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This Radio Story Sounds Familiar

There is a really interesting piece on Slate telling an all too familiar story.

Seeing that the median age of its listeners has been creeping slowly up from 45 to 54, NPR is in the throes of trying to make itself relevant to…yes, you know this one…a younger audience.

In some respects NPR’s problem is worse than that of the non-profit arts. In one case, the person telling NPR’s Foundation they need to appeal to a younger demographic had, unbeknownst to them, been hired away by Amazon subsidiary Audible. He is only one of many that were hired away or choose to strike off on their own.

Just as there is a recurring conversation in the arts that they are too beholden to a narrow segment of stakeholders, NPR also finds itself conflicted between innovation and catering to the demands of its funding sources.

The tumult was touched off in late March, when an NPR executive announced that the network’s own digital offerings—most importantly, its marquee iPhone app, NPR One—were not to be promoted during shows airing on terrestrial radio.

The ban was widely viewed as proof that NPR is less interested in reaching young listeners than in placating the managers of local member stations, who pay handsome fees to broadcast NPR shows and tend to react with suspicion when NPR promotes its efforts to distribute those shows digitally. After the gag order was made public, dozens of public radio and podcasting people set about picking at an old scab—discussing, spiritedly, in multiple forums, whether the antiquated economic arrangements that govern NPR’s relationships with its member stations are holding it back from innovation.

I was totally unaware of the NPR One app but according to Slate author Leon Neyfakh, it is pretty awesome and replicates the car based NPR listening experience- “it makes me wish my commute to work was longer.”

If you have read or participated in any conversations about the problems faced by the arts, you will find that NPR is wrestling with many of the same issues: Trying to appeal to too wide an audience versus focusing on specific segments; losing audience to other media channels (podcasts in this case); addressing serious topics vs. providing entertaining content (which is not to say you can’t do both, but there are some serious topics that require a serious approach.)

In other respects, NPR is way ahead of the non-profit arts in general. They may be playing a little catch up with podcasts and losing talent to other companies, but they are gathering valuable data about their audience behavior via the NPR One app. One of the things they have learned is that people skip the serious news content fewer times than anything else. People see value in one of their core activities and they have the data to prove it.

Certainly thanks to the efforts of many research projects, the arts also have data about what audiences value. The data collection method just isn’t as nimble yet.

Since there are a number of NPR and aligned radio shows/podcasts that take to the road for live shows, I wonder if there is any opportunity for adoption/sharing/development of data collection techniques.

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Context And Environment Matter

NPR recently teamed up with the TED people to present the TED Radio Hour which takes three TED talks on a similar theme to revisits them with the speakers. The one I heard run this weekend was about how our brains trick us and confuse us about what we value. It was the second segment with psychologist Paul Bloom which caught my attention because it deal with how so much of what we value about art depends on the context.

It started with the story about Joshua Bell playing in the subway station and no one paying him much mind or money, for that matter. When I talked about this experiment before, I mentioned that context and the environment played large roles in people’s enjoyment.

Bloom talked about the Dutch art dealer who was convicted of treason for selling Hermann Goring a Vermeer–until he confessed and proved the painting was a forgery–after which he was deemed a hero.

Bloom also spoke about Marla Olmstead who was painting works at 3 years old that people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for until 60 Minutes came to visit and it was discovered her father was prompting (and perhaps even helping) with the painting.

A common question was raised about each of these. If Joshua Bell is such a great performer which people pay great amounts of money to hear perform, why wasn’t his quality recognized as an anonymous performer in a D.C. subway? Why is it treasonous to sell a Nazi a real Vermeer but heroic to sell him a fake if you can’t tell the difference between the paintings? If you like the painting, why does it matter if a 3 year old or a 30 year old paints it?

The answer has to do with authenticity, the story which accompanies the experience and a willingness to receive. Classical music doesn’t have to be experienced in a formal performance hall or art in a museum gallery. There are successful programs that bring classical music and opera to bars.

