After announcing it is trying to recapture afternoon listeners by cutting opera broadcasts beginning Saturday, Maine Public Radio has triggered a whirlwind of outrage.
“We knew we were going to have a short-term negative reaction,” said MPR President Rob Gardiner optimistically.
But the elimination of the Metropolitan Opera may come back to haunt him. In other states, executives have been pilloried for cutting the opera, and in one case a station manager was fired.
“Pulling the Met has never been pleasant for managers,” said Michael McCauley, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Maine and an expert on public radio. “It has tended to come back and bite them.
“The way this is playing out in Maine shows a disregard for how this has played out in other states,” said McCauley, who has written a history of National Public Radio, scheduled to be published in 2002 by Columbia University Press.
While the programming changes set to take effect Saturday affect each day of the week, the ones causing the most uproar are the cancellation of Victor Hathaway’s locally produced weekday afternoon classical music program and the elimination of live Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons. Hathaway’s program will be replaced with news and talk shows. The opera’s slot will be filled with a variety of programs.
“Here we are in the boondocks [and] they’re just tearing down what intellectual capacity we have,” said Robert Newall, who for 30 years was the art critic for the Bangor Daily News. “The opera makes my week. Not to have it leaves a terrible void.” While MPR officials defend the move by saying the opera audience is small, Newall counters, “We’re only a minority, but a significant minority because we keep the standards up.” Madeleine Freeman of Orono lamented the loss of Hathaway because there are already so many opportunities to hear talk-radio programs on commercial stations.
Freeman said, “MPR claims they program for minority people. Opera people are a minority, but for us the opera’s the equivalent of Monday Night Football. In our lives it is an institution.” According to David Giovannoni, the leading researcher into public-radio listener patterns, nationwide audiences slump into a “midday trough” every weekday and weekend afternoon, falling to their lowest levels between 1 p.m. and 4. p.m.
On Saturday afternoons, MPR should have 50 percent more listeners than it has been getting by replacing opera with quiz shows and pop music, according to Gardiner.
The audience on Saturday afternoons has been less than 6,000 people.
Charles Beck, MPR vice president, said that the opera ratings have been the network’s “lowest, lowest point for a long, long time.”
Is the station making the change to get more paying members? “We’re not doing this because we hope our membership goes up,” Gardiner said. “We’re doing it because we’ve seen too many of our core listeners tuning out during those times of day.” Considered a “subset” of classical music listeners, Metropolitan Opera lovers have unlimbered their vocal chords and forced public radio stations in at least five states to backtrack on moves to remove the Met.
Earlier this year, elimination of the Met led to the ouster of a general manager with 25 years of service at the public radio station in Roanoke, Va. Condemnation of the Met removal was swift and brutal.
A similar uproar occurred in Wisconsin. Jack Mitchell was head of Wisconsin Public Radio when the 26-station network pulled the Met off the air in 1993.
“Opera people were very successful in going over our heads,” he said regarding fans who clamored enough with trustees and lawmakers to force the network to bring back the opera.
However, “rational programming says you should not air live Met broadcasts on Saturday afternoon,” Mitchell said. “Opera drives away listeners.”
Friday or Sunday nights are more suitable places for opera broadcasts, he said. However the Met and its sponsor Texaco require that the freely provided broadcasts be aired live.
The problem for stations is that opera turns off a substantial number of otherwise loyal public radio listeners.
Mitchell said stations can’t afford to drive away people for extended periods. Alienated listeners are less likely to financially support the station, he said.
This is compounded by the fact that “you don’t get much money out of opera listeners,” he said.
According to Gardiner, “Some of the intuition about the willingness of the opera audience to pledge is dead wrong. The intuition [that they are big contributors] is not demonstrated.”
In a study of 36 public radio stations, Giovannoni’s research revealed that on five of them, the opera broadcasts were a “powerful core service” to listeners. But on 19 stations, the Met broadcast “repulsed” core audiences.
Opera has a small but fanatically zealous and vociferous audience, McCauley said. “Pound for pound they have a lot of clout. Opera listeners are not to be trifled with.”
The December issue of MPR’s quarterly newsletter told opera listeners they could still hear the Met on the three commercial WBACH stations along the southern coast and midcoast. The problem is that the stations don’t reach far inland or Down East.
According to Gardiner, Roughly a fifth of MPR’s members live beyond the reach of WBACH’s stations. They include residents of the Bangor area.
Telling residents to listen to another set of radio stations seems an “affront,” McCauley said. He has never heard of anything like it at any other public radio station in the nation.
The newsletter note was “a PR blunder,” Gardiner admitted. “I think it was a mistake because Airplay [the newsletter] is not a targeted mailing.”
Despite the low afternoon ratings, the changes come at a time when both MPR’s cumulative audience and its membership are rising.
The audience that listens at least once a week has risen from roughly 100,000 five years ago to 125,000 today.
MPR has seen its membership nearly double since 1992, leaping from 11,550 in 1992 to 22,951 today. Member contributions have almost tripled from $644,000 to more than $1.7 million.
Though they downplay the connection, recapturing listeners can mean gaining more contributors or larger contributions.
According to Beck, the more hours a person listens the more likely he or she will become member, or if already a member, the more money he or she will contribute.
Giovannoni’s firm, Audience Research Analysis, has found that listener satisfaction is a better predictor of financial support than personal wealth.
These findings are important in light of the fact that during the last 15 years “listener-sensitive income has grown from one of the smallest single sources of funding to the largest,” according to Giovannoni.
As state and federal subsidies continue to decline, public radio relies more heavily on listener and underwriter support, he has written. “In other words, programming decisions are fast becoming ‘investment’ decisions as they increasingly determine … budgets.”
Amid all the talk of ratings, revenues and listener loyalty, UM’s McCauley said that public radio was founded with the purpose of “reaching listeners who otherwise were not being served.” “The economically rational thing to do is to serve your core audience well,” he said. “He who pays the piper definitely calls the tune. But then where is the public in Public Radio?”