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Terry Teachout: What to Learn from Howard Stern: Can Old and New Media Coexist?

Thanks very much. It’s good to be in Minnesota, home of American Public Media’s Classical Music Initiative, one of the most encouraging things to happen to classical music in America in about as long as I can remember. Because I don’t need to tell any of you that when it comes to media, electronic and otherwise, the news in classical music has been discouraging for a very long time now. Sometimes it seems as though the only way to get a newsmagazine to print a story about classical music is to make an apocalyptic prediction about its coming demise!

I should know. Mind you, I’ve never predicted the End of Classical Music, but I did see the end of the classical recording industry coming down the track many years ago, and wasn’t even slightly surprised when it finally came to pass. So my credentials as a Cassandra are solid—solid enough for me to say, with the expectation of being taken seriously, that what is happening here in Minnesota can make a big difference, if it’s done right.

That’s why I’m here today—to offer you a little encouragement, as well as a little advice, all of it coming from an unusual perspective. I write about all the arts, but music is the one I grew up with. I used to be a professional musician. And I love radio almost as much as I love music, not just as a consumer but as…well, I guess you’d have to call me “talent,” since I made dozens of appearances on NPR’s “Performance Today” in its previous incarnation, and continue to pop up with reasonable frequency in other settings.

I wear another hat, too. In addition to being a print-media critic who likes to talk on the radio whenever he gets the chance, I’m also one of the first old-media writers to have made the transition to the new Web-based media. My blog, “About Last Night,” at terryteachout.com, was the first arts blog to be launched by an arts journalist with a national reputation. I started it because I think the new media are about to play a pivotal role in the survival of the arts in America, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor.

So it strikes me that I’m in something of a special position, both as an observer of the arts and a giver of well-meaning advice to folks like you. I’m a middle-aged man with a long institutional memory—but one who also sees arts journalism from the point of view of what’s happening right this minute. And where some see hopelessness, I see the possibility of great things in the not-so-distant future.

To predict the future, you must first understand the past. So let’s start by taking a cold, hard look at a worst-case scenario that is now coming to pass: the implosion of the recording industry. It started with the decline of the major classical record labels. A few weeks ago, I read a story in the New York Times by music critic Allan Kozinn that would have made my flesh crawl, were it not for the unhappy fact that it didn’t surprise me at all. Here’s part of what Allan wrote:

In the weeks since American and European authorities approved the merger of the recorded-music businesses of Sony and Bertelsmann, two of the world's five biggest record companies, virtually all the discussion has been about what the deal means in the vast popular-music market, with barely a mention of the labels' classical catalogs….

No one at either Sony or BMG, either in their classical divisions or among corporate spokesmen (to whom journalists are immediately referred by workers terrified to talk, lest they earn an instant spot on the list of 2,000 employees expected to be sacked), has been able to say what will become of the labels' classical operations. So faintly do the classics register on the corporate radar that BMG's spokesman, when told that his company had recorded the likes of Enrico Caruso, Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein, said he was pleasantly surprised to hear it.

Now, that’s a big story, right? Well, yes and no. For me, it’s just the final chapter of a tale I started telling back in 1996, and thinking about even earlier than that. For the past quarter-century and more, the major classical labels have been making every mistake they could possibly have made. They over recorded the standard repertoire. They let the success of the Three Tenors hypnotize them into thinking they could run their corporate divisions in the consistent expectation of making lots and lots of money in the short term. They didn’t think through what would happen when they started selling digitally remastered budget reissues of their back catalogue on compact disc. Above all, they completely ignored the fateful implications of the rise of the Web, the invention of the mp3 file, and the emergence of file sharing. In short, they assumed they could go on doing things the way they always had, instead of looking forward to the technology-driven changes of the near future.

Well, the future is now, and it’s not pretty. Sony Classical is recording Jane Monheit, BMG isn’t recording anybody at all, and judging from Allan’s Times story, it seems perfectly clear that Sony-Bertelsmann, Inc., doesn’t give one thin damn about the classical-music treasures in its vaults. On the other hand, it’s only a matter of time—and not much of it, either—before all those old records become universally available on the Web. Lest we forget, the first commercial stereo recordings turn fifty years old in 2004, and go out of copyright in Europe. In the twinkling of an eye, the great performances of the golden age of recording, the unparalleled cash cows of the classical recording industry—Callas’s Tosca, Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky, Karajan’s Beethoven—will be fair game for the file sharers, circulating around the world in digitally remastered stereo sound, all for free. That will be the end of the story. Lights out.

