Listeners who campaigned for classical music on WFIU put own interests over public service

Print More

To the editors,

I love classical music. I grew up with it and studied it in school. When I began my graduate studies at Indiana University, it opened the door to my first full-time job as music director at WFIU in Bloomington, Ind.

But I was disheartened to read that WFIU recently rolled back weekend schedule changes that had been long overdue, reverting to a long-underperforming lineup of live opera and classical music.

The station reinstated Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and other music programs in place of news-centric programming it had implemented under the revised schedule. That move allayed classical music fans organized by Peter Jacobi, music critic at the Bloomington Herald-Times, who also sits on WFIU’s Community Advisory Board (CAB). The reversal may have been a victory for classical-music lovers of Bloomington, but I see it as a serious setback to the station and new evidence that WFIU is being held captive by a small group of listeners who put their own interests over the station’s public-service mission.

Jacobi has served on the advisory board since its inception, and he played a significant role in establishing the CAB in 1989 — the last time that WFIU attempted to change its weekend classical-music programming. The outcry over those changes more than two decades ago was even more dramatic: The program manager was reassigned, the program changes were reversed and the CAB was established and stacked with prominent members of the local arts community, none of whom are subject to term limits.

To the credit of WFIU’s current management, a few new members recently joined the CAB, making it more representative of the communities it serves.

It’s no coincidence that both campaigns were sparked by columns published in the Herald-Times. In covering the dispute this summer, a reporter quoted an off-the-record source — a “member of the station’s community advisory board who’s also a music critic” — who found the programming changes “deplorable.” In the same edition of the same paper, this “music critic” also contributed a column criticizing the new schedule and urging his readers to write to the WFIU management to complain.

Conflict of interest, anyone? Even if we pretend that the local newspaper doesn’t have a vested interest in pressuring a competing media organization to focus on music programs instead of news and talk, readers of the local newspaper — particularly those who write letters to the editor — are hardly representative of the community at large.

Classical music is a big part of the cultural fabric of Bloomington. But WFIU wasn’t aiming to eliminate local music programming. It had canceled live broadcasts of a prominent New York–based opera company that has itself embraced the multiplatform world by distributing its content in any number of forms.

Bloomington is a well-educated, mostly affluent, highly connected college town. But WFIU broadcasts to a large swath of southern Indiana, with translators extending its reach to largely rural communities such as French Lick. Many of these communities are, or are in the process of becoming, news deserts, with limited local news coverage, lower broadband penetration and less access to online news. Over-the-air broadcast still really matters to these communities.

Even if we ignore the metrics-based, hard-business case that calls for WFIU to introduce more news coverage to its broadcast service and focus solely on its public-service mission, the station management’s decision to devote more of the weekend schedule to news and information was the right one.

Classical music over the air is great, but not if it comes at the expense of access to information for underserved communities.

Adam Schweigert
Director of Technology
Investigative News Network
Columbus, Ohio

Adam Schweigert worked various jobs at WFIU from 2003 to 2010, including as music director and director of new media. 

This letter was first published in Current, Oct. 7, 2013.

20 thoughts on “Listeners who campaigned for classical music on WFIU put own interests over public service

  1. Pingback: Listeners who campaigned for classical music on WFIU put own interests over public service : Music Society

  2. Bull. Also pucky.

    I’ve personally never heard or heard of WFIU until the moment I read this story so I have no particular dog in this fight.

    WFIU’s program schedule, found here

    would seem to be a strong counterargument to Mr Schweigert’s contention that their weeken schedule is besotted with classical music (oh, the horror!). Weekend Edition isn’t classical music. Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! isn’t classical either. This American Life isn’t, as far as I’ve been able to determine. Rerun Talk. . . er. . . Car Talk, sure as heck isn’t.

    I’m too lazy to run the exact numbers but it looks to me as if maybe a third of the weekend programming hours are devoted to the dread classical music.

    The rest of WFIU’s schedule is your standard, cookie cutter NPR affiliate in most ways.

    Far too often, public radio stations give in to Mr Schweiger’s mentality of “metrics-based, hard-business case” and lose their quirky souls, becoming literally indistinguishable from one another.

    Methinks Mr Schweitert doth protest too much.

    • All due respect, but there’s nothing quirky about airing the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, lots of stations do it. And it’s also readily available online. We’re really talking about a woe-fully under-performing weekend schedule that the management has been trying to change for years but has more or less been held hostage and kept from making changes that would bring new listeners (and potential donors) into the fold. Personally, I think it would be great if they filled that timeslot with local programming instead of the cookie-cutter programs you cite but that’s something they’d have to find funding for and making this transition would be a great first step in that direction.

