What might have happened: NPR sells off cultural programming, new network dubbed ‘NPR Music & Entertainment’

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In all the excitement about celebrating NPR’s 50th, we’ve managed to lose sight of some of the network’s original aspirations in the arts arena, and some crazy, risk-taking frontier women and men who, like me, had a somewhat different vision for NPR than its present, near-total news identity.

Once upon a time, kids, NPR was to have taken its place among other national broadcasters around the world to become the standard for music, and yeah, news. But, to paraphrase, stuff happens. Here, for your amusement, is what might have happened:

Amid the NPR financial crisis of 1983, network President Frank Mankiewicz not only jettisons the entire cultural programming staff (this really happened) but, under pressure from the NPR Board, sells NPR’s name and all interests in music program production and distribution to a consortium of major market stations who found the completely independent NPR Music and Entertainment (NPR M&E) network, based in New York.

CPB matches its loan to NPR for news, and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program makes huge investments for the construction of 300-seat performance spaces in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami. NPR M&E programs achieve near-universal carriage on a competing, parallel set of public radio stations in most markets, with a network line-up that includes:                   

  • Jazz Alive, live nightly broadcasts from all five production centers.           
  • Performance Today, live-assembled in New York each morning, successfully competing head-to-head with Morning Edition. It is exclusively based on fast-turnaround live classical music performances from the previous night: “Last night Louis Langrée kicked off the Cincinnati Orchestra season with music by Leonard Bernstein. Louis, why Bernstein?”                        
  • Jazz Profiles airs Saturday morning.                        
  • Big Leagues Saturday Night/ America’s Symphony Orchestras, Live with co-hosts Melissa Block, violist, Harvard Bach Society (ret.); and Nina Totenberg, daughter of Boston-based Strad-owner Roman Totenberg. NEA funds weekly live broadcasts of major American orchestras, provided each program features new works by American composers. Results in explosion of new generation of American music.                        
  • Fresh Air is on the roster and focuses exclusively on popular culture.       
  • Folk Festival USA airs Saturday afternoons. NPR Music & Entertainment invents a 24/7 streaming service, Folk Allez (pun intended).
  • From the Top airs live-assembled daily, rotating among the five production centers.
  • From the Top with Grown-Ups spinoff debuts, showcasing established classical musicians, live daily from New York. Same no-tuxedos-allowed format.       
  • Heat, the edgy late-night talk show created by Steve Rathe, airs nightly, live from New York.                        
  • Salsa debuts, live from Miami, with host Melina Almodovar.
  • NPR Theater debuts as a midday entertainment, alternating among New York, Chicago (with Second City in residence) and the NPR M&E/ Robert Montiegel theater in Los Angeles. Leading directors, /writers and /actors clamor to create radio plays, with no make-up, costumes, or sets necessary.
  • CEO Anya Grundmann appoints Suraya Mohamed Managing Director, Artists & Repertoire.
  • Scott Simon, realizing that D.C.-based politics aren’t as spiritually meaningful as music, and bored silly interviewing Senator Windbag, with equal time for Secretary Tightlip, resigns from Weekend Edition Saturday to audition as host of a proposed Sunday-morning coffeehouse, mixed-genre music/interview show. His contract specifies that his producer at NPR M&E will be Ned Wharton, because Ned’s Marin Alsop pieces were the most meaningful work he can remember at WeSat.           

Across the schedule, music careers are made. America’s — and the world’s — best musicians are on the air, every day. NPR M&E programs become a must-be-there spot for emerging and established musicians from all genres. Revenues from sales of recordings and events ticket sales are enormous, bolstered by substantial underwriting. In Washington, NPR News produces an evening and morning newsmagazine, as well as daily and hourly newscasts. That’s it.

But that’s not what happened. What did happen is NPR News, headquartered in the news capital of the world. With Tiny Desk Concerts. Despite that reality, those of us working in the arts programming arena did, in fact, entertain millions of people and put the spotlight on thousands of talented musicians. Which is exactly what I set out to do. And how many can say that? As Barbra Streisand said, accepting some lifetime achievement award or other, “It’s not the awards or the recognition. It’s about the work.”

Wes Horner produced the first live stereo broadcast on public radio (Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion from Symphony Hall, Boston, 1979) and the first live network festival coverage (Boston Globe Jazz Festival, 1981). He was also founding executive producer of Performance Today and produced the first pilots for From the Top and a lot of other stuff. wesleyhorner@comcast.net 

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