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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.]

By Anne Midgette  |  July 24, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , interviews  
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Ah – hah! Just as I suspected!

After more than two and a half years on the taxpayer-supported WETA public foundation payroll, Dan DeVany is still more concerned about his former WGMS listeners than with the public listeners and taxpayers in the Greater Washington Metropolitan area (which, I imagine -- and I’m sure the WETA public foundation could confirm -- features a much larger share of Hispanic, African, Asian, and Pacific Islander-American music listeners than were in the commercial WGMS music listenership).

Anne, did you ask Dan DeVany whether the old commercial WGMS listeners are ponying up their contributions to the public station as did the former WETA classical listeners? (Washington Post’s Marc Fisher hinted earlier this year that the old WGMS listeners were still free-riding two years into the new WETA/WGMS.)

And did you ask Mr. DeVany about his future job plans; a question which seems to be now typical in such cultural interviews?

(By the way, WETA/WGMS's Sunday 9 PM Choral Showcase has virtually nothing to do with Washington's vibrant choral community; but I imagine that you did not know this.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 24, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

"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." This could have meant diverse classical programming that might attract different audience segments at different times (like opera and choral, as mentioned in the interview). But what it actually seems to mean is "very little that's not lowest common denominator."

For what it's worth, I could list right now, off the top of my head, a hundred compositions that WETA has never once played and that shouldn't cause any blinking by 90 percent or more of their audience. Or maybe I'm wrong, and something like an obscure but very attractive Romantic symphony (Atterberg, Alfven, Farrenc, Melartin, Rubbra, Randall Thompson -- I could go on all day) would provoke adverse reactions from a large chunk of their listenership just for being unfamiliar. I mean, even Mahler seems too strong a medicine to administer more than about semi-annually. Stravinksy, a few bonbons aside, appears to be poison.

If you're getting two-thirds of your revenue from donations, and if you think your donors are mostly refugees from WGMS in its dotage, then of course you're going to spread pabulum all over your playlist. DeVany as much as owned up. I know the station can do better (check their July 4 playlist). It chooses instead to pander rather than try any uplift. As I think I've said before, that's okay; they need the money -- but they shouldn't pretend otherwise, nor should they expect me to listen.

[A DeVany anecdote -- many years ago, back when WETA still played lots of classical, I was at Wolf Frap for an NSO concert that included Dvorak's "New World Symphony." They announced an introductory lecture by Dan DeVany about the music, and I decided to give it a look. At some point DeVany told us that the Largo from the symphony was based by Dvorak on an old Negro spiritual. I resisted the temptation to interrupt and point out that -- as most of your readers already know -- Dvorak came up with the tune and someone later put words to it.]

I wish you had asked DeVany why he thought he was serving the broad listening public with such a narrow playlist, but I guess you didn't want to get thrown out. But you might at least have reminded him of my offer to take all those useless CDs off his hands.

Posted by: BobL | July 24, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Rather than going back to what they were before their foray into all news/talk, WETA adopted WGMS' concept of "top 40 classical". I'm sorry, but I can live for more than two hours without hearing Mozart or Vivaldi. I continue to rely on my tempramental signal from Baltimore's WBJC for variety and unfamiliar composers/works.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | July 24, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"[DeVany confirmed in a follow-up e-mail that half to two-thirds of the station’s operating budget comes from listeners’ donations.]"

So which is it most recently? Is it closer to half or to two-thirds?

Did you send him back an email asking for clarification and greater precision?

The Vice President and General Manager of a major operating unit of a major public foundation should know this number, especially if he or she is responding by email to a question.

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 24, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I certainly agree with nonsensical2002 about living more than two hours without hearing Mozart or Vivaldi,so I also try listening to WBJC Baltimore on spite the poor reception.
By the way, it only takes a weekend at the beach to listen to extremely interesting programming from WSCL Delmarva Public Radio,with new and exciting music.
WETA turns me away from listening to beloved music by playing it over and over again.
How many times can you listen to the same warhorses ???????

Posted by: zurga2003yahoocom | July 24, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Though an SF resident, I'm familiar with WETA's style of playlist and it's exactly like our own KDFC: predictable, safe, vaguely narcoleptic. They're programming music for dentists' offices.

Don't get me wrong, I love Vivaldi, Albinoni, Mozart, and Hummel, but I also love lots of other types of music.

And WETA could slowly start introducing more interesting programming, get audiences accustomed to it, and do just fine. But they don't care about classical music as a form of art or as something enlightening. To them it's clearly a job, a business, and that's it.

I stopped listening altogether to American commercial classical radio and have been listening to BBC Radio 3 for years now. During their mainstream daytime programming, you can hear Vivaldi followed by Messaien followed by Martinu followed by Gabrieli followed by Finzi followed by D'Indy and so on. They dare to play choral and vocal work during the day (which here in the US is all but taboo).

Since I no longer own a car and listen at my desk, streaming BBC 3 is perfect. And they have all sorts of different programs.

WETA (and my local KDFC) may be well-meaning, but I won't support them JUST because they play classical music. They're aiming for a listener who they're terrified will turn the dial if something too different is played. Ironically, I turned the dial for the exact opposite reason.

