Two readers write, apropos of my recent postings about Joan Kroc’s $200 million legacy to NPR.
The first is Cinetrix’ ‘Fesser:
I confess that I am ambivalent about this $200m gift. It seems to me as if a huge gift to the central NPR will only accelerate the homogenization of public radio. At the left end of the dial, NPR is a behemoth that squeezes out marginally alternative radio, leaving only the raggedy fringe of college stations. The certitude of hearing “Car Talk” and Scott Simon from coast to coast, while pleasant for homesick Bostonians, for a few moments at least, does not really offer a serious alternative to commercial media. NPR, the national organization, may raise the bar, but they lower the ceiling. In essence, the problem in my eyes is the replacement of small p, small r public radio with NPR. The difference is like that between coffeehouses and Starbucks.
Also, the contretemps of a few years ago over Christopher Lydon’s “Connection” revealed that the talent at Boston’s WBUR was making serious, six-figure money. I am reluctant to brown-bag it for a week so that I can pay for one of Tom and Ray’s cufflinks. I support public radio by throwing a few bucks to my favorite music station when I can, and I don’t feel too
guilty about listening to NPR when I want news. In any event, given the constant sponsor plugs and contests to win Apple iPods, Toyota Prii, or Pat Metheny tickets, the absence of Paul Harvey is the only way to tell you are not listening to AM news radio.
As for the Kroc gift, given the source of the money, it seems as if it would have been more appropriate for her to throw some cash to an organization that is trying to do something about the obesity epidemic in this country.
My second correspondent hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia:
I see you say that you don’t listen to classical music on the radio. I would greatly miss it.
In and around Philadelphia and Trenton, Mercer County Community College’s WWFM “empire” provides a terrific classical service. It has a network of translators and smaller stations that stretch from north of Easton, Pa. to Cape May. Much of its music is locally programmed and often non-hackneyed (the other day, during the afternoon, I heard David Diamond’s Violin Concerto No. 2). From 12-3 pm and midnight-6 a.m. they use Peter van de Graaf from Chicago’s marvelous WFMT (the best arts station in the U.S.) and he is a joy. Sure, he plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Ravel’s La Valse and other greatest hits, but he also plays French baroque opera, 20th-century Dutch minimalism, Swedish chamber music and all kinds of unusual repertoire and off-the-beaten track tidbits (did you know that Beethoven wrote an Andante and Variations for Mandolin and Harpsichord? I didn’t until PvdG played it). Last night at 3 a.m. (I work nights, sleep days) he played an entire one-act Rossini comic opera–what a treat and a real discovery for me! No, I had no idea what was going on; my Italian is a tad rusty. But the joy and effervescent delight that is Rossini came through clearly and really made my night.
I have over 2,000 classical CDs and a fine system to play them on, and I do often play them. But the radio has a spontaneity and excitement that I enjoy and I would miss the discoveries–things I would never hear any other way. I feel sorry that such listening opportunities are not available in so many places–so many potential classical fans may never hear the music.
They certainly won’t on NPR, either. In Philadelphia, the NPR outlet loves talk so much it REPEATS shows. They play Fresh Air at 3 and then again at 7. They repeat All Things Considered’s first 1/2 hour 2 hours later. There’s no room for music, but they can run reruns? NPR and its partner in crime, PBS, should be ashamed for their total retreat from the fine arts. Keep hounding them about it!
These two e-mails are variations on the same theme, and very much to the point of what public radio ought to be about, at least in my opinion. The operative word is “non-commercial,” which brings us back to my original posting. Public radio runs on subsidies–some direct, some indirect, some voluntary, some not. But its claim to any kind of subsidy, whatever the source, arises from its non-commercial character. To the extent that NPR allows its programming to be driven by purely commercial considerations, it violates that tacit “agreement” with the public.
Two other points are worth noting. As the ‘Fesser notes, non-capitalized “public radio” augments the fast-shrinking diversity of broadcast content in America, while NPR’s increasing emphasis on centralized talk-driven programming diminishes it. And my Philadelphia correspondent makes a point that simply hadn’t occurred to me, which is that one of the most important reasons to listen to classical music on the radio is the element of surprise. My own life as a working critic provides plenty of that, but those who aren’t at concerts and other performances five and six nights a week are in a different boat. Alex Ross said much the same thing in another context a few weeks ago when he wrote
to chide me for undervaluing the significance of BAM as “a filter for those who are baffled by the sheer superfluity of choices out there” (and yes, Alex, I know I owe you an e-mail!).
It may be that my correspondents are I are kicking against the pricks–that the centralizing forces to which terrestrial radio is being subjected are irresistible. It may also be that Web-based “radio” is the long-term alternative to the encroaching homogenization of the airwaves. And it’s puzzling that none of us has heretofore suggested that possibility. The genius of the Web is that it lowers the overhead for individuality. Hence blogging, which is nothing if not individual. If I weren’t having so much fun blogging (and weren’t so damn busy writing for profit), I might well be tempted to launch a Web-based radio station of my own…but don’t ask me!