Weak audience and income blamed in classical fade

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For lovers of classical music, these are difficult times.

Once pubradio’s dominant format, classical music is still widespread on the airwaves. As of fall 2002, 340 public stations aired a “very significant” amount of classical each week, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report on the genre.

But news programs from NPR and other sources have been pushing symphonies and operas off stage. News eclipsed classical in 2000 as public radio’s most prevalent format and more and more stations have been shearing hours of the music from their schedules.

Dozens have eliminated it from middays. Sagging ratings prompted WFDD in Winston-Salem, N.C., to switch to news last month. And WETA-FM in Washington, D.C., decided last week to drop classical at month’s end, giving the city two news/talk public radio stations.

The trend exasperates music fans, of course, and worries some programmers who believe that music of such cultural value merits a safe haven on public radio.

“I’m very concerned that a generation moving into public radio management and staffing is tossing away something of durable value — I wouldn’t say casually, but a little bit more cold-heartedly than I think is justified,” says John Montanari, music director at WFCR-FM in Amherst, Mass. “I might in my darker moments even refer to it as baby-boomer triumphalism at work.”

Others, despite their love of the music, say they have little choice if the genre fails to draw listeners.

“Classical music on the radio is an endangered species to a certain degree,” says Hal Prentice, manager of music programming at WKAR-FM in East Lansing, Mich. “How I feel about that personally is one thing. How I look at that in purely radio terms is another. . . . You can still do quality programming and not do classical music.”

Shorter pieces — or none at all

The statistics are sobering. There are more hours of classical programming on the air now than five years ago, but total listening to classical public radio stations has remained flat.

News programming is much better than classical music at raising money to keep a station going. “A listener-hour of NPR news may generate twice as much listener income and much more business underwriting income as classical or jazz,” says a report by researcher George Bailey.

Jay Banks, g.m. at WFDD, found listeners were tuning away to other commercial and noncommercial news outlets when classical music hit the air weekday mornings. Over two years, classical music listener-hours fell by 25 percent.

On Jan. 29, the station unveiled a new schedule that replaced locally programmed classical for most of the day with news programming including Diane Rehm, Day to Day and Talk of the Nation. The station still airs classical on weeknight evenings and provides opera and local classical performances on weekends.

“My only regret is that we did not move sooner,” Banks says. Though he’s a classical fan himself, Banks joined WFDD expecting that he’d be running a dual-format station like a large number of pubradio stations, especially university stations like his in medium-sized markets.

About 30 to 40 stations have made similar changes over the past five years, estimates Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. Of the 100 or so stations that generate roughly equal amounts of listening from news and classical, most have reduced classical in recent years, he says.

Banks says the switch also responds to the growing availability of classical music on competing stations, including WDAV-FM in nearby Davidson, which he says recently expanded its listening area. But for stations that are the sole provider of classical in their markets, the format remains a way to distinguish themselves from rivals.

That’s why WKAR continues to air classical despite its troubles with the format. WKAR’s audience has fallen by a third since 1999, in part because nearby Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor switched to all-news.

WKAR considered abandoning the dual format, Prentice says, but kept it because classical once worked and he hopes it will again.

The station airs MPR’s Classical 24 service on weekday evenings and weekends to save money, and its own midday music block now mirrors the satellite service from St. Paul, Prentice says, with shorter pieces and fewer “big, long Romantic symphonies.”

The station is trying to give listeners “more occasions to find something that they like,” he says.

WKAR also beefed up news, expanding Morning Edition by two hours daily and replacing weekend classical with Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday.

Ratings since the changes show some audience growth at least on the news side of the dual format. “We’re starting to get tentpoles where we didn’t used to have them,” Prentice says. But he can’t explain why midday classical listening remains low. If the tweaks fail, he says, “I guess we’re going to change again.”

NEA rolls up its sleeves

Some announcers and music directors still broadcasting classical are trying to fine-tune the format, heeding “core values” studies conducted by the Public Radio Program Directors Association.

Classical listeners surveyed for the study viewed anything nonmusical as clutter, so hosts are shortening breaks. Listeners also said they connected to classical on an emotional level — “soothing” was a recurring term — suggesting to some announcers that they should squelch any echoes of a music-appreciation classroom.

They can’t assume that today’s listeners know as much about classical as past generations, says Karen Walker, president of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio and music director at KBIA-FM in Columbia, Mo. Walker says announcers should refrain from comments such as, “’As you know, Mozart wrote 41 symphonies’ — because they might not, and that’s a real turnoff.”

WFCR’s Montanari recommends that faltering classical stations review their musical selections. When he surveys other stations’ playlists online, he says, “I’m sometimes puzzled as to why I see programming that’s filled with sort of inconsequential and second-rank performances — not timely, not fresh, not focusing on . . . what’s happening in their market.”

“Before a station should depart from the format, it should consider improving what they do,” he says.

Stations that contemplate reorchestrating their classical schedules may find guidance in an NEA-backed report coming out in June. Case studies aim to illuminate how seven pubradio stations have made decisions about the classical format, providing examples for others to follow.

The study explores whether stations make choices “with full knowledge of the practical implications and a full knowledge of the potential of classical music,” says Bob Goldfarb, a consultant and classical music veteran hired to conduct the study.

Station execs sometimes misinterpret research or don’t openly discuss how factors such as governance affect decisions, says Goldfarb, who will discuss the study at AMPPR’s Music Personnel Conference, Feb. 21-24 in Las Vegas.

NEA’s other classical venture, MPR’s Classical Music Initiative, looks to energize collaborations between public radio producers and the greater classical community.

Public radio’s studies focus inward, but the project looks beyond the system. Sarah Lutman, MPR’s senior v.p. for cultural programming and initiatives, met recently with members of the Minnesota Orchestra to discuss trends in other musical genres that classical artists should consider. For example, orchestras could mimic some rock bands by encouraging concertgoers to record and share copies of performances.

“The field in general needs stimulation,” Lutman says. “There’s a lot of excitement and funding and new ideas in news and information programming, but there really has been less investment on the classical side for many years.”

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