The Washington Post reports that the NEA is concerned that National Public Radio is shying away from classical, jazz and other niche interests and focusing on news and talk.
The Post quotes the NEA report as saying, "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." But because it receives tax dollars through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, "public radio has an obligation beyond maximizing audiences ... [public radio] should balance its drive for audiences and revenues with a commitment to cultural programming and services that are not necessarily profitable."
In its defense, adds the Post, NPR has stressed that it plans to use the Internet and digital technologies to introduce a new generation of listeners to music neglected by commercial radio.
Ken Stern, NPR's chief executive, told the newspaper that public stations are staying faithful to their mission by emphasizing news on the radio and using online ventures to keep listeners up-to-date with classical, jazz, bluegrass and other non-pop musical genres. "We work in a complicated media environment. We have to fish where the fish are. We've made some strategic choices," Stern said.
Stern also pointed out that while NPR has halted production of Performance Today and SymphonyCast, those programs will continue under the auspices of American Public Media, the Minnesota-based distributor of public radio programming which is a competitor to NPR.
While the Post report concentrates on NPR, the NEA study itself evidently addresses the programming decisions made at the station level. Neither NPR nor American Public Media operate or program stations themselves. Individual stations (such as WNYC in New York, KCRW in the Los Angeles area and WBUR in Boston) and state or regional networks (such as Minnesota Public Radio and South Carolina Educational Radio) pay dues to content providers such as NPR, American Public Media and Public Radio International for the right to broadcast their programming; it is those local and regional member stations that decide which shows to present. According to the Post, the NEA study particularly criticizes different public radio stations who present the same news programs at the same time in the same market.
The number of commercial classical stations in the US has dropped from 40 in 1998 to 28 last year. The NEA believes that public radio (which receives $83 million in taxpayer funding) must try to woo a new generation of fans to the genre.
Classical listeners may spend more time listening to their public stations than news listeners devote to theirs, adds the Post, but news programs tend to attract more money at fundraising time.
The NEA and NPR take a different view of online outlets, according to the paper: NPR says that putting classical performance on the Internet will foster a new generation of musically literate Americans, but the NEA sees the digital space as a less effective way to reach a wide range of listeners.
The NEA report, according to the Post, stresses that classical listening is not declining, and that even though NPR cited a reduced audience as one reason behind its decision to drop Performance Today, the show's listenership actually increased last year by 7% from the previous year.