The same thing, of course, is happening to the rest of the recording industry, for many of the same reasons—only a little slower. That’s the only difference. But…there’s a new story in the works. I suggested its outlines in an essay called “Life Without Records” that I wrote for Commentary, and included in my last book, A Terry Teachout Reader: In it, I said:

I, for one, think it highly likely that more and more artists, classical and popular alike, will start to make their own recordings and market them directly to the public via the Web. To be sure, few artists will have the patience or wherewithal to do such a thing entirely on their own, and new managerial institutions will presumably emerge to assist them. But these institutions will act as middlemen, purveyors of a service, as opposed to record labels, which use artists to serve their interests. And while even the most ambitious artists will doubtless also employ technical assistants of various kinds, such as freelance recording engineers, the ultimate responsibility for their work will belong—for the first time ever—to the artists themselves.

And you know what? It’s happening, right now. Anybody who’s ever downloaded a pop song from iTunes knows that the technology already exists for musicians to bypass traditional modes of distribution. All you need is a way to tap into the new Web-based infrastructure—and it’s here. Maria Schneider, the greatest big-band composer of her generation, and Jim Hall, the greatest living jazz guitarist, are now recording not for a record label, but for themselves. They’ve signed up with Artist Share, a Web-based company that provides them with the technology to market their self-made recordings directly to consumers, in downloadable form as well as on mail-ordered CDs, without the massive institutional overhead of a traditional label. What’s more, their records are selling. Maybe not in the numbers that a traditional record label could muster—but it doesn’t matter, because most of the profits go straight to the artists themselves. It’s the future of recording—and it works.

How is all this relevant to you? Simple: it’s a cautionary tale. The new media give you new ways to do old things. You can ignore these new ways, or embrace them—but if you ignore them, you’re asking for trouble. So instead of waiting until change becomes inevitable, you need to beat the inevitable to the punch.

Now, new technologies and the cultural changes they bring in their wake can be frightening, especially for middle-aged people who’ve spent and shaped their lives doing things one way, and suddenly have to learn another. I sympathize, as I always do with those who find cultural change disorienting. After all, I’m in the same boat. I grew up with black discs and manual typewriters! What I try to do, though, is keep firmly in mind that different and worse aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes different is better, and sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s just different. The trick is to try to understand the nature of the difference—and, insofar as possible, to think about how new culture-shaping technologies can be used in the service of old values.

As you know, I’m also a drama critic, and I’m well aware that film has permanently usurped the place of live theater at the center of the cultural conversation. But it didn’t kill live theater—and it also gave actors and directors new ways to tell old stories, and tell them to larger audiences than ever before, as Laurence Olivier did in Henry V and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing.

Like the lady in the song, I’m old-fashioned—but my attachment is to essences, not to their embodiments. And while I’m well aware of the power of what political scientists call the law of unintended consequences, I also believe in the power of free men to shape and reshape those consequences. All you need is the will. That’s why I started a blog.

I mentioned earlier that I was, so far as I know, the first widely read print-media critic to launch a daily blog about the arts. Alas, my single-handed assault on the blogosphere didn’t exactly trigger an avalanche of imitators, though artsjournal.com, which hosts my blog now features a number of other familiar faces, and Alex Ross, the classical-music critic of The New Yorker, recently started a blog of his own, much to my delight.

But something far more interesting and significant happened instead: the blogosphere invaded the print media. Several of the young artbloggers I know, many of whom started blogging before I did and most of whom were unknown before they started blogging, now write for major newspapers and magazines. Yet they continue to blog as well. Why? Because blogging, which operates according to its own homegrown rules, has evolved into a brand-new style of journalism indigenous to the Web, one whose exciting blend of immediacy, informality, and interactivity has its own unique appeal to readers—and writers.

A theologian I know once told me that technology is not merely neutral, but a positive good. I'm no technophobe, but I had trouble getting his point. Now, after a year of blogging, I understand it completely. Blogging stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the corporate journalism that exerted so powerful an effect on writing in the twentieth century. Instead of the homogenized semi-anonymity of a mass-circulation magazine, it gives writers the opportunity to practice the old-fashioned art of individual journalism, self-published, unmediated, and—above all—interactive. That's a good example of what my theologian friend meant: the highest purpose of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, has turned out to be its unique ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.

To be a technophobe—a Luddite—is to renounce all possibility of shaping technology-driven cultural change. I started terryteachout.com for the exact opposite reason: I wanted to try to use a new technology in order to help sustain and enrich the great tradition of Western art. Early in the life of my blog, I posted a quotation by Marshall McLuhan, the great prophet of the electronic media, which (allowing for a certain amount of poetic exaggeration) sums up the way I try to look at technological change:

I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.

