How to report on music
I love NPR. I consider it the last, best hope for broadcast journalism. Not that I don't sometimes shout back to my radio during Morning Edition or All Things Considered -- who doesn't? Yes, I'm proud to be associated with NPR, even from the distance of a member station.
But I don't always love NPR's music coverage. I've got no problem with the amount of coverage, or the quality and diversity of the music covered. Those have actually improved over the last few years. No, what bugs me about their music coverage is that too often, it's missing the very qualities I love in their news coverage.
Whether the topic is politics, the economy, foreign affairs or the environment, NPR's reporters can be counted on to be extremely well-informed. They're able to take complex subjects and, drawing from a very deep pool of knowledge, make them comprehensible to us lay folk. They stay away from jargon and technical minutiae, though it's reassuring to know that if needed, they could sling the geek-speak with the best of 'em. They have access to noted authorities in the field, and include multiple perspectives in their reports.
NPR's hosts may not possess the detailed knowledge of most subjects that their reporters have. But, as well-informed generalists, they can hold their own with a wide variety of interview subjects. They know when the answers they've been given require a follow-up, and possess sharply calibrated b.s. meters (where can I get one?).
When the subject turns to music, however, my confidence in NPR's journalistic excellence erodes. The reporters misuse such basic musical terminology as "dissonance" and "syncopation", making one doubt whether they really know what they mean. When describing music, they have a bad habit (to which I am not immune) of falling back on clichéd adjectives, their all-time, all-purpose favorite being "dark". They attribute qualities to some music that hardly anyone with a wide musical background would credit it with exemplifying. If you call the latest indie-rock album "profound" -- and I love indie-rock -- what do you call Mahler? If the latest pop singer is a "great improviser", what superlative is left for Sonny Rollins? And would the reporter even know what I'm talking about? Worst, when interviewing musicians, both reporters and hosts turn way too often from keen journalists into fawning fans.
(Lest I be accused of not heeding my own advice, I could come up with examples of all of the above if I had more time. Goodness, what blogging I could do if I didn't have that darned classical show to do every day!)
So, bravo, huzzah and a hearty "well-done" to NPR's Tom Huizenga for his report on tenor Joseph Calleja from last Friday's Morning Edition. Yes, a real, honest-to-goodness report! With depth, nuance and critical perspective! From someone who obviously knows his coloratura from his tessitura!
Please check it out to hear what I mean. Let's hope this becomes more the norm than the exception on NPR for the future. Perhaps if we (kindly) demand it, it will.