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Musing on arts coverage

How hard would it really be to have a decent arts segment on TV? The closest thing I’ve seen is Bay News 9’s On The Town segment, which isn’t quite devoted to the arts. Home and garden shows, fairs, whatever food festival is going on that week – basically anything where people walk around and eat funnel cake. Short mentions of arts events. Semi-decent coverage of the things that rarely need the coverage (“Sting plays the Forum tonight! Ok, so it’s been sold out for two months, but we’re going to spend 5 minutes talking about it anyway” “Hey, did you know WICKED is in town? Ok, it’s also been sold out for two months, but boy do we love a sure thing”)

I suppose we can’t really be surprised when we see the print coverage as bad as it often is. The Tampa Tribune has no dedicated theater, dance or even (I believe) visual arts person. They haven’t in a long time, and it doesn’t appear they will. They pulled one of the sneakiest maneuvers ever when they killed off Sunday Arts in favor of a kids page that was supposed to only be a temporary thing for the summer. They didn’t even really bother to tell anyone (including advertisers) that it would not be making a comeback until several months went by after it was supposed to resume and people started asking questions. Letters upon letters upon letters – all unanswered or even acknowledged. Some home town paper …

At least the Times is employing writers and covering things. They have an editor who really hasn’t wanted to give us the time of day for years unless it involved good dirt (“if it bleeds …” – which also reminds me of the horrendous handling of the Black Reign story in their tabloid baby tbt*, which was pretty shameful if you ask me) – but to be fair is quite generous in coverage of other organizations. At least they’ve always been very consistent about sending correspondents out to cover us. I’m not complaining about getting covered, even it it’s reading like it. Really. If I’m to keep a blog about running a company, battling to get covered is one of the things that’s a reality for me and makes a great impact on our business.

I fight like hell to get the coverage we get. I’m a few shades short of annoying (call that uber-persistent) and it’s rare that a paper chooses not to cover one of our shows. I’ve been surprised a few times by what they’ve chosen not to cover, but it’s a rarity. There’s another company in town – Hat Trick – who work where we started at the Silver Meteor. They opened a show last weekend and apart from CreLo, I’ve not seen a single drop of ink in either of the two area dailies on the show. That’s pathetic. No previews, no reviews.

There are things that are right. I should give them some credit. WMNF’s Art in Your Ear. My only wish was that more electronic media outlets saw value in this type of program. I sometimes feel like AiYE is preaching to the choir. I love the choir, just saying … you’re not likely to get many channel surfers stopping by a show like that, and without more of a culture existing for things like that no one will likely seek it out.

Creative Loafing is doing it right. Megan Voeller and Leilani Polk’s coverage of events and happenings, and Mark Leib’s Performance column are vital to what we’re trying to do. I know my disputes with Leib have at times been epic, but it’s because I know how important it is that CreLo gives a full page a week to a theater review. That’s a golden opportunity, I’m just concerned it’s maximized.

Now, I realize there are responsibilities here for more than just the media. They can’t be expected to cover every single event from every single arts group (I’ve been told that directly by an editor), and we have to maintain a certain level of quality if we’re to expect something to be newsworthy. But do you know how many major stories we’ve lost – cover stories even – due to football, Gasparilla, Guavaween or some pop show at the Forum (again, that’s typically sold out and didn’t need the help). These stories were not just kept intact and pushed inside, they were cut down and pretty much made a footnote. I can’t even get excited anymore when I hear we’ll get a cover, because up to this point it’s never really happened.

Where am I going with this? Am I just huffing and puffing about not getting enough recognition for our shows? No. I’m talking about the area in general, and the struggles I see all around me. The Times tends to really take care of American Stage and The Florida Orchestra. CreLo is traditionally very good to us. Those are all greatly appreciated, to be sure. Still, I hear every day how people don’t know about shows, or companies, or even whole art forms.

It’s not about keeping the audiences we have – it’s about growing them. We have decent attendance, I’m not complaining. Our attendance grows year to year, I’m still not complaining. We do have needs though, and goals. We’re trying to get some of us on a full time salary, we’re trying to take much better care of our artists. That means we have to be doing more than 4 performances a week for 3 weeks at a time (our current set schedule barring an extension). Ideally we’d do 6 to 8 performances for 6 or more weeks. Our audience base won’t support that now, and we know there are a lot more people in the area who, if exposed properly, would find cultural happenings they’d be interested in. The reality is we need the help of the MSM in order for that to happen. It’s not about buying advertising, either. Study after study shows how cynical people have become regarding ads, and how often they are tuned out. We only don’t have the kind of pockets to support those campaigns either (Thank heavens for sponsors like CreLo and Bright House!).

These people may not read every paper every day, but they do make an effort. They also watch TV and listen to the radio. We find so often that people who come see us for the first time are almost always really pleasantly surprised. We have – with some regularity – people perhaps of an older generation who are surprised at the quality of our shows thinking perhaps we were just this strange group of eccentrics putting on pageants where we dipped fish into paint buckets and beat each other over the head. We also frequently have people of a younger generation shocked that they ended up coming to the theater at the behest of a significant other or group of friends and actually really enjoyed themselves.

It’s a slow process to build an audience, I’ve never expected it to be different. I never forget that I’m from a place where you just didn’t “do” the arts unless it involved a log and a chainsaw, macrame or a jug band. If we’ve seen the growth we have via primarily what I’d call grass-roots and community-based efforts and a fairly extensive online presence – I have to be convinced if there was a change in philosophy on the part of the MSM to really dig in and give real, meaningful coverage to more local-based arts, we’d all be a lot better off for it.

Just thinking out loud, folks. Thanks for listening.

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3 thoughts on “Musing on arts coverage

  1. The New York Times Editor In Chief said recently that he doesn’t expect to have a print edition in five years. While literate citizens of the Tampa Bay region –insert 2 digit number joke here– still read the paper, I suspect that media consumption habits are changing faster than most of us realize.
    It might be more effective to explore other means of information distribution, rather than try to get the attention of the old media– A media which is dying, at least partially, for the same reasons that make it difficult for creative people to get its attention.
    Of course, that doesn’t help anybody with next Friday’s gig, but I’m just saying, is all.

  2. I feel you pain and share the frustration. I teach art in an elementary school and while everyone gives lip service as to their support of the arts when it comes right down to it what’s the first to go, the arts.

  3. If you guys ever do dip fish into paint buckets and beat each other the head I am so there!

    Now that’s entertainment.

    I’ll just wear a poncho and be in the front row as usual.

    BTW, when will Bondage tickets be on sale?

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