      • Okay, good point. Yes, the Met is available on line. I usually listen to it on BBC Radio 3’s stream.

        But so is everything else. If that’s your criterion, then over the air radio should simply fold its tent and go away.

        And I agree that there’s hardly anything quirky about WFIU’s lineup. But it would seem to meet a local need, albeit perhaps a niche one.

        But that’s okay.

        Public radio, in my opinion, shouldn’t necessarily be directed toward a mass audience. It’s getting to sound more and more like commercial radio all the time and that’s just a waste of bandwidth.

        • That’s true, but it assumes that broadband access is universal (and it’s definitely, definitely not). So, in areas with lower broadband penetration and less access to news and information, broadcast news (and public broadcasting, in particular) is still (or at least can be) a really important source of news and information for those communities. That’s the larger point I’m getting at here.

          • I sense a bit of contradiction here: it’s okay to put the Met on the internet but not news and “information” (which usually isn’t).

            Looking at WFIU’s schedule, it seems as if there’s more or less the standard news and information fare. Maybe they could replace Car Talk (which is now simply reruns and calls that never made it on the air edited to sound like “new” programming)?

          • I completely agree re: zombie car talk. I’ve actually written about that very issue! (here: And I would generally agree that more diversity and more unique (local or otherwise) programming is better and more sustainable for local stations in the long-run. Think about it this way: If, at some point, we have universal broadband access (that’s a long way and a lot of good policy/regulatory decisions away, but let’s assume) and I can listen to any of these national programs directly from the program’s originator, then is there really much value in a local station simply assembling them and offering them in a particular order (with local news and weather breaks, underwriting, etc.)? Not really. But if the local station produces unique content that I can’t anywhere else and allows me to access it in a variety of ways (broadcast, online, mobile, etc.) then that’s something that I want to support.

  3. “… evidence WFIU is being held captive by a small group of listeners who put their own interests over the station’s public-service mission.” I understand the concept of small groups of listeners or on-air people exerting undue influence on programming. It’s an age old problem with anything non-profit. But there’s another way to look at it. Classical music on public radio is often treated like a simple issue: fewer people want it, it drives less revenue, so therefore it should have less priority. The same logic is used in our public schools where music programs are being eliminated on economic terms. Promoting cultural literacy is not unimportant and it doesn’t take much digging to discover that children learning to play, say, clarinet (which they will never do past high school) has a profound impact on their lives and society. So, it’s difficult to read CPB’s stated goals and imagine what is meant is magazine style news shows that get lots of pledge dollars. CBP says is wants to, “Meet the educational, informational, and cultural needs of our nation by providing grants to support the development and distribution of high-quality, noncommercial content and services with particular attention to children, unserved and underserved communities.” I realize that CPB’s funding is less relevant than it once was for stations and so those goals may not fit with individual station philosophies. But it’s not as if those aspirations are insignificant. It may be true that WFIU is essentially being held hostage, but in programming classical music it’s still achieving public broadcasting’s grand vision. Does a station say, “we offer news magazines that pay for themselves and then, if we have space, other stuff?”

  4. You know I agree with you Adam. However, I doubt the H-T ever deliberately fanned the flames of this scandal in order to prevent WFIU from competing with the paper in terms of news. As evidence, I would point out that H-T editor Bob Zaltzberg was quite eager to print the op-ed in which I argued WFIU should go all news (or at least pick a format and stick to it) a few weeks ago. Otherwise, spot on here.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I just wanted to point out the obvious (mostly undisclosed) conflict inherent in them allowing their music critic to use the paper as a platform instead of just covering the issue as news and printing the opinions of the community (which would have been totally fine). But yeah, I’m not arguing there’s a grand conspiracy here, just an ethical question, really.

  5. Jacobi may have been instrumental in creating the *advisory board*, but he wasn’t the reason for the uproar. As you might not know, the uproar arose when I found a copy of Don Glass’ programming memo setting out detailed guidelines for music programming based on a document called _Audience 88_ that was an outline on how the authors thought public radio stations could attract more money from small businesses and corporations by providing music they could play in their offices, cheaper than Muzak or other commercial sources of office background music.

    I found that memo on the coffee table of a friend who’d gotten it from someone at the station, took it to Kinko’s that very night, and distributed it widely, including taking it to the office of then-Profesor Jacobi, who’d been writing about the decline in the music programming for some time. His next column consisted of excerpts from the memo–and then the letters column of the HT was filled for weeks, by articular and angry LISTENERS who had noticed a long-term decline in the music content of the station. Jacobi didn’t even provide the smoking gun, he reported on it, which is his job as an arts columnist. The *community,* including both listeners as well as IU students and professors, was then and now the source of the outrage. The community got an advisory board, which did its job a few months ago and restored important programming that was at risk of being removed by short-sighted managers such as yourself.

