How not to build an audience
The latest chronicle of the cold war of high culture vs. low culture just appeared under the byline of Tiffany Jenkins, a sociologist and cultural commentator whose articles frequently appear in The Scotsman. In "Making a case for high art," Jenkins surveys the British arts scene, sees "low" arts like the Spice Girls and video games being placed by audiences and opinion-makers on the "high" perches once occupied by the likes of Edward Elgar and Shakespeare, and despairs. Her prescription for high art purveyors like symphony orchestras? "If you want an audience, you have to win them over, you have to fight for them, and that means saying high culture is better than the rest." You might want to take a brief moment to read this short article (click on its title above) before I tell you from personal experience why I think Jenkins's conclusion is wrong.
WFCR's classical programming has enjoyed steady audience growth and generous support over the past several years, for which we are proud and grateful. Our listener "numbers," as we call them, wouldn't make your eyes pop out, but they're solid. With all the dire news of the aging and shrinking classical audience, I think "solid" is pretty darned good. Now, it would take a fancy and expensive study to determine exactly how we've done it, which ain't gonna happen. So any reasons I could come up with would be speculative, not to mention self-serving. But I can tell you what, to our benefit, we haven't done: promised that the music you hear on WFCR is much better than the crap you're currently listening to. Tell me — what do you think your reaction would be if we marketed ourselves that way? Something tells me you wouldn't have said "You're absolutely right, John! From here on, I'm letting go of the junk I thought up until now was really good, and am now, just because you said to, sticking exclusively to classical music." I would tell you what my reaction would be, but this is a family blog.
Tiffany Jenkins may firmly believe that her prescription would provide the cure for high culture's sorry state, or she may be attempting to provoke discussion, or maybe a combination of both. But even if followed by many arts institutions, her call to action, however stirring, will not produce the results she intends. You don't build an audience for the arts by bragging how much better your arts are than the arts the people you're trying to attract currently enjoy. That strategy is not only counterproductive, it's antagonistic, smug, and snobbish, not exactly qualities to exhibit if you want to win people over. If I've learned anything in the radio and concert biz, it's that you build an audience by presenting arts that speak to the people you're trying to attract, presenting them in a way they're comfortable with, and then consistently delivering more of the same. It's a long, arduous process, this audience building, so the time to start is now.