Class Act or Class Action?

One of my favorite sayings holds that obsolete technologies reappear as art forms. While this may be true for oil portraits and quilts, it seems not to have happened for what is now called terrestrial radio. Faced with competition from satellite radio, iPods and, broadcasters are responding to by narrowing playlists, tightening formats and homogenizing offerings, all of which makes the airwaves a pretty dull place these days. And it’s not just the commercial broadcasters. Nowhere is the self-immolation of radio more apparent than on the nation’s public radio stations.

Now comes news from Detroit that angry members may turn public radio’s race to the bottom into more steeplechase than sprint. The class-action suit alleging fraud on the part of all-classical WDET-FM in the station’s adoption of a talk format is notable on two fronts. The first is its very existence. Public radio listeners have historically docile in the past.

The second may well be the impact of the suit. Having worked both in public broadcasting (briefly as an employee and as a producer and host for some dozen years), and in advertising, I can tell you that commercial radio parses the numbers and acts upon them with a ruthless efficiency that would make the bean counters at Clear Channel blush.

By being “in touch with what the market wants,” the rationale for numbers-driven programming, public radio’s becomes just another commercial radio operator. Wasn’t public radio created as a sort of cultural national park, protected from commercial interests? More pragmatically, do we really need a public radio sector that’s as defensive and grindingly conventional as commercial radio has become?

If this continues, public radio, the last holdout of art music in the media, will be just another obsolete technology.