    You say you think those southern Indiana communities are underserved for *news*. You use this word three times in one sentence. But the vast majority of the programming they attempted to put in place instead was not even by the farthest strets news programming. There’s a lot of good news programming out there, such as On Point, which divides its 10 hours of weekly programming about evenly between current events, arts and culture, history, and science. But instead they were trying to push things like “The Dinner Party Download”? How in the world can you call that stuff “news”? And frankly, speaking as someone who grew up and lived in central and southern Indiana, do you really expect anyone to believe the people in those rural communities want to listen to those shows any more than they want to listen to opera?

    Glass, BTW, memorably complained at the first advisory committee meeting that he didn’t want to program vocal music because “it [the human voice in music] makes people want to listen.” That’s exactly the kind of programming I and others wanted to see, music that *makes people (even, or especially, people in rural southern Indiana) want to listen*.

    • Did the “community” of tenured college professors *support* classical music on WFIU? Or did they just complain about the pledge drives and underwriting announcements, boast about not giving money and call for a BBC-style license fee to fund public radio, knowing full well that hell will freeze over in the U.S. before something like that ever gets adapted by our present government?

    • I use “underserved” three times in one sentence…where? But putting that aside let’s step back from your accusatory tone for a minute and I’ll answer your objections and explain a little more about where I’m coming from.

      So, the argument you’re making (that access to the metropolitan opera is somehow essential, or, in your words “important”) is something that I don’t necessarily disagree with. I just wonder why having it on the main channel on Saturday afternoons is being held up as so sacred when a) very few people listen and b) even fewer donate to the station to support it.

      These stations still have to run businesses, like it or not. They’re not fully funded through government support or even donations, they still have underwriting, still have to scrap money together any way they can to stay on the air. That’s the reality of the situation.

      Also, in terms of the programming memo you’re talking about and classical music programming strategy in general (something I know a little about having been WFIU’s music director for a couple years and then working at another station that has a full-time classical music service), I also agree with you. Most classical music programming on public radio is not very good. It’s the same couple hundred pieces that the audience demands and research has shown they respond to played over and over. It’s just less noticeable than in top 40 radio because the pieces are longer. WFIU, being situated near and licensed to a university with a top tier music school is in a unique position to not do that but broadcasting syndicated classical music programs like the Met is NOT the answer.

      In my time at WFIU (at least the time I was working on the classical music side), I tried to push the envelope a bit more than is normal (and than my boss at the time was probably thrilled with, although, to her credit, she let me get away with more than she had to). My thinking was essentially, let’s program music that people don’t hear as often but that still (again, because we need people to not turn the radio off) works for those who listen to WFIU at work, or have it on as background music. So, instead of Vivaldi, how about a little Pasquini? This actually turns out to work pretty well because the “educated” listeners appreciate the variety and occasionally we turn them onto new things to check out (although they’ll complain if you don’t program enough Vivaldi and Schubert and what-have-you) while the people who use it as background music can still also do that without having to call and complain about the Varese or Webern we scheduled at 8 am.

      Now, on top of that, I would argue that stations like WFIU that have this local strength should look into how they can create digital offerings that are unique in the marketplace. For example, instead of broadcasting the Met, why don’t (and I know the answer is complicated, with rights issues, etc.) they broadcast the IU Opera season and offer that streaming online, syndicate it to other stations, etc.? Or why don’t they have a 24-hour digital stream of just contemporary music, or just student and faculty performances, etc.? This is the kind of classical music programming that I would be all for. It turns out it’s really HARD to do that, but it’s something to aspire to, in my opinion.

      The argument that a nationally syndicated program is so Important that woe be us if it’s not on at the same (underperforming) time on the same (underperforming) channel is, if nothing else, a case of misplaced priorities. WFIU is never going to be THE destination (for people in rural southern Indiana or otherwise) for the Met broadcasts. Period. But it could be a destination for those people for news and information. And there is a way to serve both that need and the classical music fans. You (and other concerned parties) just need to be willing to give a little and help the station do what it needs to do to survive.

