Classical Radio: "A Nice Safe Haven"
Since classical radio has been a recurring theme on this blog of late – and since a number of commenters have expressed considerable dissatisfaction with it – I thought I would put a few questions to the horse’s mouth. Dan DeVany is the Vice President and General Manager of WETA, Washington's all-classical public radio station; we spoke by phone yesterday. (Jim Allison, the station’s programming director, was not available this week, and DeVany observed that certain questions about specifics of programming will be better answered by him.)
ALM: WETA recently (2007) went back to an all-classical music format. How have the last couple of years gone differently than you envisioned?
DD: I’ve got to tell you it’s gone wonderfully. It’s gone actually better than I envisioned, in terms of how well it has been overall received… When we made the decision to become a full-time classical music station, we were going against what appeared to be the trend. But at the same time there was the opportunity and the obligation to preserve classical music in Washington.
ALM: How free a hand do you have in terms of programming? What guides those decisions?
DD: The overall philosophy is to provide programming that is as accessible to as broad an audience as possible, even within a fairly narrow niche. To be as broad as possible in its appeal….
(read more after the jump)
ALM: It’s a common complaint that classical radio is too conservative. Why do you think this is? Do you agree? How do you deal with it?
DD: That’s actually several questions in one. Within any given genre of programming, music programming in particular, to appeal to all tastes consistently…is impossible. It’s just impossible…. There would be always I believe some listeners who would feel there’s not enough of something or too little of something. That’s an inevitability.
It’s the nature of casting the net broadly....
In the early days of the format it was my intention to keep the overall programming... pretty consistent and a place where listeners, especially those who were primarily WGMS [listeners], could find a nice safe haven. And then what we’ve done over time is to introduce blocks of programming that might be considered more specialized, with an eye in particular to highlighting local performances… [For instance, we] introduced on Sunday evenings [a focus] primarily on choral music. We have an incredibly vibrant choral community in DC, and we try to be responsive in doing that.
ALM: Do you track listenership?
DD:…We look at the aggregate [more than the response to individual shows]. It would appear, just using opera as an example, that those who listen regularly to our opera broadcasts are not necessarily those who are going to be listening to the rest of the schedule. It would appear to be fairly specialized.
ALM: How do you track use?
DD: We don’t entirely. We have a sense of how people listen to us. [There’s a] significant portion of at-home listeners, which is not unusual for classical radio.
ALM: What kinds of change will WQXR, [the classical radio station of the New York Times, which is being sold to WNYC,] undergo in moving over to a public radio format? What things are there that you as program director have to keep in mind?
DD: You’ll have to ask them that… Media is changing so much. My personal belief is that the nature of classical music programming, it is a niche to be sure, is extremely well suited for the public radio environment. For one thing, if you take a look purely from a business model standpoint, one of the advantages of a classical music format for public radio, you have diversified streams of support. The strongest and most important by far for us is individual contributions. Those are voluntary decisions made by those who listen to us to support us. That’s very powerful, I think.
[DeVany confirmed in a follow-up e-mail that half to two-thirds of the station’s operating budget comes from listeners’ donations.]
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