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The Silence of Sunday Morning Classics

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts blasts public radio, saying it fails to fulfill its obligation to provide music that commercial stations won't touch. The NEA says public radio -- once dominated by classical, jazz and other minority forms of music -- is retreating ever further from that mission, choosing to focus on news and talk.

National Public Radio pleads guilty to using its new resources to build a stronger news operation, but rejects the NEA's notion that public radio is abandoning its cultural mission. Rather, NPR maintains, it plans to use the Web and other emerging technologies to introduce a new generation of listeners to music you can't hear on the radio.

The NEA study, prompted by the dramatic decline in classical programming, hits public radio especially hard for the practice of duplicating news programming on multiple stations in a single city. Washington is the prime example of that phenomenon, with formerly classical WETA (90.9 FM) airing the same NPR News programs at the same time as WAMU (88.5 FM).

"There appears to be a tendency for public stations to discourage music programming in favor of news/talk broadcasts as a way to draw larger audiences," the NEA study says. But because it receives tax dollars, "public radio has an obligation beyond maximizing audiences." The NEA concludes that public radio "should balance its drive for audiences and revenues with a commitment to cultural programming and services that are not necessarily profitable."

But Ken Stern, NPR's chief executive, says the nation's public stations are staying true to their purpose by emphasizing news on the radio and creating online ventures that aim to keep listeners aware of the latest in classical, jazz, adult alternative, bluegrass and other non-pop musical genres.

"We work in a complicated media environment," Stern says. "We have to fish where the fish are. We've made some strategic choices."

NPR has expanded its menu of news programs, added employees and bureaus and grown into one of the nation's most comprehensive news outlets. Three factors have driven this expansion: the growing audience for news shows; the fact that news listeners tend to donate more money than music listeners; and a $200 million bequest from Joan Kroc (widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc).

Stern, however, says that even as NPR has halted production of its main classical programs, "Performance Today" and "SymphonyCast," those programs will not die. They will continue under the direction of American Public Media, a classical music programmer that provides its programs both on the remaining public stations that broadcast music and on an online music service that NPR plans to launch by July 1. On that "digital music space," listeners will find streaming programs, archived concerts, video performances and background on music and musicians.

"Culture is still a critical part of our public service mission, but how we do that is going to change," Stern says. "It's a mystery to me why the NEA isn't applauding these moves."

Instead, the NEA study focuses on radio as the medium through which most people encounter classical music. With the number of commercial classical stations having dropped from 40 in 1998 to 28 last year, the federal agency concludes that only public radio -- which receives $83 million in taxpayer funding -- can introduce the music to a new generation of fans.

That's not likely to happen, however, with news replacing classical as the primary format on public stations. In 1994, public radio aired more classical music than news (140,000 hours to 104,000). By last year, that ratio had flipped, with news filling far more time (224,000 hours to 168,000).

The report says there's no shortage of listeners for classical programming. Classical listeners tend to spend more time listening to their public stations than news listeners devote to their stations, according to a public radio study quoted in the NEA report. But because news listeners tend to give stations larger gifts, many stations have dumped the classics. In 19 of the nation's top 100 markets, including Miami, Long Island and San Jose, there is no classical music station.

The NEA and NPR agree that public radio has reordered its priorities. They also agree that the duplication of programming on public stations is not the best use of public airwaves. (In Washington, WETA notes that although it and WAMU air "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," which are NPR's showcase morning and afternoon news programs, they offer different news and talk shows through the middle of the day.)

The arts agency and NPR differ, though, on what the online commitment to music means. NPR says that in the new media landscape, putting classical performance on the Web will build a new generation of musically informed Americans. The NEA sees the digital space as a secondary service.

The report makes the case that classical listening is not declining, and that even though NPR cited a loss of audience as one reason for dropping "Performance Today," the show's listenership increased last year by 7 percent over the previous year.

Stern agrees that there is a significant audience for classical and other forms of music traditionally heard on public stations. "But people are learning about music now through digital downloading," he says.

"We can fulfill our role to be educators and tastemakers through our digital music space, which will be a portal onto a huge American archive, so you can hear what's happening in classical, jazz, Triple-A [adult album alternative] and also folk, electronica, world music, zydeco, and the blues. We can create a community around that."

By Marc Fisher |  November 12, 2006; 9:17 AM ET
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Until two years ago, I was as big a classical music broadcast radio listener as you can get. Them along came XM radio, with its choice of at least three "classical" stations. Not only can I listen all day without commercials, but I also get to hear a diversified range of music, unlike the extremely limited genre that broadcast outlets have narrowed down to. I have endured my last hackneyed concerto grosso, thank you!

