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Posted at 5:55 AM ET, 12/16/2010

On the radio

By Anne Midgette

A commenter on this post asked my thoughts about classical radio, which was a topic of much debate among other commenters to this blog when it was first launched (and has, I see, sparked some comment on this more recent post as well). Given that I am doing a lot of radio appearances these days (and by the way, tune in to WNYC’s Soundcheck at 2 pm today to hear a preview of my Top Ten CDs of 2010, coming this Sunday in the Washington Post), it might seem rather ungracious or at least awkward for me to write analytically about it at the moment, but that’s not the reason I have maintained what one might call radio silence. Rather, I broached some possible approaches to the topic, and was left with this decision: the idea that radio stations are often more mainstream than music connoisseurs would like them to be isn’t exactly news - in any musical genre.

I can grant that, and I can also see both sides. While I as a critic am always calling for vision and compelling programming, I don’t have to deal with trying to maintain an audience in a market that is increasingly fragmented. As the comments on this week's post indicate, there is something out there these days for everyone, be it satellite radio, internet radio, Pandora, Grooveshark, you name it. And as New York's WNYC has learned a couple of times now, most recently when it acquired WQXR, listeners get very, very upset when you change formats, regardless of whether you're taking things in a more contemporary or a more traditional direction.

I hesitate to post about radio at all because I fear it simply opens the doors to a lot of WETA-bashing in the comments. But the topic of classical radio is certainly close to the hearts of a large segment of the classical music community, and opening up a discussion seems possibly the best way for me to cover it at the moment. So: given the economic challenges of keeping a radio station going and cultivating a slightly wider public, what are some angles you would like to see classical radio pursuing, or some programming approaches you think are working in the field, around the country, at the moment?

By Anne Midgette  | December 16, 2010; 5:55 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: Top 10 for '10 (plus four)


Okay, I won't exactly "bash" WETA, but the sad truth is that I almost never listen to it. I can find more diverse programming lots of places, not least in the 12 weeks or so of music I've loaded onto my 160 GB iPod. WETA does get props for Mahler Month, but I don't know how anyone can take seriously a classical station that won't play Shostakovitch or Bartok, for example, beyond a few trifles. You can get more variety even on digital TV, from the Classical Masterpieces channel of Music Choice (although their accompanying trivia items are ludicrous).

Still, WETA is just the kind of station that seems to need to rethink its programming. So what might WETA do that won't drive away the loyalists and still might attract a few of the disaffected?

How about a daily program, perhaps late in the evening M-F, when they play the stuff they avoid rhe remainder of the day? Call it "Beyond the Basic Repertoire," and start off with Shosty and Bartok and Stravinsky, then gradually broaden it if the audience is receptive. With time-shifting so easy these days, people who are really interested can fit it into their schedule at whatever time would work for them.

And is it really too much to ask for at least one or two concert series from the likes of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, or Baltimore? Even if some of them occasionally feature stuff that apparently gives the WETA programmers hives?

How about WETA featuring a performer of the month rather than a composer of the month? I may have missed such a thing, given my near-boycott of the station, but giving, say, Daniel Barenboim a month as pianist and conductor offers an opportunity to diversify the playlist.

Finally, does anyone besides me remember the show "Guest Conductor" on WGMS way back when? They devoted a two-hour segment once a week to the choices of some Washington VIP. Sadly, the average Washington VIP came up with the likes of "Grand Canyon Suite" and a Tchaikovsky symphony -- if we were lucky. But why not let a member of the audience be the programmer? You could let people submit an evening's concert program and choose one that might actually occur in real life. If the staff was willing to go for variety, that program could turn into "appointment radio."

Well, that's more than enough.

Posted by: BobL | December 16, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I hadn't even read BobT's comment, and I was going to start the same way, I'm not going to bash WETA FM because I rarely listen to it anymore, just for Met Opera and holiday season vocal music.

I have the music I like to listen to on my IPod, so who needs out-of-context symphony movements and the top 50 short classical pieces, over and over?

Can you believe I have a couple of plastic bins full of CDs on my IPod, organzed into folders and playlists? And there's still room for many, many more. When I buy my next car that will let me plug in my IPod, I'll probably only listen to live radio for news, weather, traffic, sports, and Prairie Home Companion. (I download the other NPR shows to my IPod.)

I like that WETA revived the WGMS Viva la voce service, but the stream got interrupted too much to make me want to try it very often.