Neither do I. And neither should you. Like the old print media, like the recording industry, like symphony orchestras and opera companies, you stand at the threshold of a new world of opportunity. But to enter that world, you have to be willing to embrace new techniques—and you also have to know when to fold losing hands and walk away.

Now, some public-radio people think that all classical radio is a losing hand, and they’d just as soon fold it as play it. And others think it’s just fine exactly as is, and are determined to do things the way they’ve always done them, or go down with the ship. But both of these positions are dead wrong. So let’s talk for a moment about why they’re wrong.

First, the “fold ‘em” crowd, the bean-counting art haters. They’re making a much bigger mistake than they realize. I don’t need to remind any of you that public radio is, just like the name says, a public entity, subsidized in part by public monies and in-kind equivalents. Public entities exist to serve the public—but not in the same way as commercial corporations. The whole point of having a public radio network is to ensure that it will do things that commercial broadcasters won’t do. Sir John Reith, the man who for all intents and purposes started the BBC, used to say that its job was to give the public "something a bit better than what it thinks it wants." In the case of the BBC—and, once upon a not-so-distant time, NPR and PBS—that meant a significant presence for the fine arts. Now we’re being told that it doesn’t. But in the absence of such programming, how can public broadcasting in America justify its special status?

The answer is that it can’t. If public radio walks away from the kind of cultural programming that once made it genuinely "public" in its appeal, it will prove beyond doubt that it’s no longer a "public" undertaking, but the purely commercial, ratings-driven talk-radio shop that many listeners reasonably suspect it of having become—and I don’t see why such an enterprise deserves any kind of special treatment or special privileges. A radio network that does nothing more than follow the ratings should be required to live and die by them.

But that brings us to the “hold ‘em” crowd, the people who think classical radio should be and do exactly what it was and did a quarter-century ago. To these folk, ratings and market research are nothing but a threat, the stones being thrown by the barbarians at the gates. And you know what? That’s just plain dumb. Believe me, we’re never going back to the days when public radio stations broadcast hour upon hour of talk-free music. Nobody wants that kind of programming anymore. I don’t even want it. That’s why I have three thousand CDs in my collection—so that I can listen to what I want, when I want. If classical radio can’t offer something fresher, smarter, more original than that, something more responsive to the changing needs of its audience, it’s a safe bet that the “fold ’em” crowd will have its devastating way.

Once again, let’s look at the experience of other cultural organizations and see how it can be applied to the current situation in classical radio. A few months ago, I read "Bridging the Gap: Innovations to Save Our Orchestras," a study by the Knight Foundation that preaches the virtues of "nontraditional and enhanced concert experiences" that "seek to reach new and younger audiences by integrating programmatic themes, other art forms and other modes of communication to present classical music in alternative formats." It’s an interesting report, especially for its descriptions of the attempts of regional orchestras to find new ways to attract younger listeners—attempts that appear to be successful. But the report also contains this warning:

To date, there is mixed evidence about whether these [non-traditional] concerts would lead their ticket buyers to more standard orchestral fare, including classics or pops concerts….The findings are consistent with evidence from the Audience Insight study, which suggest that "increasing attendance—or at least staving off a decline in attendance—may require a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’" and that "some orchestras, especially those in smaller cities, might re-examine how they define their constituencies and how they select, package and deliver their musical products.”

Reading that paragraph inspired me to ask a question that nobody in the music business ever asks, at least not out loud: what, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra? Most lovers of classical music, were they to be asked that question, would sputter out some variation of "Well…just because!" And I know what they mean. Even now, it’s still widely taken for granted that a symphony orchestra is an indispensable part of that which makes a city civilized. But is this really true?

Let’s consider some superficially similar cases. What justifies the existence of a regional art museum? In the case of an institution like, say, Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose permanent collection is exceptionally fine, the answer really is self-evident: the quality of the art is its own justification.

What about performing ensembles? Again, let’s take a best-case example. Carolina Ballet, based in Raleigh, N.C., operates on a smallish budget and is in perpetual danger of going under. Yet it still manages to present a repertory ranging from modern classics by Balanchine and Tudor to brand-new works of high quality, all of it danced exceptionally well. Once again, the justification for Carolina Ballet's existence is self-evident: all you have to do is take a look.

