I’m madly trying to catch up to New York City’s pace after being halfway around the world in China these past two weeks. Things seemed pretty quiet before I left town so it seemed perfectly O.K. to take a vacation, during which I had almost no access to the Internet or my usual news sources. Lo and behold, among the 780 emails awaiting me in my inbox yesterday were a group of missives about NPR cancelling their two remaining syndicated programs devoted to classical music: Performance Today and SymphonyCast.
But I’m not terribly shocked. This latest NPR turn is the final small step in a generation-long series of moves away from cultural programming toward the incessant chatter of talk radio. It’s what made me turn away from being a regular public radio listener long ago. I still remember being incensed nearly a decade ago when WNYC-FM, then a New York City-owned public radio station, cancelled Performance Today‘s regular afternoon slot, which I had listened to religiously for years. Admittedly, there was never enough new music on the program for my taste, but every now and then there was something, and it was an important way to keep up with the goings-on and mindsets of folks involved with classical music all over this country.
I’ll never forget the heated tête-a-tête I eventually wound up in with the station’s then program director about the need to bolster “cume numbers” which sounded frightening close to blatant consumer commercialism to me at the time. While the zealotry of my then seemingly complete idealism has been a bit tempered by a better understanding of the economic realities of survival in our society, I still firmly believe that if all you’re interested in is the bottom line you’ll rarely find it in culture and that most short-term brilliant ideas quickly become long-term bad ones which is why there is a difference between commercial and non-profit entities.
Luckily, American Public Media has come to the rescue this time around. Sarah Lutman, APM’s senior vice president of content and media, promises that both programs will be produced in their St. Paul studios next year. As Lutman was one of the chief protagonists for APM’s wonderful American Mavericks radio series and website, one can only hope that these programs will not only flourish in their new environment but will prove more friendly toward music being created here and now than they had been previously.
But it still remains disconcerting and somewhat irritating that a nominally non-profit public radio syndicator based in our nation’s capital is so dismissive of cultural programming. And worse, that talk radio, which seems ultimately a commercial venture, is the best product that can be put forward by an organization that receives public funding and tax incentives to generate a worthwhile alternative to the wares being purveyed in the marketplace.