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Weekly AUDIO NEWS for April 24, 2002


NPR Reducing Cultural Programming - Earlier this month The Washington Post revealed that National Public Radio was laying off employees in its cultural programming division. The network's showcase classical program, Performance Today, is being "gutted" according to the Post. At the same time NPR has expanded its West Coast operations concentrating on "the business side of entertainment." In other words, movies, TV and pop music.

This is just part of a long series of defeats for classical music and other higher culture on the public airwaves. (It includes the defeat of the weekly national radio version of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION in l998.) New York City's own public radio station, WNYC, was a staunch supporter of classical music and programmed much cutting-edge new music. Now straight music programs are only heard after 7 PM at night.

The audience for classical music on the air may be loyal and passionate but they are not numerous enough to please the bean counters who are taking over public radio in many areas and applying research and marketing methods from commercial radio to garner the largest number of warm bodies listening. The basic intent of NPR's charter - "to serve groups whose voices would otherwise go unheard" is forgotten. Hotshot consultants and marketers advise both the network and local stations about the unfavorable demographics of classical and jazz listeners.

The result is more and more public stations are going all talk or confining their minority of music programming to pop, folk and world music. The most powerful San Francisco NPR station had an excellent classical format but switched to all news and talk and greatly increased its audience. Many NPR stations have now followed its lead as a result. Individual program series are anathema (except for Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion, which still deliver the audience ratings at most stations). Programmers are told to concentrate on the Average Quarter Hour ratings, which means programming public stations like commercial ones - where someone can tune in for just a bit at any time and hear the same identifiable "sound." Such stations show up better in cumulative ratings and the feeling is that such audiences are more likely to give money to support stations.

Even the remaining classical music holdout stations - both commercial and public - have changed their programming radically to attract larger audiences; in the process throwing out musical taste, quality, and any attempt to widen the musical horizons of listeners. Peter Schickele's satirical radio station that plays "All Pachelbel All the Time" is no great exaggeration for most on-air classical programming today. The reason you hear mostly Baroque and Classical period short pieces is that anything later demands attentive listening - there's lots going on - even with the minimalists. Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart and so on simply wrote better background music! Music choice is further narrowed by the new rules of what must never be aired lest a station lose some listeners; this includes vocal music, pipe organ, solo string instruments, and anything over a certain length. These directives came out of "focus groups" in which sample audiences were played as little as 15 seconds (!) arbitrarily selected out of, say, a Mahler symphony or a Bach toccata. They pushed buttons to select whether they wanted to hear more or not. The commercial classical station in San Francisco went the "All Pachelbel" route and became (according to the Arbitron ratings) the most-listened-to music station in the entire area - over all of the rock and pop stations!

John Patterson of the Voice of America says that public broadcasters "are confusing public service with popularity." The Post article concluded that "we've come to the end of an era in high culture."

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