Is it possible to make a case of the same kind for regional orchestras? The Knight Foundation studied a group of orchestras ranging from the Philadelphia Orchestra on one end to the Wichita Symphony on the other. Three or four of the groups it studied are known and admired outside their regions, and one, the Philadelphia Orchestra, is world-famous. All the rest are third-tier orchestras—in other words, they don’t record or broadcast, and you probably wouldn’t know their conductors’ names.

As it happens, I haven’t heard any of the latter groups in concert, but I have heard quite a few similarly situated orchestras, most of which offer their subscribers an ultra-safe mixture of standard classics and souffle-light pops concerts, performed adequately but not memorably. They rarely play new music, and when they do, it usually isn’t very good. None of them is having much luck at attracting younger listeners.

If I lived in a city that was home to such an orchestra, would I subscribe to its concerts? A hundred years ago, I would have said yes, because live performances were the only way to hear music you didn’t make yourself. But the invention of sound recording has made it possible to hear great performances of the classics whenever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a merely adequate live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? For me, and for a fast-growing number of other Americans, the answer appears to be no.

So what justifies the existence of a third-tier regional symphony orchestra, outside of the employment it offers to classical musicians? Does civic pride count for anything? Not in our egalitarian age. Today, no community gets points for simply having an orchestra, irrespective of its quality.

I speak as one who believes with all his heart in the power and permanence of Western classical music. Nevertheless, if I were the head of the Podunk Foundation for the Arts and I had to choose between funding the Podunk Philharmonic and a non-musical organization similar in artistic quality to, say, Carolina Ballet or the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I'd dump the orchestra without thinking twice. Why? Because its primary function, which is to give live performances of great music, has been rendered obsolete by technology.

I’m not calling for the defunding of all regional orchestras. But a growing number of American orchestras are finding themselves in lose-lose situations not dissimilar to the one I've just described. It's their job to come up with a better alternative. If they don't, nobody will mourn their passing.

Now you ask, how does that logic apply to classical radio? Well, let’s take a look at the longest-running classical-music program on the air, the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts. They’re in trouble, as you all know, and music critics across the country have been running nostalgic essays about how they heard their very first Traviata on the kitchen radio, and how it’s really, really important that a new generation of listeners have the same opportunity. But…is it?

Once again, let’s try to cut through the nostalgia and take a clear-eyed look at the reality of the situation. I never listened to the Met’s radio broadcasts, not as a kid (we didn’t get them in the small town where I grew up) and not now. As for all those music critics who did, they’re mostly talking about listening experiences that took place at least a quarter-century ago, in a completely different culture. Today, you don’t have to sit by the kitchen radio to hear your first Traviata anymore. Opera is easily available through all sorts of other media. So…why bail out the Met broadcasts, especially if their ratings are plummeting? I don’t believe in sinking money into obsolete cultural ventures that have largely outlived their utility, and it occurs to me that the Met’s Saturday-afternoon broadcasts—at least as presently constituted—may well fall into that category.

Sure, Mozart and Verdi and Britten will always be important. We know that. But we can no longer take for granted that our listeners know that. If fewer people want to listen to Mozart, our job is not to keep on serving up Don Giovanni the same old way—and not to stop serving up Don Giovanni altogether. Instead, we need to figure out how to teach our listeners to love Don Giovanni. That is the public trust that public radio must honor in the twenty-first century.

So what should the Met be doing? Talking to Howard Stern—and Bob Edwards. The biggest piece of news in radio this year was the announcement that Howard Stern was giving up on terrestrial radio and moving to satellite radio. The second biggest is that Bob Edwards has signed with XM Public Radio. Let me read you part of a story that the Washington Post ran just the other day about this latter development:

For most of the public radio establishment…Edwards's new gig is a harsh reminder that the future of public radio is very much in flux. If listeners prove willing to pay for satellite radio, much as viewers decided a generation ago to shell out for cable TV, then NPR and other programming providers will be sorely tempted to follow the money and sell their content to XM or its competitor, Sirius. That’s why local public stations are lobbying hard for NPR not to make its top-shelf programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," available to the satellite services….

Those who produce public radio programming are intrigued by the chance to win new audiences for their news, talk and music shows. But those who run local public radio stations fear that satellite will strip away their audience, funding and reason to be, leaving them in the pickle that PBS found itself in after Discovery and other cable channels offered a wider variety of documentary and serious TV programming.

Do you hear what I hear? Because I hear the same sound I heard ten years ago in the classical recording industry—the sound of gray heads being stuck in the sand.

