New York saw two cultural icons transformed last month: the rebirth of classical radio station WQXR and the sudden and unexpected death of Gourmet magazine. Their separate fates may tell us something about the different ways that commercial enterprises and mission-driven organizations view similar challenges.
Broadcasting from Carnegie Hall at the opening concert of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the new WQXR switched over from serving as the commercial classical station of The New York Times to join the family of WNYC, the nation's largest public radio station. WNYC agreed to acquire WQXR from The New York Times in a complicated deal that involved the sale of the original WQXR call signal to Univision, a Hispanic broadcaster, and the former Univision station would then serve as the new home for WQXR.
Just a few days earlier, Condé Nast Publications unceremoniously announced the demise of Gourmet. Born in the same era as WQXR — back in the 1940s — and for many serving a similar function, Gourmet provided the highest caliber of culinary information with a mission that went beyond selling ads and showing readers how to carve a turkey. Gourmet was always a more erudite cooking magazine, and particularly under its final editor, Ruth Reichl, it became increasingly focused on issues that went beyond the dinner table to include agricultural policy, the environmental and health implications of our food systems, and farm labor practices.
Armed with a report from McKinsey & Company urging sweeping cost cuts across the publishing empire, Condé Nast decided to close Gourmet, choosing to keep publishing Bon Appétit, its other major food magazine, which had suffered fewer advertising losses in the declining economy. Apparently, nowhere in the calculations of which magazine to preserve was a measure of which one delivered a higher quality of information or public service.
It is somewhat ironic, now that food and farm policy has become a topic of popular concern, with the success of books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, that seemed to suggest a growing interest in a magazine that took a broader view of cuisine.
By contrast, the case of WQXR's rebirth under nonprofit ownership, reflects well on the buyer and the seller. Experts in the market value of radio spectrum suggest that the selling price of $11.5-million represents a discount from the full market value of the signal. This deal shows that the commercial New York Times Company understands that it has a civic responsibility to continue serving long-standing constituents, even if it did not maximize profits for the company. At the same time, WNYC demonstrated a commitment to the mission of expanding publicservice programs when it agreed to buy the station.
The WNYC acquisition of WQXR is particularly important as part of a larger trend in the resurgence of classical radio. In the past 15 years, the consolidation of the commercial radio industry, coupled with a shift from music to news and information in public radio, led to a decline in the availability of classical music on the air. This gradual decline was especially troubling because orchestras, chamber ensembles, and other organizations that stage classical musical performances — continue to depend on radio to stimulate interest in their offerings.
And many arts organizations would be stranded in the pop-culture marketplace if they did not have an outlet like their local classical station to present their marketing information.
But in the past few years there has been a noticeable turnabout, with strong public radio organizations acquiring additional signals, in some cases preserving classical stations that would probably go dark if they were sold on the open market, and in other cases changing formats to add classical music to their repertoire.
In Washington, the public radio station WETA adopted an all-classical format in 2007, when the commercial classical station in the metropolitan area, WGMS, abandoned the classical format, in an unusual deal that sent the WGMS music library and key staff members to WETA.
That same year in Miami, until then the largest market without a classical signal, the American Public Media Group acquired a station to establish a new service, Classical South Florida. And most recently, in Boston, the public-broadcasting powerhouse WGBH announced the purchase of commercial classical WCRB, working with advisers from Public Radio Capital. The acquisition of WCRB will allow WGBH to operate a full-time news and information and full-time classical service side by side.
This is not to imply, in any way, that classical music is the only format that should be preserved by public broadcasting. Quite the contrary. Public radio can and should include a diverse blend of cultural content, including jazz, roots, and popular music, as well as robust news and information. But it is heartening to see the trend of declining classical service reversing, as nonprofit broadcast organizations seek to expand their service in pursuit of their public-interest missions, even in otherwise challenging times.
It's a shame that commercial media enterprises don't follow similar logic.
In the future, Gourmet readers who shift their subscriptions over to Bon Appétit can still expect to learn how to carve their Thanksgiving turkey, but they may have to look elsewhere for the articles on organic farming, federal farm subsidies, or the victory of farm workers for wages and dignity in a long labor battle.
As for me, I already know how to carve a turkey. Besides, with the money I save canceling my subscription to Bon Appétit, I can increase my pledge to WNYC in appreciation of the service it provides now that it runs WQXR.
Vince Stehle, a philanthropy consultant in New York, previously worked as program director for the nonprofit sector support program at the Surdna Foundation.