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Arts Groups Put on Their Own Shows

This week's Listener column:

Tuning in to the director of an opera company acting as radio deejay does not automatically summon expectations of a rock-'em, sock-'em show. But here's Kim Witman, who runs the Wolf Trap Opera Company, on one of her new podcasts, introducing a short clip from Telemann's "Orpheus."

"A crazed woman screaming at the top of her lungs in Italian. She really is pretty nuts."

Over on a podcast produced by the Music Center at Strathmore, deejay Mac Campbell segues from a Chuck Brown go-go classic (introduced with the story of how the Godfather of Go-Go created Washington's own pop beat) to a tango, followed by a reggae number and a country ballad.

If broadcast radio won't provide the eclectic mix that so many young listeners create on their own iPods, then arts organizations will just have to do it themselves. In Washington, Wolf Trap, Strathmore and the Shakespeare Theatre Company are reaching out to existing customers and new audiences with Internet radio stations and podcasts -- radio programs listeners can download for use at their convenience.

The idea is to promote their own performances and introduce listeners to material they aren't familiar with but might fall for.

These initiatives have been launched over the past 18 months -- before Washington faced the loss of its last remaining classical-music radio station. But the potential demise of WGMS, which Redskins owner Dan Snyder has proposed to buy from Bonneville to convert to a sports-talk format, is pushing arts organizations to look harder at how they can introduce new sounds to an audience that tends to hear the same few formats year after year on the radio.

"If the classical station goes away, it means less of an outlet to promote our shows," says Mike Holden, who hosts Wolf Trap Radio, a 24-hour Internet station that streams music performed by artists who appear at the national park's summer concerts or at the Barns, the park's winter venue.

"Mainstream media is still where we want to be covered because of the much greater numbers," Holden says, "but blogs, podcasts and Internet radio can hit a niche audience that we can't find on traditional radio as easily as we could 10 years ago."

At Strathmore, podcasts are "a way to get people to discover artists they may not have heard of before, whether it's national recording artists or up-and-coming D.C. artists," says the venue's vice president for marketing, Jennifer Buzzell.

The audience for these homemade audio shows is not large: About 6,000 people a month listen to Wolf Trap Radio; 1,100 listeners have downloaded each Strathmore podcast. But arts organizations are nonetheless eager to connect to potential customers and to extend the concert experience by offering music samples listeners can save to their computers.

"It would be a little scary if there wasn't a classical station in the D.C. area," Buzzell says. "People need some no-cost way to access classical music." But thus far, Wolf Trap's Internet radio and Strathmore's podcasts tend to focus more on alternative, jazz, country and folk than on the classics, largely because it's more expensive and complicated to get the rights to play classical recordings.

Most artists who perform at Strathmore and Wolf Trap have agreed to have their sounds offered on podcasts, even if the format makes it easy for listeners to add the tunes to their personal collections without paying. (The arts groups pay fees to the performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI.) Strathmore reminds listeners of their obligation to the artists by making podcast users click their agreement not to distribute the music to others.

Strathmore uploads a new podcast every couple of months. Wolf Trap adds an opera podcast with each new production, and while its Web radio is always on, the program consists of about seven hours of music that is shuffled randomly.

The universe of arts-group-produced media, though, is expanding rapidly: Wolf Trap posted 13 video clips on YouTube about an opera piece it commissioned last year. And the Shakespeare Theatre's podcasts offer audio of directors and literary advisers discussing productions with actors at first rehearsal or with playgoers at the theater.

All the new audio is presented with announcements that eschew deejay hype and sound pretty much like your musically inclined pal telling you about a band he's just discovered.

None of these efforts is likely to strike fear in the hearts of radio executives, but collectively they represent another sign that radio is neglecting listeners' desire to hear new sounds. And they demonstrate that arts organizations can address the reality of an aging clientele by using emerging technologies to connect to new audiences.

Shakespeare Theatre:

Wolf Trap:


By Marc Fisher |  January 21, 2007; 12:07 AM ET
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fisher - quit being lazy and write your own blog

Posted by: dc | January 22, 2007 1:06 PM

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