Study will examine future of classical music in pubmedia

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A new project spearheaded by the Station Resource Group and other public media organizations aims to help classical radio stations grow audience and navigate their digital futures.

The project received a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in December. Five of its founding public media organizations also donated $20,000 apiece.

Classical Music Rising emerged from research SRG conducted as part of its Audience 2020 project, said Tom Thomas, co-CEO of SRG.

He said it recognized that music stations needed more help than news stations, and classical is the most widespread music format on public radio. News stations had more resources and audience data to work with, while the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio, a group largely made up of classical programmers, had wound down its activities.

“So we began a pretty deep dive with classical stations, looking at how we can make a difference,” Thomas said. “We want to be really grounded with this and spent several months sharpening up what we wanted to do.”

Thomas said that the audience for classical music on public radio, about 11 million people weekly, has remained relatively stable over the past few years. “It’s nothing to write home about, but nothing to panic about either,” he said.

The plateau comes after years of declining audience, reversed largely by commercial broadcasters abandoning the format and public broadcasters splitting mixed news-classical formats onto separate signals.

In addition to growing audience, Classical Music Rising also aims to develop new revenue and business models, find new talent and encourage digital experimentation.

“We want to come at the conversation at the highest level we can — the broad forces at work, the long-term shift to digital, sustainability of stations, those kinds of questions,” Thomas said.

Classical Music Rising will focus on 60 public media organizations operating 145 stations that broadcast full-time classical music. The project will also include another 48 organizations with stations that program at least 30 percent of their airtime with classical.

SRG seeks a project director to lead the effort. It had aimed to fill the position by March but will take longer if necessary to avoid rushing the choice.

“This person is going to be the ambassador for the format and the stations in the larger space,” Thomas said. “There’s going to be a lot of things we’re looking for out of that person.”

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