Posted by: reader in Alexandria | November 12, 2006 6:13 PM

Actually, I suspect the issue is a lot more complicated than even this. The Republican administration and its talking heads have criticized NPR and PBS in recent years for their allegedly liberal slant on news reporting. As the leadership of the National Endowment for the Arts has been aligning that organization more closely with conservative values (after having been threatened several times with completely losing their funding), it's probably not surprising that NEA should encourage NPR to quit with all that news broadcasting and get back to something safe and inoffensive. Something like classical music!

Posted by: Rebecca Hartong | November 12, 2006 6:48 PM

Call me a cynical contrarian S.O.B. but, Marc Fisher's colum/blog focuses primarily on matters metropolitan. Today he reports on matters pertaining to NATIONAL Public Radio. Is this change of focus from local to national just chance, happenstance, co-incidence, or dastardly plot to spread a subliminal message? I suspect the last.

The blog bemoans the rise of news at the EXPENSE of classical music on NPR. Expressed another way, NPR should drop news and focus on classical music.

Fisher is a "personality" on recently launched commercial station Washington Post Radio, One "oh" something, something, 1500am which now competes for "news ears" with NPR. Fisher is not a neutral observer in this competition. He and his corporate masters have an axe to grind. Although I have no hard evidence on which to base the following statement, only my opinion as a consumer of news, I think Washington Post Radio is in commercial trouble, and NPR is an easy target.

I'll bow to the superior wisdom of the alternative view, the day after Washington Post Radio launches a classical music station.

Posted by: Lord Fortescue | November 13, 2006 1:09 AM

While local NPR stations have relegated music to "second class citizenship" status, let us not forget that there is a classical public radio station that broadcasts into the Washington, DC area, and that station is WBJC 91.5 fm in Baltimore, the classical radio voice of Baltimore City Community College. 98% of our broadcast week is classical music. We're alway on.

Posted by: Mark Malinowski | November 13, 2006 6:07 AM

Re Mark Malinowski's comment above: Baltimore's WBJC 91.5 FM is a fine classical music station, but its 50 KW signal just hasn't the reach of WETA 90.9 FM's 75 KW signal. It's a shame that for the Washington-Baltimore area the choice is either news/talk or classical music on public radio. It doesn't have to be this way. Vermont Public Radio, for example, broadcasts two "signals" 24/7: "VPR" (news/talk) and "VPR-Classical." Wouldn't it be great if WETA (which seems to be primarily interested in TV these days) were to partner with Baltimore's "Little Engine That Could" (WBJC) to provide a strong classical music "second FM signal" for the DC-Baltimore area.

Posted by: Tom Walsh | November 13, 2006 10:03 AM

First, in defense of Marc Fisher, he was writing about radio--and the long slow demise of cultural programming on public radio--long before WAPO took to the airwaves.

Second, it isn't just classical music that's disappearing. WAMU, which once broadcast such wonderfully electic fare as the Jerry Gray Show on Saturday afternoon for 3 hours (Western swing, classic country and cowboy music) has put nearly all of its music offerings on the Web, save for a few programs on Sunday.

I quit giving to WAMU when they took Jerry Gray off, because they did it a couple weeks after a fundraiser when they told me my money was key to keeping him on the air.
(And for the record, he always raised a bunch of money, because people who love that kind of music are fanatics about it.)

As for moving stuff to the Web, great...but it ain't so easy to listen to web streams in your car, is it?

Yeah, I know I could get Sirius or XM, but I am tired of paying more and more money for technologies that didn't exist 25 years ago. Cellphone, broadband and cable tv are costing me over $100 a month all told as it is.

Posted by: Jack | November 13, 2006 10:18 AM

WBJC is a wonderful station--better than WETA was when it was broadcasting classical music. But in many (most?) parts of the Washington, DC, area--such as northwest DC and Chevy Chase, MD--it's either impossible to pick up a clear, steady signal or impossible to get it at all.

Posted by: jaded | November 13, 2006 10:37 AM

"But Ken Stern, NPR's chief executive, says the nation's public stations are staying true to their purpose by emphasizing news on the radio and creating online ventures that aim to keep listeners aware of the latest in classical, jazz, adult alternative, bluegrass and other non-pop musical genres."

