December 11, 2005

Gratuitous Musickal Posting

I read this article in today's Pravda on the Potomac with malign satisfaction: Beethoven's Revenge: Ratings Drop At Classical Music-less WETA.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dee Cee radio, WETA was for a long time the only non-commercial classical radio station in the market. Other than standard NPR bloviations "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition", it was pretty much wall-to-wall music. And generally very good selections, too. However, the past few years saw a gradual, creeping expansion of news/talk, culminating in the sudden and unannounced decision last year to go to 24/7 yapping. The station claimed this change was necessary in order to attract a wider listening audience.

"People were angry -- still are -- and I understand that," says Dan DeVany, general manager of the station (90.9 FM) and architect of the switch. "But there was an audience in the Washington area that was not being served by public radio, and we wanted to reach out to them." He's talking about breaking out of the traditional public radio audience of affluent, highly educated, older and white listeners.

But after two ratings books, two fund drives and nine months of the new programming -- a mix of news and talk shows from National Public Radio, the BBC and other outside sources, much of it oriented to foreign affairs -- WETA's audience is smaller, no more generous than the classical audience was, and no more reflective of the demographics of the Washington area.

Feh. You're damned right we're still angry, Danny Boy. As for your "unserved audience" hoo-hah, give me a break. Who do you think listens to the Beeb and NPR around here? Try highly-educated, affluent whites. And it's not as if such local listeners had been starved for this sort of thing before you threw the switch: a great deal of it was already available on WAMU, the other local NPR affiliate. This is in addition to the local C-SPAN radio station and a couple of 24/7 commercial news/talk outfits like WTOP.

No, this move had nothing to do with "reaching out" and everything to do with deserting what the station decided was ultimately a loser format:

DeVany, who has been at the station since 1986, says WETA is still evolving. But even in the coming era of digital radio, when stations will add extra streams of programming that listeners will receive on a new generation of broadcast radios, WETA will not go back to classical music. The station is seeking a new home, probably a college, for its library of more than 27,000 classical CDs.

DeVany says he wouldn't have dropped music if the area didn't also have a commercial classical station, WGMS (103.5 FM), and indeed that station's ratings have benefited from WETA's switch. But in WGMS's pops approach, the music is intended largely as background, an accompaniment to work or commuting, not as the active, serious listening that public radio was created to provide.

The only justification I've ever heard that makes any real sense for continuing to pour tax money into public broadcast is that such stations would be able to air programming with some immunity from the pressures of market forces. It strikes me that real, intelligent, classical music is a perfect example of such programming. How seriously pathetic is it that the nation's capital doesn't have a single outlet for such music? (As the article correctly notes, WGMS never ventures beyond classic-lite background noise.) George Will often refers to public broadcasting as an upper middle class subsidy. This is a fair assessment. But if we're going to have it at all, let's put it to some good use.

Oh, and remember how It Takes A Village, the other great public broadcasting rationale? Sorry, kids.

"Are we abandoning a generation from being exposed to classical music?" DeVany asks. "There's a danger of that across all media. It's still up to the parents."

Yes. Well message to WETA: You know those annual pledge-drive pleas you keep sending me? Sorry, but I'm spending the money on CD's instead.

Posted by Robert at December 11, 2005 10:35 AM | TrackBack

A rare moment when I agree with you Rob, at least in principle. Public broadcasting is great only when it divorces itself from market forces and strives for simply good quality programming. To change its programs for mass appeal makes it a poor imitation of commercial radio (and TV) and then no longer deserving of public support.

Posted by: LB Buddy at December 11, 2005 08:42 PM