      • You use the word *news* three times in one sentence. I think you deliberately pretended to misunderstand so you didn’t have to address that important criticism of what seems to be your underlying premise–that the radio station should serve the needs of people in southern Indiana who don’t have access to all the broadband options urban people have. And that might have been a valid criticism, except that they replaced the programming with what Jacobi describes well as “blab programming.” Many of these shows are popular, but are they *important* enough to use public resources to broadcast? Should WFIU start broadcasting high school basketball as well?

        I certainly wasn’t claiming that access to the *Met* opera is important, but I do claim that access to unfamiliar programming, including opera, is important. The job of a public radio station, and especially a university radio station, is in large part education. If you’re simply opposed to the chatty and hackneyed nature of the Met series itself, program some exciting and obscure recorded opera in its place.

        Why have it on the main channel on Saturday? I’m assuming WRT the Met that’s a contractual thing. I’d be happy to see it on the main channel on Sunday. You could have programmed ‘Mitridate’ or ‘Die Vogel’ or ‘Fortunio’ any time you wanted to. Did you *ever* choose to program a complete opera recording for some other afternoon or evening? I certainly don’t remember that happening when I lived in Bloomington. Opera requires a much larger commitment of time than any news show I know of, and weekend afternoons are the time most listeners *might* be free for that long. And of course listening to three hour long operas during the workday wouldn’t go well with the mission of producing background pablum for businesses.

        And you claim on the one hand that those rural communities don’t have easy access to broadband and then that WFIU is not going to be THE destination for Met broadcasts. How else are those people going to access the Met? By definition for them, WFIU is “the” destination for opera, because there is no other destination.

        As for this “news and information” straw man that you keep bringing up: you want an accusatory tone, I’m accusing you of flat-out lying about that. The shows that were going to take over these weekend blocks of time simply can’t be described as sources of either news or even the vague “information.” Never mind the removal of the BBC Newshour, which actually is news. Did you actually listen to the new lineup and choose not to mention that it was at best junk, or did you leave that out because it completely undermines your claim that WFIU “could be a destination for those people for news and information”?

        (I haven’t listened to all of them, but I have listened to enough of them to be fairly confident that _This American Life_ is the only actual news program among them. And that was a rerun.)

        • So…you haven’t listened to the programs they replaced the opera with…yet you know all about their contents?

          As someone who has been responsible for programming at a public radio station (and now just someone who loves the format) I have listened to all of those programs (and many others, and many others who never made it) and if the “flat-out lying” you’re accusing me of is that these programs contain “news and information” then I accuse you of ignorance. Maybe give them all an open-minded listen before casting judgment?

          That said, and as I said in a comment below, I would much prefer that the station go one step further and develop more local programming to fill that afternoon slot. Maybe even opera!

          But that’s very expensive and it’s going to take them a while to get there. The larger argument I’m making is that the station needs to change with the times in order to best serve the community. At this point, both the audience and financial support base for the existing programming has declined and continues to decline and will continue to decline…so they have to do something. I would encourage you to work with them productively to make the necessary changes. By all means, suggest alternatives! But know that change will inevitably come.

          And I also encourage you to support the station financially. I think we both agree that Bloomington and the surrounding area is a very special place that deserves the best from its local public radio station, but that comes at a cost. Here’s the link to their donation page:

          Particularly since you seem to support the recent change in their programming, I hope you’ll put your money where your mouth is (as it were) and help them to continue to do the important work that the station management and all the good people who work there are trying to do on your behalf everyday.

          • I’ve listened to several of them. It’s worth mentioning them all explicitly, which you didn’t bother to do in your original article. I could “give them all an open-minded listen” but I have no reason to believe they’re not as described both by WFIU and the producers themselves.

            First we have a *rerun* of _This American Life_, replacing an opera that isn’t a rerun. I’ve heard that–but I heard it the first time, i don’t need a rerun replacing a new program. Then we have _Ask me Another_ “a new NPR show featuring puzzles, word games, and trivia played in front of a live audience in New York” hosted by a “comedian and storyteller” “who guides listeners with witty banter aided by the comedic riffs and songs…”. Following that is _Wits_, described as “world-class comedians, actors, and musicians…” and then _The Dinner Party Download_. That one I’ve also listened to; I’m a big fan of _Marketplace_ so I periodically give that a try, and it has been a pretty terrible experience every time.

            That’s Sauturday. On Sunday we get a rerun of _Wait, Wait_ which I’ve also heard and which is at best blather for overeducated liberals (and frankly there aren’t very many of those in southern Indiana outside of Bloomington.) _Fresh Air Weekend_ is a rerun anthology show. If listeners want Terry Gross (I don’t) why not air the regular show instead? Finally, we get _Vinyl Cafe_ which “refers both to the show’s musical content and the fictional record shop…” and includes “the misadventures of a fictional Toronto family consisting of Dave, his family, and several pets.” Lots of news and information there.