But people go to those events expecting to listen to music. There are entirely different expectations and agendas as you move through a subway station which inhibits a person’s readiness to receive the experience.

Art like wine and food is more enjoyable and valuable when the authenticity of provenance is beyond question. You are buying the story as well as the physical object and that makes all the difference. According to Bloom, there are parts of the brain that light up when you believe you are drinking expensive wine that don’t light up when you believe you are drinking cheap wine even if it is the same wine. So it isn’t that you think it is better, you are actually having an entirely different experience.

The lesson for arts organizations and performers is to help your audience to that mindset. Whether you are in a formal performance space or not, there are things you must do in respect to the environment and interactions to help transition people toward the experience.

You could argue that flashmob performances don’t do that with their audiences and they are often well received. But I would say it isn’t the quality of the performance that people are necessarily responding to but the quality of the planning and execution that brought them the experience.

It is akin to crossing a stream and finding a diamond ring in the water. It is the enjoyment of finding an unexpected treasure that pleases. I think you would find people react just as delighted if an accomplished high school orchestra popped out of the woodwork as they would for the Philadelphia Orchestra revealing themselves in the same manner.

What I really appreciated was Bloom’s late addendum to his TED Talk. In the radio program he said the thing he didn’t emphasize enough in his TED Talk, and was pleased to be able to now, was that most people see it as a glitch or flaw that our perceptions and values can be manipulated by such factors. If we were perfect, these things wouldn’t sway us so easily.

Bloom’s view is that this “flexibility” actually allows us to experience more pleasure in life. He feels that taste can be developed through study and learning. The more you know, the more pleasure you can derive. So if you want to get more pleasure from wine or art, you need to do more than just expose yourself by drinking lots of wine and seeing lots of art, you need intentionally educate yourself.

That seems to align with the findings of the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music report from six years ago which said exposure in the form of lecture/demos didn’t seem to have as long lasting impact on participation and attendance as participatory programs including instruction.

This, of course, reinforces the importance and sense of desperation to get art back into schools.

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Even Great Artists Need Recess

I may be beating a long dead horse here but last week the National Endowment for the Arts linked to a NY Times article from their Twitter account asking what people thought. The article in question was about how public schools in NYC were having arts classes during recess. I tweeted in response that I thought it was great, but that when I was a kid, I had art, music AND recess. The title of the article touts the school as being highly rated.

While I am happy these kids are getting some arts exposure, I wonder how it can really be seen as an improvement and a credit to their high rating that they had to do it during recess. It’s a shame that that the only time students can have the experience. It is with some chagrin that I tell the story of my first day in high school where I was trying to figure out when we would be allowed outside for recess. The memory of realizing I wouldn’t be having recess any more still causes a little ache.

I have to wonder, is there really so much more to learn these days that they have to squeeze arts classes and recess out? I know arts get cut for financial reasons, but if a school has the resources to offer it during recess, then they could offer classes as well, right? It has been 30 years since I was in elementary school, but I don’t think there have been that many developments in history, reading, mathematics and science in that time that can’t be covered in the course of all the elementary years of school.

If they have to spend so much additional time teaching and testing material for kids, that must mean those of us in the previous generations fell short of learning all that was required of us, correct? I quake in fear for what it will mean for me when these kids grow up and bring their superior knowledge capacity to bear, pushing me out of my job.

Okay, while it may indeed happen one day that my knowledge will be obsolete compared to younger people, I am fairly certain it won’t all hinge on the differences between what we learned in elementary school. In fact, I may retain my superiority over them simply because of the freedom of recess I enjoyed in elementary school.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan recently had a piece on the Creativity Post about this very topic. (my emphasis)

If you want children to do well in school, give them dedicated time to play, sing, dance, build something out of wood, or whatever their fancy. There is a myth that time spent in these activities is time better spent cramming in more information for all important high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. We each have a finite amount of willpower and when this willpower is exhausted, carrots and sticks are not going to change this fact. Our brains need time for restoration and replenishment. Discover what kids are passionate about and set them free to pursue it. Let me repeat that, set them free. Do not overly structure their recess. Do not overly structure their play time. This is a time for them to recharge their batteries. In return, you will get a greater frequency of creative, curious, critically thinking youngsters. You will get attentive, engaged students.

