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Cue Sheet – March 2011


... but their bosses won't. That's the gist of complaints being reported in Newsweek and elsewhere. As I pointed out last week, what's crippling NPR is its craven management, and even NPR air personalities are going on record with similar complaints:

The journalists feel tarnished—and know who to blame. “Our problems don’t have much to do with what we do, but with the people who manage what we do,” says Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered. “I don’t think we’re antagonists to Fox the way MSNBC is. We certainly seem to disappoint a lot of doctrinaire liberals who expect different programming from us.”

Go read the rest of the story. And while you're there, be sure to read all the way to the end, because there's a tidbit that puts the lie to the claim that NPR is a liberal bastion designed to turn the American public leftist: "In an NPR survey last year, 37 percent of listeners described themselves as liberal or very liberal, 25 percent as middle of the road, and 28 percent as conservative or very conservative." I don't know where the missing 10 percent may stand, but otherwise it sounds like a pretty fair spread.



As you’ve probably heard, Garrison Keillor has announced his imminent retirement (spring, 2013) from A Prairie Home Companion. All he has to do is anoint a successor host, preferably one who sounds less narcoleptic. I nominate Don Francisco. Wouldn’t Prairie Home Companion be more interesting if it could develop the energy of Sábado Gigante?



That NEA study regarding the decline of cultural omnivores I mentioned in my previous post has spurred some interesting thoughts from NPR pop culture blogger Linda Holmes. Primarily, she's taking to task not only those--like the provocative blogger A.C. Douglas, although she doesn't mention him--who insist on the supremacy of high art over pop trash, but also those--like Greg Sandow, although she doesn't name him, either--whose central thesis is that classical music culture has to become more like pop culture if it's going to survive. Wisely, Holmes recognizes useful distinctions between the two areas, without believing they are mutually exclusive pursuits. If you're short of time, I'll repeat her conclusion:

Omnivores thrive in an environment in which, if you are defined by your cultural interests, you at least don't have to be defined by any one cultural interest. Tolerating the ideas that classical music can be viscerally stirring and that Survivor can be sociologically interesting allows much better balance — which benefits everyone — than an escalating and unnatural war between fun and art. Fun and art are natural allies (despite often appearing separately), and forcing them to do battle just divides us into tinier and tinier camps, where we can only talk to people who like precisely the same kinds of culture that we do. That benefits absolutely nobody — not artists, not audiences, and not the quality of discourse.

That's the short version, but do take the time to read the full post.



What's killing attendance at cultural events? The latest theory: The decline of cultural omnivores. This article reports on a new NEA study that suggests that the population of omnivores--people who regularly participate in a broad range of cultural activities--is shrinking and becoming less active. That's bad news because omnivores seem to be the core of the cultural audience; the only greater predictor of cultural participation seems to be education level.

My personal experience--and I realize that personal experience is always a poor way to judge things beyond one's own experience--calls some of this into question. Twenty years ago, I was struck by how musically omnivorous people in their 20s were; they'd give just about anything a try, from Tuvan throat singers through grunge rock to classical. They didn't necessarily have a deep knowledge of any particular style, but they had a broad tolerance and curiosity. I have no reason to believe that these people, or the succeeding generation, have constricted their tastes since then.

So what's the real problem? I think the key word is "participation." Obviously, fewer people are going out to concerts and plays and exhibitions. But participation is not the same as consumption. Think about those millions of music downloads, the popularity of YouTube and Hulu, the success of Netflix and our own Casa Video, the ability to look at all sorts of images (and not just pornography) on the Internet. Surely, cultural consumption is steady if not increasing if we take into account all those people just sitting at home rather than going out and buying a ticket. This is not a new idea, but cultural institutions will be able to thrive if they figure out how to reach people in their natural habitat, and how to find the money that allows them to deliver culture using evolving technology. The omnivores are out there; we just have to take culture to them, rather than wring our hands when they fail to come to us.



David Weigel has a perceptive little essay at Slate about how there's nothing NPR will ever be able to do to end right-wing criticism of what it does even if it no longer gets federal money, because, as with every media outlet that takes money from some sort of donors rather than advertisers, "There will be critics who will attempt—and succeed—to discredit what it reports because of who funds it." Maybe NPR should get out of panic mode once and for all, stop firing executives in a fruitless attempt to placate those who will never be placated, and press forward doing the best job it can.



Well, the wingnuts have again prevailed against the milquetoasts at NPR. As you’ve probably heard by now, the network’s head fundraiser, Ron Schiller, got punk’d by a notorious right-wing prankster and convicted felon named James O’Keefe who produces supposedly incriminating (but heavily edited) recordings of non-right-wing extremists saying shockingly non-right-wing-extremist things. In this case, Schiller was caught commenting (in private conversation to fake Muslims trying unsuccessfully to get him to take a $5 million donation) that Tea Partiers are gun-toting racists and that NPR would be “be better off in the long run without federal funding.” Now, Schiller is cleaning out his desk at NPR (his departure is supposedly unrelated to this non-scandal), and NPR has issued a typically craven statement that “We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for.”

The problem is, Schiller was essentially right. At least one branch of the Tea Party movement has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and, yes, in the long run, NPR would be better off without federal funding—not without the money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which right now is critical to the operations and programming of NPR, PBS and hundreds of member stations, but without the periodic political meddling that comes with that money.

The CPB, as intermediary between Congress and broadcasters, is supposed to be able to keep political interference at bay, but it has failed time after time. In 2003–05, the Bush Administration packed the CPB board not with mainstream conservatives, which would have been OK, but with wingnut lackeys headed by Kenneth Tomlinson. You can read that sad tale elsewhere, but before long, the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting was describing the board as corrupt and Tomlinson ultimately had to quit in disgrace.

Then, of course, there are the periodic Congressional calls to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting entirely, because PBS and NPR are supposedly too liberal. Apparently, not actively promoting the conservative agenda means you’re liberal, even if (like NPR, the New York Times and most other mainstream media outlets) you passively enable the conservative agenda by, for example, acquiescing to pressure not to apply the word “torture” to actual acts of torture endorsed by the Administration, and generally running scared every time some wingnut wags his finger.

So what to do? I see three options.

First, go ahead and let Congress defund the CPB. Not desirable, but ultimately survivable for most of the system. I think in the spots we were running a couple of weeks ago, people were saying that 14 percent of Arizona Public Media’s budget comes from federal sources. Losing that 14 percent would hurt badly, but I think enough outraged audience members, underwriters and other funding sources would come forward to make up the loss. Other stations might not be so lucky; a few could die, and network programming could take a serious hit.

Second, and far more desirable, get Congress out of the business of periodically reauthorizing funding for the CPB (and, for that matter, the National Endowment for the Arts, another favorite target of extremists). Simply create a true endowment—a one-time huge award of cash that could be carefully invested to produce an annual return that would fund ongoing operations. In the current economic and political climate, this has zero chance of happening, but it’s certainly worth considering when things loosen up.

Third, divert all CPB money to support nothing but technology, engineering and non-programming operations. If money is used solely for buying and reparing gear, paying engineers and paying the electric bill, no federal dollars will be supporting content and the wingnuts won’t have any legitimate complaints (as if their current complaints were legitimate). For individual stations, the transition could be a little bumpy, but if all their technical costs were being covered by the CPB, they could reassign the money they’re now feeding the transmitter to programming. That, it seems to me, is the quickest and easiest solution to the fabricated problem.


About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.