Ken Stern is full of [poo]. The internet is a niche medium. People who want classical music can still find it, yes, through public radio websites, satellite radio, whatever. The point is, public radio used to bring classical (bluegrass, swing, jazz) music to the masses, and they've completely given up that responsibility. I love NPR's programming, but one local talk station was enough for me.

Hey, WETA: it's been nearly two years, and I still hate you! I have friends who spit every time they say your name!

Posted by: h3 | November 13, 2006 11:04 AM

Sure, it's NATIONAL Public Radio, but the issue is one that effects local listeners rather profoundly. I'm someone who is a virtually 24-hour NPR listener, having forsworn TV several years ago. I need, and appreciate, the NPR news efforts. Except for the (paper and internet)Post, nothing else seems so comprehensive, certainly not the Post's feeble attempt at radio.

But, with two NPR stations in the market, along with those on the periphery, like Baltimore and WV Public Radio, I'd like a second station that is more devoted to the arts, in general, not just classical programming. We need an eclectic mix of broadcast music, as well as other cultural programming. WETA does do some of that on weekends, with Prairie Home Companion (and even Bob Edwards Weekend), but weekdays I never touch that part of the dial.

Posted by: Rocco | November 13, 2006 12:57 PM

The issues here have been well argued, but One thing about classical FM radion (including the DC area) that has bugged the hell out of me for years--its poor dynamic range. More than other genres, classical music (especially from the more recent centuries) relies on a discernible difference in dynamics. However, on most broadcast FM stations the dynamics are compressed; sometimes you can even hear during a passage that's suddenly louder somebody manually turning down the gain! Perhaps if satellite radio does away with this, then it's worth paying extra for.

But no, I don't give any money to WETA since they dropped classical altogether.

Posted by: Bill H. | November 13, 2006 1:56 PM

Not long ago I ran across a description of most public radio stations as a mix of little but "Car Talk" and "All Things Ad Nauseum". It all seems to be headed that direction.

Drive time bluegrass was one of the cool things I used to like about DC. Oh, well.

Posted by: Les | November 13, 2006 3:27 PM

First, Marc is a music lover and the knock at the top of this comment list is not a fair criticism. (Suppose he panned a book -- would that mean he would prefer we read the Post? Now, really.)

WBJC is a fine station, but in my extensive travels throughout the DC area (I live in northern Virginia but travel all around) I've found I can rarely get it. When I can, it disappears at inconvenient moments. I wish some businessman would give them an endowment so they could improve their reach.

WETA was okay as a classical station. (Notice how people don't even bother talking about the pititful WGMS?) Over the years WETA seemed to be getting more and more like WGMS, with boring programming.

The only solution I've found is to grab a bunch of CDs when I head out to the car. The car is a good place to listen to neglected CDs. I keep all my favorites upstairs, while the lesser ones are relegated to shelves in the basement. I make a point of rescuing some CDs from the basement for the car.

Posted by: Peter M. | November 13, 2006 4:32 PM

As the GM of a 24/7 classical public radio station near Charlotte, NC, I can appreciate the anguish felt by those who lament the decline of classical music on the radio. But the NEA's moralizing tone ill becomes it. The economics of running a classical station, with a small niche audience, are brutal. Traditional public funding sources may not cut it much longer for many of these stations. Of course public radio has an obligation beyond maximizing audiences. But stations have no obligation to commit financial suicide; on the contrary. If the NEA is really concerned about this problem, perhaps it should consider providing basic operating grants for classical stations, because I predict that without as-yet undiscovered subsidies, more of these stations will either switch formats or die. Meanwhile, for those who aren't afraid of using "secondary services" in the "digital space," a good classical alternative can be found at

Posted by: FKimH | November 16, 2006 4:31 PM

I'm the general manager of classical station WFMT in Chicago and the WFMT Radio Network. The Network produces and syndicates classical, jazz and folk music programming to public and commercial stations throughout the U.S. and the world. And business is booming!!!! We're producing more programs for more stations than at any other time in the Network's 30-year history. So, from where I sit, although I can't deny that there has been some decline in classical music radio, we're doing just fine, thank you very much. To check out the many, many hours of programs we produce and/or syndicate, go to My blog is on the site. If you check the blog you'll see that radio station WFMT in Chicago is an odd duck because we're commercial, non-profit and member supported. In fact, if you read my blog you'll see that we just completed the most successful pledge drive in our history: $552,000 in eight days from 3400 listeners. Keep rolling, Beethoven!

Posted by: Steve Robinson | November 18, 2006 9:14 AM

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