William Watson: Was Stuart McLean, national treasure, also a public good?
I was not an early fan of Stuart McLean. I listened live to his famous gift of a cockroach to Peter Gzowski on Gzowski’s retirement show and thought it was silly, as, frankly, Gzowski seemed to, as well. And when The Vinyl Café first aired, I thought it was a pretty shameless rip-off of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, the long-running National Public Radio show, right down to the almost liturgical lilt of McLean’s voice as he told his stories.
But I got over it and with the years fell into the habit, like millions of Canadians, I’m guessing, of finding myself in the kitchen, now laughing out loud, now tearing up, as McLean wove his stories about Dave and Morley and their family while I cooked Sunday lunch for mine. As Keillor sank deeper and deeper into post-modern bi-coastal archness, McLean’s stories seemed to get truer and truer. Or maybe it was me changing, as with time I myself learned more about family, memory, loss and connection, oh, and of course, hilarity, which were the stories’ recurring themes. When the eulogists say Stuart McLean, who passed away Wednesday, was a national treasure, well, that might be a little more pompous than is fitting, but they’re not far wrong.
Being an economist, when I hear the phrase “national treasure,” I naturally ask myself whether a national treasure is a public good. To ordinary folk, “public good” just means something that’s good for the public. But to economists the term has a precise technical meaning—does the good in question throw out benefits (or costs) that people consume jointly, i.e., simultaneously, and from which they cannot be excluded?
McLean’s broadcasts, like all broadcasts, qualified as joint consumption. You could listen to them and I could listen to them and thousands of other people could listen to them all at the same time and one person’s listening didn’t reduce another person’s listening—as, say, my eating a hamburger would definitely reduce your ability to eat the same hamburger.
How about “non-excludability?” It may not be a real word but is a key attribute of public goods. In 1994, when Vinyl Cafe first went on air, ways of excluding people from listening to radio broadcasts were in their infancy (Soviet jamming aside). Putting audio out through the ether was really the only way to do it. But now you can exclude people. Some of us get our audio via podcast, others by cable, still others by satellite. And in each instance it’s possible, with coding, to control who gets access.
If you can broadcast material so that everyone gets access, why would you want to exclude people? You may not want to, of course. If your goal is to get the biggest possible audience, in part so you can hike your advertising prices as high as they will go, you may well decide to give your product away, even if you don’t have to. On the other hand, if you can exclude people, you can make them pay for your product.
We economists like that since it means you get good information about how much people actually like your product. If they like it a lot, they’ll be willing to pay a lot to get it. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay and your product may die, which maybe it should if no one’s willing to pay for it.
I always got Stuart McLean free, over CBC, in a non-excluded way that mimicked public goods supply. (I did once get a book of his for Christmas. Someone paid for it and wouldn’t have received it without paying for it.) I don’t know what it cost to produce his show and pay all the people working for him, including himself. But I suspect that if you added up the $1 or $2 or $3 of benefit that each of his listeners got every week, the total benefits would have exceeded the cost.
As people gradually got used to the idea of paying for little bits of content, which increasingly is how in my family we watch TV, most of those benefits might eventually have been monetized into podcast purchases or paid streaming that enabled Vinyl Café to be self-financing. There would have been lots of resistance, no doubt, to establishing a market for this kind of content. Even in its most libertarian days, when it was talking about privatizing CBC TV, the old Reform Party never went after CBC Radio, whose devotees are, well, devout. But when you get down to it why keep this one kind of content free when everything else is earning its own way?
Stuart McLean could still have been a national treasure, even if we had to pay for him. At some stage, had he lived, old-fashioned over-air broadcasting might even have become the subject of a richly nostalgic Dave and Morley story, like iceboxes or rotary phones.