WBEZ's Arts Commitment: More Coverage, Less Artistic License
On-air talent and contributors to WBEZ's program Artistic License are trying to sort out the ramifications of the station's decision to slash their airtime from two hours to one and to move the program from its long-standing 2 PM Saturday slot to 2 PM Friday. The changes go into effect today. "The long-term plan at the station is to have increased coverage of the arts," says the program's theater critic, Andrew Patner, "but it's unfortunate in the short term that the program has to be cut back before there is any overall increase." But Patner and others who are clinging to the hope that the station will make good on its commitment to expand arts coverage may yet have a thing or two to learn about the volatile broadcasting business, its incessant concern with ratings, and, in the case of public radio station WBEZ, the need to cater to the demands of station supporters.
When it premiered more than three years ago, Artistic License was intended as an experiment in relatively in-depth cultural coverage. Because the city's broadcast outlets have resolutely refused to cover the arts in any but the most cursory fashion, local arts organizations welcomed it enthusiastically. With anchors Victoria Lautman and Neil Tesser (who left the program last January), the program provided listeners with an overview of cultural events around the city, as well as informative interviews, criticism, and occasional roundtable discussions of arts-related issues. Though the material at times may have been too specialized for casual listeners, Lautman and Tesser attempted to maintain a light and lively approach. But their best efforts did not bring a deluge of listeners to the station on Saturday afternoons. "We had a devoted following on Saturday," says Lautman, "but it was not as large a following as we would have liked."
WBEZ executives, including acting program director Linda Paul, naturally want to put a positive spin on the new developments. Notes Paul, "We are putting the show in a slot that we hope will be good for it." Recent quarterly radio-ratings books show that the station traditionally draws more listeners on Fridays than on Saturday afternoons, but Paul concedes that the listenership numbers have varied dramatically from one quarter to the next. Paul says the station hopes to compensate for the shorter Artistic License by airing more arts reviews and cultural coverage on other WBEZ talk shows during the week, but at the moment Paul says Lautman is the only person connected with Artistic License who is certain to make more frequent appearances on other programs.
In the new, shortened Friday format, Lautman will serve as the show's sole host and the same crew of contributing critics and commentators will remain with the program, though their airtime and frequency of appearance may be affected. Prior to announcing the program changes and in the wake of Tesser's departure, a search was under way for a new host to help anchor the show with Lautman. Station management had been close to selecting from finalists when the new plans were made public.
If, as Lautman, Patner, Paul, and others have suggested, WBEZ intends to move forward in expanding arts coverage, such a decision will probably have to await the appointment of a program director, a process that according to several sources has taken an inordinately long time. Four finalists for the job have been interviewed and questioned by station management and employees, but no choice has been made from that group. Now management is apparently looking at other candidates.
Magritte's Not Cheap
TicketMaster and the Art Institute have been extracting a high toll in phone service fees for visitors wishing to purchase tickets in advance for the museum's special Rene Magritte exhibit, running through May 31. The face value of a single ticket to the exhibit is $6, but for every ticket sold by phone through TicketMaster, a $2.25 service charge is added along with a $1 handling charge per order. That brings the total for one ticket to $9.25, 54 percent more than the ticket's face value. Neil Bremer, the Art Institute's director of visitor services, concedes that the charges are steep but says that they were required because of the limited number of tickets made available to TicketMaster. "TicketMaster has to make that kind of charge to cover its phone costs," maintains Bremer, who nonetheless is trying to make the potentially intimidating museum as welcoming as possible to wary visitors. Of course, because TicketMaster currently is the only ticket service in town, the giant organization does not have to worry about competition.
There are, as Bremer also noted, ways to get around the charges. Some Magritte tickets are available each day at the museum at their face value, although only on a first-come, first-served basis. If museumgoers buy the Magritte tickets in person at a TicketMaster outlet, the service charge drops to $1.50 per ticket, with no handling charge. And Art Institute members need only show their membership cards to get in to the exhibit. Still, Bremer obviously is concerned about the impact stiff service charges will have on people's willingness to attend big events at museums, which in his opinion must become much more user friendly. In a few weeks Bremer is heading to New York City to examine a new computerized ticketing system that would enable the Art Institute to sell large numbers of tickets to special exhibitions without charging any additional fees. Bremer hopes such a system can be put into place at the Art Institute within a couple of years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.