Early last week, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher wrote The Silence of Sunday Morning Classics about a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts that was critical of public radio for what the NEA views as a diminished commitment to classical music in favor of news. The report, Airing Questions of Access: Classical Music Radio Programming and Listening Trends [PDF] is actually a meta-study of earlier reports, not new research.
It would be helpful in interpreting the NEA's position to read another of its recent reports, The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life [PDF] wherein the headline for the "10 Key Findings" section is, "Arts Participation Builds Civic Engagement" (italics added). Here is the report's conclusion:
Americans who experience art or read literature are demonstrably more active in their communities than non-readers and non-participants. Their lifestyles reflect the same level of vigor and social commitment as those of sports enthusiasts. (According to separate findings from the survey, arts participants volunteer, exercise, and do outdoor activities at rates comparable to those of sports event attendees.) Thus, literary reading and arts participation rates can be regarded as sound indicators of civic and community health.
Shifting the focus to young adults, the analysis finds that more than a quarter remain committed to charity work. Relatively stable, if small, percentages continue to engage in plays, musicals, and opera. For other performing arts, young adult attendance has declined, sometimes precipitously.
Young adults also show diminished interest in reading, exercise, and sports events. Moreover, in no activities—arts or non-arts-related—did young adults in 2002 surpass the participation rates reported by young people in 1982 or 1992. (The increase in opera attendance between 1982 and 2002 is statistically insignificant.)
These declines merit attention because they are the first signals of arts participation patterns by Generation Y, the second largest generation in U.S. history. With 68 million people born between 1977 and 1994, this cohort’s current and future engagement levels will determine the viability of our arts and our communities.
That headline makes the common mistake of implying causality from mere correlation and in doing so tars those
the providers of who have replaced arts programming with news programming with the problem of lack of civic engagement. It's just as possible that arts participation and civic engagement each benefit from a third variable (or combination of other variables) -- for example, educational attainment.
This is important because it goes to the core of their criticism of public radio programming. Their job is, of course, to be advocates for the arts, but I'd hypothesize that if someone did an identical study of news listeners, it would find that there is a strong correlation between news listening and civic engagement also. And there the causality might be more plausible.
[Warning: here's the obigitory paragraph before the sentence beginning with "But."] I'm a classical music fan with a sizable personal collection. For 34 of the 37 years I've worked in public broadcasting, I've had responsibilities at stations with significant classical music commitments. I personally find the diminishment of classical and jazz formats on radio a sad thing.
But... But it's unfair and bad statistical analysis to blame news for the diminishment of classical and jazz music and, worse, for the diminishment of civic engagement in our culture. Arguably, classical music is dying as a radio format because its fans are dying. I love Brahms' choral masterpiece, Ein deutsches Requiem (I own 13 CDs and a video of it). Recently, I attended the Spokane (Wash.) Symphony's performance of it and noted the ages of the other participants. I'm on the leading edge of the baby boom, yet was one of the younger people there. It's likely that many of those under 30 attending were there because grandma bought an extra ticket to have some company.
It's also unfair to blame NPR (disclosure: I sit on its board of directors, but am expressing a personal opinion here) for the diminishment of classical and jazz programming. NPR programming is a reflection of what its member stations want, just as its member stations are a reflection of what their communities want. Unlike the BBC or CBC, American public broadcasting services are determined at the local level.
Finally, the criticism leveled at public radio by the NEA and others is an artifact of the scarcity of FM spectrum. That scarcity masks the classical music listening that goes on via CD collections and, increasingly, on the Internet and digital music players. HD Radio, Internet radio, and the "new" spectrum being redeployed to multimedia services in the 700 MHz band are destroying (some would argue have destroyed) the scarcity factor. Those who think that radio stations should play what's good for people, not what people are voting for with their listening, will find the world of abundance is much friendlier to their cause.