Posted by: knightstale | July 24, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

When it was reported that WGMS was donating its library of 15,000 classical CDs to WETA after its format change, some wag commented, "10,000 of which are in their original wrappers."

Apparently they still are.

Posted by: kevinwparker | July 24, 2009 7:47 PM | Report abuse

I stopped listening to WETA when I heard the Rach Symphonic Dances over my cornflakes for the third time in what felt like two weeks. Now I stream or Australia's excellent ABC Classic FM over the internet.

Posted by: ianw2 | July 26, 2009 4:24 AM | Report abuse

My 'donation' goes to XM/Sirius, which repays it with intelligent, diversified programming.

Please Dan, throw the Cantilena/Adrian Sheppard cds in the trash. and try to act like listeners are adults.

It's a shame, but the station I use to volunteer for is now a total irrelevancy to me.

Posted by: kashe | July 26, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

knightstale: "narcoleptic" Word of the day!

I agree with many of the thoughts posted on this blog. When WETA made the switch, I was hopeful for a robust playlist from the 50K CDs in their library. I wrote to WETA suggesting they provide space in their schedule for opera outside of the Met broadcasts, for choral works, for 20th century or modern works, for works from living composers, for songs, and for complete large scale works that might last longer than an hour. I was not alone.

One thing they did near the start that I and others suggested was to stop having NPR news updates every hour during the nonrush times. That allowed them to play long works.

Another thing they did is add the choral music showcase... my real problem with this is that it took them to long to add something new to their schedule that I had already given up on WETA. I'm sure I was not alone in this either.

On the other hand, if WETA survives with this current format... that says something too. Perhaps there are enough people for which a top 400 format is enough?

Posted by: prokaryote | July 28, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

When I heard that WETA would receive the WGMS library, I thought to myself, "does that mean that we will only get to hear the "same old, same old" that WGMS delivered day after day, week after week?" The answer appears to be, "YES!" Despite the great radio voices of the hosts on WGMS, the content was extremely narrow. Plus, I was always struck by how many "second tier" or "b-list" or even "c-list" ensembles they had recordings of for even the most tried and true compositions despite the availability of really excellent and higly-acclaimed recordings (Were these less than outstanding recordings being featured only because they were newer & therefore, some sort of sales were being encouraged?). It seems as though this has been transferred in its entirety to WETA in its all-classical reincarnation. I'm not certain why I support WETA-FM anymore (I stopped donating to the radio station when they switched to the all-news, all-talk format because we already had a public radio station in the DC area serving that portion of the market) with the possible exception that I'd rather have some availability of classical music than none at all. Assuming these "old" radio shows are available, why not rerun the Peter Schickele series in its entirety, just as it used to air on Saturday mornings, and/or the Karl Hass series, "Adventures in Good Music"? At least each of these programs provided some interesting tidbits.

Posted by: therapidone | July 28, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"Perhaps there are enough people for whom a top 400 format is enough?"

Good point, prokaryote.

No ... Top 400 Classical Music Lite is not enough for the Greater Washington region, especially given that the new WETA/WGMS promised listeners a HUGE (and uncensored) library, and kept telling disaffected members to wait ... and wait ...

This is why WETA/WGMS needs artistic programmers and curators other than Jim Allison, who like Dan DeVany and all the current announcers, was brought over lock, stock, and barrel from the commercially- failed WGMS (think for a moment about if the Republicans had won this past autumn, and McCain had stuffed the Treasury and Fed exclusively with executives from AIG and Lehman Brothers ... no, don't think ...)

Under the old WETA-FM, evenings at least were curated by expert and educated outsiders other than Dan DeVany and Jim Allison. World-class symphony concerts, on a delayed basis, were under the programming of the world's leading conductors, and included on a weekly basis works by Mahler, Sibelius, Bartok, Stravinsky, Frank Martin, Allan Pettersson, Sofia Gubaidulina and other internationally recognized masters (except at the new WETA/WGMS), as well as even newer works championed by the leading conductors in the world. (The late Nicholas Maw, a resident of Greater Washington for 25 years, was only allowed on the new Classical WETA because he was featured on 'NPR World of Opera', which is independently curated, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur, and other, taxpayer-supported foundations.) [The featured works on Classical WETA for the past two nights have been Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and an extended Suite by Telemann.]

Under the old WETA 'Music from Washington,' 'Concerts from the Library of Congress, and 'Choral Showcase,' local cultural leaders got to choose the mix of warhorses and novelties to share with their fellow citizens of the Greater Washington area, and Classical WETA/WGMS executives had to temporarily relinquish control and trust in the judgment of the Washington area's trained music professionals (who hadn't been brainwashed into what was acceptable for listeners through generations of employment at the long-declining WGMS). Is the cultural programming of the National Gallery of Art under the sole artistic control of one egomaniacal, senior executive?

And does another else notice the intellectual difference between public television and public classical radio?

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 29, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

PS. The old WETA-FM programmed works by the latest two Pulitzer Prize for Music winners almost twenty-five years before the prizes were awarded. The old WETA-FM broadcast a work by David Lang, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, in about 1984; and the old WETA-FM broadcast a work by Steve Reich, performed by the San Francisco Symphony, in about 1985 or 1986.

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 29, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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