            Can you really call these things “news and information” with a straight face? It could be that I’m ignorant, but that would require WFIU’s Web page to be lying about the descriptions of the shows I haven’t heard. Of course, the individual shows’ Web pages would also have to be lying. Or maybe you’re “flat-out lying” by calling the content of the replacement shows “news and information” when it clearly isn’t, because if you actually provided the names and descriptions your readers would realize they’re getting game shows, comedy, and fiction. Those things aren’t necessarily bad, but they sure aren’t “news and information.” Nor do they have much relevance to the educational mission of public radio, if that still has any relevance in 2013.

            I suppose it could also be that you didn’t know what the replacement content was scheduled to be. That’s just laziness, and certainly plausible. Or it could be that your perception of what is “news and information” is so far from mine that we don’t really have common ground for communication. That’s possible, but I find it the most unlikely.

            If your argument that the opera was bumped in order to bring more actual news and information to a wider audience held up under even cursory scrutiny, I’d find it much harder to disagree with you. There’s a wealth of good news and information out there. I already mentioned On Point. There’s the excellent and wide-ranging _The Splendid Table_. There’s Q from the CBC, which I don’t like but which certainly is news and information. There’s Fresh Air, likewise. There’s Diane Rehm from DC, though she’s often too politically focused for my taste. I’m sure there are many other shows I’ve never heard. And there’s Public Radio Remix, which wanders all over the place, but does contain a fair amount of actual information. But the shows WFIU actually chose don’t really support your argument or promote your goal of bringing more over-the-air NEWS to southern Indiana, and they certainly don’t serve any educational goal that I can see.

          • I know you’re going to need to get the last word in here, but just a couple closing points:

            1) Fresh Air, Diane Rehm and On Point are not available on the weekends (they’re weekday shows only). I agree with you the On Point is excellent. Fresh Air and Diane Rehm…eh, some days are great, some less great.

            2) There are almost certainly cost considerations at play here regulating what is an even an option for WFIU to air in those time slots. Splendid Table, for example, is not cheap (at least when I last checked).

            3) Do the shows they did pick contain more “news and information” than the opera broadcast? Yes. I stand by that. Could they do better in programming that slot? Probably. As I outlined above. But I don’t run the station.

            4) I had a word count for the original piece here that I had already exceeded, clearly there’s more or I could have/would have liked to say. Much of which I hope I clarified here (and thanks for posting those program names and descriptions, I still hope you’ll give them an open-minded listen before casting judgment).

            Enjoy the opera this afternoon! Here’s the donation link again in case you missed it:

  6. Some points:
    1) We also have to get over the idea that full-length operas on the air is necessarily good radio. It’s an experience for both the eyes and the ears.

    2) Stations are going to have to whittle down their services down to the essentials to make it in the present environment, whether you’re a news/information station, a music-only one, or a “tent-pole” station (those that sandwich music in between news and talk radio) which tries to please everyone. It comes down to which audience are you serving?

    3) If you’re a programming a tent-pole station, you may not be attracting the kind of listener who’d listen to an all-music station.

    Former WFIU employee

    • I completely agree. To point #1, that’s a big reason having live broadcast of opera on Saturday afternoon with all the technical hurdles it creates is, I think, simply not worth it at some point, particularly if it’s not attracting a sizeable audience and donor support base (to your 3rd point). Particularly now that many areas (Bloomington included, when I last checked) have the HD broadcasts which are far and away a better overall experience than the audio only broadcast (not free, so the question of access is still valid). For those who can afford it, that’s a much better use of a saturday afternoon in my opinion.

      As to your 2nd and 3rd points, WFIU has had a bit of a (growing) problem for some time where it simply tries to do too much, tries to please everyone and as a result, winds up not really pleasing anyone (at least not consistently).

      This is kind of inherent for tent-pole/mixed-format stations and I don’t know that there really is a good answer other than the path that a number of stations have taken now where they split the two formats either as HD channels, web-only channels or by purchasing additional transmitters (like my other former employer WOSU in Columbus, Ohio did when they went all-news on their main channel and bought another station to turn it into 24-hour classical).

      I think it comes down to creating a unique offering that can really hyper-serve the local community and/or compete with everything else out there as a digital product. The argument that “assembling a bunch of pre-existing stuff in a particular order” is adding enough value to programs that are now otherwise available in any number of other places, in many cases on-demand, to create a sustainable business long-term is, in my opinion, highly suspect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *