When BSO buys time from MPT, both benefit

December 08, 1996|By GLENN MCNATT

CAREFUL readers of The Sun's letters column no doubt noticed last week's spirited exchange between letter writer Daniel Franko Goldman and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra board president Calman J. Zamoiski Jr.

Goldman wrote to express his dismay over the fact that the symphony appeared to be playing the role of "corporate sponsor" for a popular news program on Maryland Public Television.

"What's wrong with this picture?" Goldman asked. "PBS and the BSO are both tax-exempt organizations; they are both subsidized, directly and indirectly, by state and federal tax dollars. And yet one of these organizations now sees fit to play the role of benefactor to the other.

"When a nonprofit, money-losing, taxpayer-subsidized entity like the BSO [gives] away money that it has literally begged from various businesses, taxpayers and publicly funded agencies, something seems terribly wrong," he concluded.

The BSO's Zamoiski responded immediately: "The BSO is not underwriting the cost of producing any PBS shows, but rather we are using this media partnership with Maryland Public Television as the best way to reach an audience which might attend the Baltimore Symphony," he wrote.

Zamoiski's letter explained that such media partnerships, which the BSO maintains with public radio stations WBJC-FM and WJHU-FM as well as MPT, help the symphony publicize its concerts at minimal cost.

That was fine as far as it went. Still, the BSO's response didn't get to the heart of the matter, as I see it, because it failed to address directly the unstated assumption of Goldman's letter.

I suspect the confusion arises from the analogy Goldman drew between the BSO -- a nonprofit, publicly supported cultural institution -- and private businesses that underwrite public TV and radio programming. The latter, of course, do so for the same reason they buy advertising time on commercial TV and radio. They want to have their name or corporate logo broadcast over the air in order to help sell their products.

But nonprofits -- the symphony, the opera and theater and dance companies -- need to advertise, too.

Much as one might wish to believe otherwise, the fact is no one will show up at the box office unless the sponsoring groups get the word out, regardless of how good the musicians, singers, actors and dancers may be.

We take advertisements for movies and pop concerts for granted. No one's going to attend a Sting concert or buy a ticket to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film if they don't know where they are playing.

Yet letter writer Goldman seems to suggest public money shouldn't be used to advertise nonprofit cultural events. It's not realistic to expect the cultural nonprofits to thrive without advertising, though. And even when they are partially supported through federal, state and local grants, they have to pay for advertising costs just like for-profit businesses.

That's why media partnerships such as those between the BSO and area public TV and radio stations ought to be applauded, not condemned. It's a way for the nonprofits to get the biggest bang for the buck in promoting their activities.

In the case of the BSO, basically what happens is that the symphony buys air time on public TV and radio at reduced rates, which allow it to publicize concerts more frequently than otherwise would be possible.

In exchange, the stations -- which are also publicly supported nonprofits -- get a dependable revenue stream that reduces their cost of raising money through corporate sponsorships and on-air subscription drives.

The result is a win-win situation for both the cultural nonprofits and the public broadcasting stations. It is a way for them to recycle the relatively small proportion of their overall budgets that is publicly funded so as to maximize benefits to the public they serve.

Of course, there is a spirited national debate today over whether government should play any role in funding either cultural nonprofits or public broadcasting.

But as long as we are going to have such taxpayer-supported funding, these institutions ought to cooperate rather than compete with one another.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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