Discard the empty rhetoric about “amplifying the arts,” follow the money, and you will eventually find, winding your way through all the obfuscation and spin, WGBH’s thrifty corporate character.
by Bill Marx
My previous column argues that the cuts in jazz programming at WGBH prove that the public radio station’s once admirable allegiance to arts coverage has flat-lined in terms of quality and imagination: its new approach is to do the minimum but collect the maximum in underwriting and funding dollars. WGBH, which has arrogance to spare, doesn’t think anyone will notice the scam, or if they do, figures that through sheer chutzpah it will convince supporters that cutting back on substantial arts and culture programming somehow serves the public interest. In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, WGBH President Jonathan Abbott reinforces my point. When it comes to public media’s commitment to the arts, Abbott reassures us, “a change in schedule does not mean a change in character.” But it does, and we all know it does. His argument, given what it says and doesn’t say, exposes the current ‘character’ of WGBH — and it isn’t pretty.
The double-talk is obvious to the point of demeaning WGBH listeners. Abbott writes that there is a “continued need for the alternative programming public media provides, the exploration of topics thoughtfully considered.” For decades, while the money rolled in, the notion of ‘alternative’ at WGBH meant generating first rate arts and culture programming, such as “Eric in the Evening.” But now Abbott tells us that times are tough, technology and the media landscape are changing (more on this later), so much of what made the station distinctive must be cast aside for an emphasis on public dialogue, which means latching onto a cheap-to-produce news and yak format primarily made up of syndicated national programming (from NPR and PRI) that reproduces much of what WBUR already broadcasts.
Is there anyone who believes that there’s too much substantial coverage of the arts and too few talking heads in the mainstream media? How does duplicating what can be heard newswise further up the dial (in some cases at a different time) meet public media’s responsibility to create programs and services that “educate, inspire, and entertain?” Read Abbott’s words carefully — his hypocrisy is in plain sight. WGBH is ditching the ‘alternative’ in order to create an echo chamber.
Jazz has to be cut because, according to Abbott, “the world is experiencing a technical revolution that is altering the way people use media. From online streaming to satellite channels to infinite apps, the public has many more options for accessing the specific, narrower content they want.” Instead of WGBH taking up the difficult but necessary challenge of providing quality arts coverage across these evolving platforms — i.e. serve the mission of public radio by enriching lives and setting high standards — we are told people listen to music on the weekends, thus Eric Jackson is elbowed aside. How in an age of web streaming did WGBH come up with a decision this anachronistic? Was there some sort of a study? Is it the same study that deceived station honchos into believing that listeners are dying to have two NPR news and yak stations? What sense does duplication make when technology makes it easier and easier for people to get what they want when they want it? Shouldn’t the idea be to create new content and programming that people want? The irony is eye-rolling: Abbott’s warning about “fragmented audiences” is exactly what the station is doing with its all-talk copycat format — slicing up the mass of listeners who want to hear NPR news and conversation.
What is revealing in Abbott’s op-ed is what he doesn’t say, not just his outright contradictions. For him, arts and culture coverage is only about presenting performances rather than also producing independent journalism: “recording local events like Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo at the House of Blues, producing a new young people’s performance series, Broadway or Bust; broadcasting live from Tanglewood and capturing regional music festivals; presenting Great Performances, American Masters and Austin City Limits.” It is pretty nervy that Abbott cites “Austin City Limits” as evidence that WGBH “remains deeply committed to the arts,” given that the station buries the program, airing it at midnight Sunday nights on Channel 44. Perhaps the real motive behind the move to stick music programming on the weekends is that — given all the excitement sparked during the week by the non-stop news talk — the arts are essentially seen as a relaxant, culture as an alternative to counting sheep.
In addition, the revolution in technology and the growing ease of distributing music and video on the internet suggests that groups and venues can eventually deliver this service themselves. Why shouldn’t the House of Blues record Yo-Yo Ma and make the concert available to listeners? Those days are coming soon … and Abbott knows it. Note that the WGBH honcho has nothing, zero, to say about the station’s homegrown coverage of arts and culture, via Boston Public Radio, news programs, and postings on the web. Even he cannot pretend that pigs will fly over the airwaves: there will be no serious reporting and commentary on the station about arts and ideas. What we are getting (and will get) is wall-to-wall publicity — flacks, hacks, and interns selling the WGBH brand, which gets its cache from NPR.
So, what is the character of the new WGBH? Abbott insists that it will go about “amplifying the arts, fostering citizenship, culture, education and the joy of learning.” Yet he offers no new programming ideas, no fresh approaches, no innovative web initiatives that are supposed to galvanize this pedagogical uplift. The truth is written between the lines of Abbott’s op-ed: WGBH will be doing less quality arts programming than it used to, but marketing its mediocre/meager efforts harder to win corporate dollars and public support.
In other words, follow the money and you will eventually find, winding your way through all the obfuscation and spin, WGBH’s thrifty corporate character. NPR programming brings in lots of dough, even though WGBH’s pitiful ratings fall far below those of WBUR’s (WGBH listener numbers remain in the toilet, even after the station’s move to a news format). Jazz and arts programming may be on life support, but don’t be concerned for the upper crust welfare of WGBH’s sixteen Vice Presidents (Fidelity has 21) who have hefty six figure salaries to maintain. Times may be lean, but the 1% solution has shown the big cheeses how to maximize profit margins and keep broadcast executive pay flush — slash costs, beat down the union, and put up cheap talk programming. How long this situation lasts is anyone’s guess. My assumption is that Abbott and company are storing the gold they bring in today for glittery parachutes that may be launched within a decade or so. When will technological change, shifting demographics, and the absurdity of Boston having two public radio stations playing the same programs sink in?
The answer may be found by slightly tweaking the venerable parable of the blind men touching different parts of the elephant that Abbott uses early in his piece to point out the ambiguous nature of public media. For the blind men, substitute sixteen sightless WGBH Vice Presidents. For the elephant, put in a cash cow. When the Vice Presidents can no longer hear its moos, the jig will be up.