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KFAC's Demise a Bad Signal for Future of Arts

September 16, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

KFAC is going off the air this month, and I'm mad as hell. No, don't write me letters saying it hasn't gone off the air, that it's just changing format. As far as I'm concerned, KFAC has gone off the air, and I don't feel much like sending mellow thank yous for all the years of good music it has given me.

And it has. Ever since I moved to Orange County in 1959, I have enjoyed the classical music that KFAC, virtually alone, offered the growing millions of people who live in Southern California. True, the commercials got more and more frequent over the years, but--except for KUSC, which I couldn't pull in very well--it was the only game in town, and I was grateful for it.

Now the station has been sold and will soon become the 75th or 180th or 10,000th radio station in greater Los Angeles to play rock music. The station's general manager, James de Castro, has been quoted as saying, "The minute we switch, we will be delivering at least five times the audience and delivering much, much more of the type of sound that the L.A. market requests."

Yeah. And you can attract more people to a hanging than an art opening. Or to a striptease than a ballet.

It wasn't as if KFAC was going broke offering classical music. According to a recent Times editorial, it was "doing well financially." But it could do better joining the cacophony of rock stations, so naturally it did.

I hear endlessly that in a capitalist society, the entrepreneurs inevitably go where the big bucks are. Not always. There are still entrepreneurs in this society who believe enough in what they are doing and the audience they serve that they are willing to accept a moderate profit and the enormous satisfaction that goes along with the knowledge that they are delivering a quality product to an appreciative audience. (Remember the old "Firestone Hour" of classical music in the early days of television? NBC had to force it off the air because the sponsor was quite happy with its small and faithful audience.)

I know such an attitude is spacey and too much to expect this day and age. As The Times editorial went on to point out, "The inexorable laws of economics, aided by the deregulation of broadcasting and the popularity of the leveraged buyout, have killed (KFAC)." I'm not sure what that means, but I think it adds up to selling out.

So accepting that as a necessary price we pay for our system, let's look at the demise of KFAC another way. And let's be unflinchingly and unapologetically elitist.

There is a minority--how large a minority I don't think anyone knows--of people in this country who have considerably different tastes from those who flock to see "Lethal Weapon 2" in movie houses or play rock music at ear-splitting levels or find car crashes entertaining or get their knowledge of the world from news bites on TV or the tabloids at grocery checkout counters.

That's their business, and this is a plural society. But it becomes my business when those of us who enjoy classical music or ballet or so-called (I hate the term) art films are denied the opportunity to see them because they don't make enough money. That is not only discrimination against a minority in this society but also a considerable disservice to the society itself. Even a quick reading of history will show that societies that abandoned or tried to control the artists or unconventional thinkers--sometimes in patterns quite uncomfortable to the ruling establishment--in their midst didn't survive very long.

The demise of KFAC is one small signpost of the direction the United States is heading in the arts. The danger was underscored to me a few nights later when I attended South Coast Repertory's production of "A Chorus of Disapproval," the first show of its new season.

SCR, in my view, is an Orange County resource vital not just to the cultural health but also to the balance of this area. A substantial portion of its support comes from state and federal endowments to the arts, and--although these endowments constitute a tiny drop in the ocean of public spending--conservative lawmakers are attacking them as if they were a tidal wave.

This attitude is unique in the world. Ever since the Reagan Administration tried unsuccessfully to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, its budget has been hacked away at yearly until it has declined 24% in constant dollars over the last eight years. Meanwhile, virtually every other civilized country in the world endorses public support of the arts, and a growing number have created ministries of culture for that purpose.

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