How to think about public radio

Quite by chance, I learned that my post about public radio quite a while ago generated some froth on the web, not least a strong dissent from my blogmate Terrry Teachout.

I’d said that public radio has reasons for cutting back on classical music, and that it doesn’t do any good to protest without understanding what the reasons are. But some people think I’ve forgotten what public radio’s mission is supposed to be — to broadcast things unavailable elsewhere.

Now, this is an old argument. It’s one of the first objections brought up — often in tones of outraged anger — whenever any public station makes a classical-music cutback. So I want to say again why I think it misses the point.

The argument isn’t about what public radio ought to do. It’s about what can be done. Suppose you think that public radio has a mission to broadcast things that otherwise wouldn’t be available. Suppose you’re right about that. Suppose you’ve proved — with absolutely incontrovertible logic and historical analysis — that public radio has betrayed its mission and its trust if it doesn’t broadcast classical music.

So now what? How are public stations going to pay for what you’ve proved they ought to do? Where’s the money going to come from? Very few people listen to classical music on public radio. At WNYC in New York, fully 80% of everybody listening switched to another station every morning when Morning Edition ended and classical music began.

So how can public radio stations survive if they follow the mission you’ve satisfied yourself they ought to have — and suddenly their audience is only one-fifth of what it used to be? Clearly, they’ll raise a lot less money from their listeners. Can they make up for that with government funding? Not likely. Government has cut way back. And other funding sources — corporations and foundations — aren’t likely to give more money to any institution that suddenly reaches many fewer people. Corporations give money essentially for public relations. Why would they pour it into radio stations that just lost their listeners? Foundations can be more altruistic, but the people who run them aren’t all that different from the people who listen to public radio now, and don’t listen to classical music. Some foundations buck that trend, of course — the few that care about classical music. But if you cut off 80% of your listeners, you’ll also surely lose many of the foundations that used to fund you.

So here’s the bottom line. It’s very simple. No matter how noble its principles may become, public radio can’t survive at its present size if it broadcasts to a tiny audience. As far as I know, the only participant in this public debate to face this fact is Larry Josephson, a long-time public radio personality, who thinks that public radio simply should contract. If it can’t broadcast what he feels its mission and its honor both require — not to mention the larger health of our culture — then he thinks it ought to downsize. Public stations should be very small (low-powered, too, I’d assume), broadcasting classical music with very tiny staffs. That’s an honorable position, one that, as far as I can see, is consistent with reality. I wish other people arguing these points would face the facts this clearly.

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