I'd listen to WETA radio more often if they had things I don't have on my IPod. But I won't complain because I don't care that much any more.

Posted by: c-clef | December 16, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

For a while, sitting in New Jersey, with WNYC having killed day time music, I found my way to and joined KUSC, WCPE, WCNY. All at the same time. They were very different in their approach. But, the lesson was, "music on the radio" is moving to the internet. One privilege of membership is to be a critic. So, I screeched for good solid .mp3 streams, high bit rates, stereo, playlists, etc. Looking backward now, this was all correct. KUSC now has members in 38 states and 11 countries. WCPE offers their service free of charge to any radio outlet that can get their signal in twenty different ways.

But the move to the internet, the need for listeners' ears and member dollars (most stations playing Classical Music are Public Radio stations), has put a new burden on the stations. Not only do they compete with the services listed in the article, there are Shoutcast and Icecast, global aggregators; there is AccuRadio, a free really good ad supported source; there is, subscription based but very inexpensive, ad very good. There are streams from American Music Center (Counterstream), NYC, American Composers' Forum (Innova with I think six streams), Kyle Gann's PostClassic, and many many more.Both iTunes and RealPlayer have radio links, in which there is some redundancy with those above; but also some unique sources.

The point is, radio stations need to do unique things, like some of those suggested above by BoBL.

Instead, the worst thing, the reverse has happened. Many PubRadio outlets have dropped Classical Music formats for talk. And, too many OF those still in the Classical format are renting their music from Minnesota Public Radio's "Classical 24", aimed at the lowest common denominator with what the great critic Alan Rich, now deceased, called "musical wallpaper".

The seamiest example of this was WGBH, Boston, taking over WCRB (about the same time as WNYC took over WQXR and elevated it's offerings) and handing seven out of ten slots to "Classical 24" without even properly acknowledging this act on their weekly schedule. This actually caused "town meetings". MPR was not named, just called "a Minnesota syndicate".

For stations to survive, they need to find unique things to do. It's not for me, but let's say a regularly scheduled program in early music. Or, hey, time to chill? Bring on "Music From the Hearts of Space", Stephen Hill's iconic PubRadio service from San Fransisco.

Find ways to make the station a destination. Get people to want to support the station financially.

One of the best at this is WPRB, Princeton, NJ Community Radio (not connected to the university, private until 3 years ago, and very successful. There is great Classical Music and Jazz programming, albeit it is on a schedule which also includes some of the worst in Indie Rock. Hey, it is a volunteer-run service.

So, that's my rasher of ca-ca on this subject.

Stations might well look at WQXR's Q2 24/7 New Music web stream for an example of what works.

Posted by: mitrich | December 16, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

"Guest Conductor" was a fun show. As pointed out, most congressionals played it safe, but some knew their repertoire. Then, there were the selections of foreign diplomats, SC justices, cabinet members, etc., which tended to be very different from congressional selections.
"Evening Symphony" was pretty cool, too. Sort-of a short concert @ 7:00pm.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | December 16, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Like BobL I hardly ever listen to WETA.
How many Three B's weekends can anybody take.
Even the nice "Music Trough the Night" program was replaced with a rehash of the same pieces played over and over again.
As I said before it just takes a trip to the beach to listen great programing on Public Radio Delmarva, not to mention WBJC Baltimore.
I was quite happy when WETA went back to the classical music format, however my hapiness did not last very long.
I think it is really embarrasing considering we live in the Nation's Capital to have an station with such unimaginative program selection.

Posted by: Zurga | December 16, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Internet streams (c.f. Nederlandse Radio 4 Radio 4's concert "Parsifal", the great BBC and Radio Tre streams, etc.) have keenly sharpened the audio competition.

When there is so much great material on the intranet, plus what we carry around on our iPods, listening to "Scheherazade" or a warhouse piano concerti for the umpteenth time in a couple of months on the radio has become less appealing.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | December 16, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

Given the richness and diversity of what is encompassed by the term "classical music," one has to lament the sorry state of that music on the air here in DC when one can pick up only WETA and its unimaginative programing (the top 100 pieces in perpetual rotation, often dismembered into isolated movements). When asked why, with my fairly large collection of CDs, I care what WETA does, I refer to the words of a great record producer from the LP era. When asked a similar question at a meeting of public radio station music directors, he responded, "Because sometimes I want to be surprised." There are no surprises on WETA.

Posted by: wsheppard | December 20, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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