That’s why this is a critical moment for classical radio producers like you. My guess is that classical radio is in the process of breaking into three different pieces. Traditional terrestrial radio is being supplemented—and may in time be replaced—by subscriber-funded satellite radio and Web-based Internet radio. The emergence of these new media has made it possible to "narrowcast" a much wider variety of programs aimed at smaller niche audiences. And this is where it gets interesting for you—because all three media will offer sharply differing kinds of markets for your services.

As always, you need to start by facing the inevitable. The future of terrestrial public radio is to be increasingly talk-oriented and ratings-driven. That’s a given. But it’s not the end of the world, not by any means. For one thing, it’s perfectly possible to create intelligent talk-oriented shows about the arts that have something positive and challenging to offer their audiences. John Schaefer’s “Soundcheck” and Kurt Andersen’s “Studio 360” are prime examples of that kind of cultural programming. Good or bad, that’s where the action will be in terrestrial public radio, whether you like it or not, and if you want to function in that medium, you need to be ready for it.

But what if you don’t like it? Or what if you’re looking to diversify your own operation, as you should be? Then you should be looking very hard at satellite radio. For one thing, I suspect that’s where the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts really belong—not on terrestrial radio. In fact, if I were in charge of the Met broadcasts, I’d be thinking about modernizing the intermission features and making them available to terrestrial radio, while reserving the actual live opera broadcasts for XM or Sirius. That’s the kind of bifurcated programming model that makes sense in the new age of classical radio.

Satellite radio was made for niche programming. It has room for a whole universe of programming possibilities—including the old-fashioned music-driven programming that so many of us grew up with, as well as the new-fangled talk-driven cultural programming that increasingly dominates the public-radio scene. And like the subscriber-based cable-TV networks, it’s prepared to give a great deal of creative latitude to the people who supply it with content. It has room for Howard Stern and Bob Edwards. It has room for you.

And if you’re still not satisfied with the existing options? Then think about adding to your creative portfolio the radio equivalent of a blog—an independent, Web-based radio station of your own. So far, Webcasting is the largely unexplored and almost entirely unexploited part of the brave new world of radio. It is what blogs were three or four years ago, back when the word “blog” was unfamiliar to anyone outside a small group of wonky fanatics. And precisely because it is unknown and unexploited, it offers exceptional creative freedom—plus the possibility of unexpected growth.

Remember that before 9/11, nobody thought blogs would become a significant part of American journalism. Now they’re the hottest thing in American journalism—and, as I mentioned earlier, they’re starting to feed into the print media without losing their own distinctive independence. What’s more, Web-based media like blogs can be used as an adjunct to old media. I use my blog to market my books, to advertise my lectures and radio appearances, to try out ideas that eventually serve as the germs of full-scale print-media pieces. I thrive on the immediacy of blogging, and the opportunities it gives me to interact with my readers.

By the same token, I think it’s just possible that Web radio may eventually come to have the same kind of relationship to terrestrial radio that blogs are now developing with traditional print media. At the very least, you should be making your work available on your own interactive Web site via streaming audio, the same way that every smart public radio station in America is now using its Web site to make its programs available throughout the country, and around the world. Why let them have all the fun? You can use your Web site as a showcase—a low-risk, low-cost laboratory for individual experimentation—as well as the springboard for something potentially more ambitious and far-reaching.

Whatever the future of Webcasting, one thing is already crystal-clear: the age of the broad-based nationwide common culture, of Time, Life, Walter Cronkite, Paul Harvey, and shows that “everybody” watched is now history. The future belongs to diversity, decentralization, and a radically unprecedented amount of consumer choice. And herein lies the great potential of public radio. In a radically decentralized world of individual journalism, of blogs and Web-based radio, the babble of competing voices can become overwhelming. In such a world, where does the ordinary consumer of the arts find the answer to the simplest and most immediate of questions: what will I do tonight? What record will I buy tomorrow? What play should I see this weekend? Even…what blog should I read this morning? That’s where public radio comes in. And that means unprecedented opportunities for you—if you’re willing to seize those opportunities, to try new things and new media, to experiment without fear.

What you cannot do is turn your face away from things as they are, out of fear or nostalgia for the past or simple inertia. That’s the road being taken by the Metropolitan Opera, the same one that led to the dead end that has now been reached by the classical recording industry. But you don’t have to let the juggernaut of change roll over you—and you don’t have to popularize classical music beyond recognition, either, so long as you recognize that what we call “radio” is no longer a technological monolith.

Terrestrial radio, satellite radio, Web radio: this is the triad that symbolizes the future of cultural programming on public radio. Each has its own needs. Each offers its own creative opportunities. Together, they form a stool with three legs—a stool sturdy enough to hold you up as you move into the twenty-first century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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