New developments in the electronic broadcast media since the 1950s, despite numerous predictions to the contrary, have proven deleterious to the cause of art and the life of the mind. Television, whether private or public, sinks each year ever deeper into the slough of cultural despond. The hope so loudly trumpeted a decade ago that cable TV (also called “narrowcasting”), in appealing to smaller and more serious publics, would provide a renaissance in the televising of domestically produced concerts, opera, dance, and theater, has ended up doing no more than providing outlets for the already existent, fully paid-for work of state-supported European institutions. By now it is also plain that the revitalization of commercial radio that has taken place over the last two or so decades, however many fortunes it may have created, has had a malign effect on the cultural level of both privately and publicly owned stations.

What has happened, not surprisingly, is that as the actual and potential audience for radio has grown, the economic value of the stations themselves has also grown. Attracted by the prospect of a large listenership, advertisers have made radio broadcasting big business. Why this should be is no secret: There is more to be gained by an advertiser in reaching a larger rather than a smaller audience. It is also no secret that the advertising rates are determined not just by the size but by the composition of the audience; since the young have more to spend—or at least spend more—it is thus to their popular tastes that radio broadcasting will inevitably appeal.

It had once been thought that the provision of public radio, like that of public television, would allow our properly market-oriented society to have the best of both worlds: a free and large market for what the great majority of people desired to hear, and a subsidized and vastly smaller market for what a cultivated minority wanted, and—just as important—for what might be of long-term educational value. What should have been anticipated, but was not, was that the very market pressures that in a gross manner produced the markets-and-numbers ethos of commercial broadcasting would operate similarly in the noncommercial world as well. It has been clear for many years now that public television was animated by the same lust for ratings as the commercial sector. It is now clear that the same can be said of public radio. As public radio has grown, it has devoutly wished to grow more; nothing counts these days in public radio, it seems, but the number of bodies tuned in at any given moment.

All this is now hitting home with particular force in the case of classical-music broadcasting. For many years now, commercial and non-commercial stations alike have carried the complete concert seasons of the greatest American orchestras—among them New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland—along with others—among them Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Washington, Cincinnati, and San Francisco—of slightly less fame but hardly less artistic merit. Along with these concerts, radio stations have carried (in addition, of course, to the perennial Texaco-sponsored Metropolitan Opera broadcasts) the season offerings of such opera companies as the Chicago Lyric Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the New York City Opera. It has also been possible to hear on a regular basis the entire seasons of the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, along with much else from Europe.

Increasingly, this happy situation no longer obtains. The trend is unmistakably toward a constriction of classical music programming. The New York Philharmonic, the first American orchestra to broadcast (in 1922!), has not been on the radio anywhere since the end of last December; it has seemed impossible for the Philharmonic to secure the necessary funds from its private, foundation, and corporate backers. Here in New York the two commercial classical stations, WNCN and WQXR (the latter owned by The New York Times and for many years the flagship station of the Philharmonic network) are clearly under massive pressure to increase the number of their listeners, and it is equally clear that they have decided to do so by lightening the kind of music they program—less unfamiliar music, less twentieth-century music, and less vocal music—and by lowering the tone of the surrounding commentary. In another significant development, KFAC, the last remaining commercial classical station in the huge southern California market, recently shifted to a rock format, leaving serious music broadcasting to the public station located at the University of Southern California.

Unfortunately, despite many still excellent stations, the new demand in public radio across the country, as we learned from an August article in The New York Times, is for one-hour rather than two-hour programs—in other words, for mini-concerts snappily presented with lots of exciting talk, rather than for actual concerts with lots of music, presented just as they occur in real life. Under this new dispensation, conductors—or music directors as they are called these days—will lose still more control over how what they do is heard by the public.

All the usual arguments that accompany the cheapening of artistic life are advanced (with particular force, it must be added, by those responsible for the New York City-owned WNYC-FM): new audiences require new formats; people don't have the time or the inclination to sit down and listen to an extended concert; radio is a creative medium that has special requirements and presents special opportunities. And lurking everywhere is the insinuation that classical music belongs to a stuffy and dark age, rather than to the “now generation” and its “new age” tastes.

Here, in the substitution of programming imperatives for artistic decisions, is nothing less than the replacement of art by public relations, of the artist by the meddling and untrained administrator, and, finally, of a weighty past by a present favored for its triviality. If this is the best public radio can do to provide culture to a nation, do we need public radio?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 3, on page 1
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