There is a great NY Times magazine article on the science behind the finite nature of willpower. There is a shorter version of the information on NPR if you don’t have the willpower to read the article. 😉 (Though as you will learn, you might be able to get some will power by eating a cookie!)

The more I read about the importance of allowing kids free time, the more I appreciate that my elementary school emphasized self-directed learning. (Albeit under the withering gaze of nuns which I am sure counteracted some of the benefits the freedom afforded.)

It occurs to me that arts people shouldn’t just be advocating for arts in the schools, but the free time to explore and express it. I am sure artistic and creative people are well aware of examples from their own disciplines in which a strict teaching environment has had a stultifying effect on the development and joy of young students. The advocacy can’t simply be about providing arts education if it is bereft of an opportunity to play. If students choose to spend their free time peering down at a cell phone texting their friends, it may be in part because they were never provided the opportunity and encouragement to spend it any way else.

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Interconnected Fates

You may have heard that the police in Madison, WI are in sympathy with many of the union members who have gathered to protest their governor’s push to end collective bargaining rights for state workers. Over the weekend I heard an interview on NPR that mentioned both police and firefighters were turning out in support of the protest even though the governor wasn’t proposing to take away their right to collective bargaining because they figured it was only a matter of time. The fire fighter interviewed said they viewed it as an effort to divide and conquer.

Earlier this month Louise K. Stevens who writes the “Arts Market On..” blog made a similar observation regarding the need for the arts to advocate in areas outside of their immediate concern. (my emphasis)

No doubt that you have and will be getting emails and calls to action about this. But probably those calls are piecemeal, asking you for you to advocate for one or another of these line items while ignoring the whole, and that’s the problem. We a splintered sector that has never to date united around the concept of our culture, and now each splinter may be too small and too isolated from its compatriots to build a coalition to save federal support for any of the splinters.

We have a few weeks to save the half century-plus of infrastructure that modest as it may be demonstrates our public commitment to the breadth and majesty of our American culture, our shared story. If we stand splintered now, we may never get a chance to regroup. If we think that saving orchestras or contemporary dance is more important or that saving library funding and museum funding matters more than poetry, or that history and heritage and historic architecture should out trump theatre…well, how will it end?

Around the same time, Arlene Goldbard (h/t to Ian David Moss) wrote a three part series titled “Life Implicates Art” which while long, I think does the best job in summing up the challenges facing the arts and the wrong turns that have been made. Other bloggers, myself included, have touched upon these issues at times but her entries are timely in the context of all the movement nationally in Congress and state legislatures in regard to arts funding. (Also, every entry she makes has an embedded music video which is kind of a cool little hook.) Her ultimate conclusion, much like that of the firefighters in Wisconsin is that there is a high degree of interconnected interests among seemingly disparate groups.

In the first entry, she addresses the problem which is mostly that arts people think that the failure to secure funding is directly related to a failure to make a strong enough case for the arts when it is often more about politics rather than money. In some respect there is actually a weakness in the way a case for the arts is made. She notes, as I have pointed out a few times, that pretty much every industry can make a claim about the economic benefits of their activity. She notes, as most of us know, that with all the money spent on combat troops in the Mid-East, maintaining a nuclear arsenal and imprisoning a large portion of the population, the expenditures on the arts is pretty minuscule but there is not enough support for the arts nationally to make it politically difficult to make cuts there first.

In the second entry, she expounds upon the forces at work that determine politician priorities. She labels the arguments suggested by Americans for the Arts recent mail-in campaign to Congress as “so bloodless and soporific that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading all the way to the end of an op-ed based on them. Yet these have been the talking points for more than three decades. The result? The real value of the NEA budget has fallen by more than half. But hey, it’s all we’ve got, right?”

