Do Conservatives Have a Point about NPR Elitism?


By the way, Zappa was a highly skilled jazz musician!
Conservatives have had National Public Radio in their budget-cutting sites since the 1980s. Their beef is really ideological–the anachronism of "liberal media" bias that hasn't been remotely true since the 1960s but is always good for votes. One charge, however, might just have some merit: that NPR is "elitist."

I couldn't help think about that assertion as I fiddled with my car radio to flee my local NPR station's latest fund drive. There was WFCR with its tin cup out again at precisely the moment that a new Nielsen poll revealed that, by stunningly large margins, jazz and classical music are the least consumed musical genres in the nation. These also happen to be just about the only music WFCR plays. The station does throw a Saturday night sop to world music–a time in which most music lovers are at concerts–and a two-hour Sunday morning slot to Latin music–a time I hasten to add that many Latinos are at mass. Can you say tokenism? Years ago WFCR dumped its folk, Appalachian, and Celtic programming. The station's music is so generic that I theorized the call letters stand for White Folks' Classical Radio. I also shifted my donations to more adventuresome NPR stations.

But mine is not an ad hominem put-down of WFCR, NPR, jazz, or classical music. I believe in National Public Radio. Among other things, it might be the last real bastion of news collecting and analysis left in the land. The Nielsen poll, though, should be a wake-up call to NPR. Jazz and classical fans–genres into which I dip occasionally, but not passionately–should be able to indulge their tastes on the radio, but the question remains one of whether the tax-paying public should help pay for it. If more time is devoted to opera than to other music the public actually likes, how does NPR dodge the charge that it's elitist?

Some stations have grasped what my local has not–that in a democratic, multicultural society one must at least pay lip service to the reality that you cannot be White Folks Classical Radio and expect the public to give a damn if you make budget or not. NPR actually has quite a lot of non-classical/non-jazz offerings: alt.Latino, All Songs Considered, First Listen, Metropolis, Microphone Check, Mountain Stage, Song Travels, The Thistle & Shamrock…. That is to say, you can find music in Spanish, adult alternative, folk, bluegrass, country, Celtic, hip-hop, hipster tunes, New Age, and world music. NPR's "Small Desk Concerts" are the best things you can find on YouTube.

Two problems persist. First, local stations often fail to carry the NPR programs noted above. Second, NPR still ghettoizes everything that's not jazz or classical. By confining most of the planet's music to the margins, NPR either inadvertently or intentionally cultivates an elitist base. It also fails in one of its core missions, and I quote:  "to create a more informed public — one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures." If you're not a classical or jazz fan, you might tune into NPR for the news or, perhaps, stumble upon a program devoted to music you like, but it's less likely to be a habit and it's exceedingly unlikely it will educate, say, a rock fan on the nuances of a classical concerto.

If NPR wishes to be relevant in the future, it could do worse than to emulate the globe's most successful public radio venture: the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC assembles playlists known to make elitists apoplectic. It pairs Bessie Smith and Van Morrison and thinks nothing of playing a cheesy Tom Jones song in a set with an aria, some John Coltrane, and a pop tune. Sound awful? It can be, but if you listen you can begin to hear the connections between bebop and jam bands. Or that Lady Gaga could sing opera if she wanted to. Or that the Celtic "fiddler" Alasdair Fraser is as skilled as any classical violinist.

Just to be clear, I know that NPR isn't in the same category as for-profit commercial radio. I am aware of its many public service contributions and–as noted above–it is, in my view, the single best news service in the United States. I also know it doesn't get a lot of tax money any more because of conservative castrators. But let's not kid ourselves: NPR is elitist. Asking taxpayers to pay anything for a service they don't care about is analogous to bilking them to build a sports arena for a private enterprise–something NPR fans tend to rail against. Want broader support? Give the public more reason to care. How about some Billy Taylor and some Taylor Swift?

Postscript: According to Nielsen, the public's music tastes run (from top to bottom) this way:

            1.  Rock and roll (apparently not as dead as reported!)
            2.  R & B, hip-hop, and rap (not sure these should be lumped!)
            3.  Pop
            4.  Country (probably # 1 given that so much rock and pop is actually country)
            5.  Alternative (another catchall: folk, acoustic rock, New Age, etc.)
            6.  Dance/electronica
            7.  Christian/gospel
            8.  Latin
            9.  Holiday music
            10. Classical
            11. Jazz (Taylor Swift sold half as many records in 2 months as all jazz artists combined!)
            12. Children's music (It's actually lower than jazz—but just barely)

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