Drop the stuffy presentation style for classical radio and the format will thrive

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To the Editors,

I read Ben Mook’s Feb. 11 piece about the de-commercialization of classical radio with a mixture of sadness and muted happiness. The fact that the attrition has slowed is indeed a positive, but the stubborn misconception that classical music cannot be a successful commercial radio format is simply wrong and quite depressing.

The problem lies not in the music — for, indeed, properly programmed classical music on the radio has been, and can be, commercially viable — but in the music-academy approach to presentation that dooms any attempt to draw in new listeners.

Classical music can be day-parted and made accessible, probably more so than almost any other genre of music. Yet too often the intention of public radio programmers to educate and not to entertain only increases the sense of alienation for generations of listeners who were not educated about classical music. Play great music, present it well and people will listen.

Classic-rock and oldies listeners — especially those in major markets — would be attracted to something new, such as music programming that’s a little more sophisticated, to complement what they listen to now. But the presentation and mix of classical music on the radio is geared to aficionados and the classical music industry itself and is off-putting to everyone else. Classical music is to classic rock what wine is to beer; baby boomers made that shift and could make this one as well if someone gives them what they want.

Classical-format stations will never rank among the top five stations in any market, but a station that is well-programmed and well-introduced and marketed can and should attract a highly sellable audience, especially when advertisers factor in the qualitative advantages that the format’s audience embodies.

The answer lies in this simple mantra: Stop doing classical radio and start doing great radio that presents classical music. That’s when commercial broadcasters will take note and advertisers will spend.

Anthony Rudel
Stamford, Conn.

The writer is the former v.p. of programming at WQXR and for the SW Networks. He is the author of Classical Music Top 40 and Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio, and is a visiting lecturer of communications studies at Manhattanville College.

This letter was first published in the March 11 edition of Current.

One thought on “Drop the stuffy presentation style for classical radio and the format will thrive

  1. I agree completely with Mr. Rudel’s thesis though, unfortunately, even the most vibrant and entertaining classical music programming can’t survive a weak broadcast signal and a virtually non-existent budget. One great example would be the now-defunct classical format at KCSN-FM under Martin Perlich. The music mix was broad by every standard and the hosts were entertaining and accessible, clearly besting the more staid offerings on public station KUSC and commercial KMZT. Impatient with low ratings, however, Cal State Northridge’s administration switched formats, attempting now to compete with the likes of KCRW’s music programming. While I do enjoy the new format, I wonder what the classical format could have done with the expanded signal that the station now enjoys.

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