I think that it’s accurate to say that in any settled society, there are two forms of patronage, which I think of as support for cultural production (from “low” culture like pop music to “high” culture like the opera). One form is the market in which value is set by supply and demand, and the other is non-market support by which people or entities with large sums of money support something based on standards of quality (according to the patron) that don’t come from mass appeal or profitability. Of course, the common denominator is that both participants in the market and great patrons support what they want to support, but the way that market patronage and non-market patronage value cultural products is different.
Until the medieval commercial revolution in Europe, which helped to create a tiny but growing middle class, I think that it’s safe to say that the majority of patronage in societies came from great patrons supporting art, music, and literature that they felt was important, of high quality, and enhanced their reputations as great patrons. I’m sure that there were exceptions, but for most of human history the average person hasn’t had much disposable income to make the market a significant form of patronage.
With the rise of world commerce at unprecedented levels after the European colonization of the Americas and the expansion of trade with Africa and Asia, we see increasing numbers of consumers in the 1600s through today, where more and more people have disposable income to spend on things besides the bare necessities. Thus, the market has become a more and more important form of patronage of cultural products. This results in more choices for individuals, as well as a lot of lowest common denominator stuff (boy bands, Two and a Half Men, etc.). Like any human institution, the market has its strengths and weaknesses.
I think that non-market patronage is important because it doesn’t only cater to profitability and mass appeal, but rather has different standards of quality (which can be good, bad, or in the middle). I doubt that Bach’s music or Michelangelo’s art would not have been produced for a mass market. In the modern West (and especially in Europe), though, government has a significant imprint in the area non-market patronage, as evidenced by public radio and television and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. I wish that I knew what percentage of this patronage the government provides. There are obviously a lot of wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations that act as patrons.
To me, NPR and PBS are better than talk radio and the mile-wide, inch-deep, hard on the eyes and ears coverage that major news networks offer. I also recognize that NPR and CBS are often havens for left-leaning people who indulge their agendas with some money coming from taxpayers.
As Congress debates whether to cut funding for public broadcasting, I agree with the argument that subsidizing radio and TV in the information age makes very little sense. Perhaps relying fully on traditional sources of non-market patronage (foundations, wealthy individuals) and listener contributions would open them up to pressures to include more voices across the political and cultural spectrum that would attract refugees looking for something deeper, calmer, and less self-obsessed than the for-profit news media offers.