radio should definitely include news & talk of a local, national, and international nature. But it should also address the arts and culture generally in ways that private media outlets do not. I can't see how a balance of the two cannot be had.

This trend has also hit Wisconsin Public Radio as detailed here.
|| Palmer, 12:03 PM

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