Instead she suggests a more strongly worded, speaking truth to power letter to all those who voted to support the recent extension of tax cuts to millionaires the revenue of which could cover the budgets of the NEA and NEH twice over.

Here’s an open letter along the lines I’d like to see circulating in every district represented by someone who voted for the recent extension of the Bush tax cuts:

Dear Senator/Representative:

Less than two months ago, you voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They reduce tax revenues by an amount equivalent to paying out twice the combined budgets of the National Endowments for The Arts and Humanities, every single day of the year. At a time when our nation’s polarization of wealth is extreme—the top 10% own 80% of all financial assets; and the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%—I am shocked to think you care more about the wealthiest political donors than the well-being of the rest of us.

By cutting arts funding and other social goods, you are making the rest of us pay for millionaire tax cuts. It is wrong to sacrifice our children’s access to music and art classes to save millionaires from paying their fair share. It is wrong to abandon artists who have dedicated their lives to working in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other places where their skills of imagination, beauty, and meaning lift spirits, build community, and help people find resilience. It is wrong to defund creativity at a time when we it is precisely what we need to excel in science and business, to align our spirits with hope and recovery.

It is embarrassing to be the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate, prison population, and expenditure on war, and the lowest public investment in creativity. You want us to believe that you’re concerned about the economy and taxpayers, but really? Tote up the tax breaks included for millionaires: you just put $225 billion of taxpayers’ well-being into the pockets of people who already have more money than they know how to spend.

This is a shame and a scandal, and I’m going to do everything I can to let my fellow voters know about it. Restoring arts funding would be a tiny gesture to show you actually care about what the rest of us want: it’s literally the least you can do. You were elected to serve everyone, not just big donors. Here’s your chance to prove it. Don’t let America down!


John/Jane Q. Public

In the third entry, she talks about reframing the arts. As you might imagine, the burden lays upon the arts community, especially in terms of expanding the definition of art beyond what is produced by non-profit arts organizations. There is an image of the arts as elitist that people who want to cut funding have evoked that many people in the arts chafe against because we know there aren’t people in black ties sipping champagne and making obscure literary references at our performances and exhibits. Except that there are some aspects of the elitist imagery we are responsible for perpetuating.

“It’s abstract, one step removed from things people really care about: many people who happily embrace words like music or movies, who sing or draw or love to dance, will respond negatively to the idea of “the arts”—Oh no, not me, you hear them say, I’m not into the arts. Ask that same person, “Do you like to dance?” or “Do you play an instrument?” and the answer will be “Yes,” with no evident awareness of contradiction.

That’s because they pick up on the exclusionary subtext. Many people who consider themselves part of “the arts” use that label to distinguish the work of subsidized organizations from commercial cultural industries and entertainments. An enormous industry generates multibillions each year from sales of music, movie tickets, video rentals, concert tickets, and the like; and enormous numbers take pleasure from making music, taking photographs, writing poems and songs, taking part in dance competitions and poetry slams, and so on.

Yet, except when they want to summon impressive figures about the scope of the cultural economy, mainstream arts advocates don’t mention any of this. There’s an embedded snobbery that presumes the superiority of nonprofit arts organizations and the work they support, a kneejerk dismissal of the rest. This discourse often has an air of unreality: I hear advocates saying that “the arts” are in decline, yet—to pick just one example—almost everyone I encounter integrates music into daily life, almost as a kind of medicine, self-prescribing the sounds and feelings that will support them through the day.”

Goldbard feels this can be reversed, of course, if efforts are made to change practice and national cultural policy. She derives hope from the fact that people are realizing that assessing value based on numbers doesn’t work in healthcare or education and that short term savings results in a long term cost. Care and education of the whole person today prevents more expensive problems down the road. Her suggested approach to employing the intrinsic value of the arts is no less holistic and intertwines with education, healthcare and commerce to bolster all these areas.

In an homage to Goldbard’s posting style, I embed the following video. It isn’t explicitly about art and many wouldn’t consider the singing to be art because it employs autotune, but that’s sort of Goldbard’s point.

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