6 overlooked tweaks to please your classical listeners

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Classical radio is preserved in America on a small island in public broadcasting. So stations dedicated to classical have the responsibility, if not the mission, to continually refine and improve their music service. Success is in the details, and some straightforward tweaks might make your sound more appealing. It is not easy stepping back from your enterprise to apply original ideas or reconsider old ones. Enter a fresh set of ears.

Mismatched music-voice levels. Have you ever been listening to a classical station when, after the music ends, the announcer’s voice booms? You jump for the volume knob! After reaching for that knob a second or third time, you might be annoyed enough to tune out — as other listeners will. The host’s volume level is clearly not matching the relative sound of the music. While not common, this problem can be persistent on the best of stations (even on satellite radio occasionally, I can report).

Usually it’s a matter of giving feedback to a particular host to adjust their mic’s fader level (and to be more aware of volume meters, frankly, despite signal compression). The problem may range from noticeable to glaring. Because of the great dynamism of classical music, make the assessment and adjustment with care.

Instead of that desktop clock radio, station managers could benefit more from a stereo system tailored to their office. Since stations spend so much time planning, creating and airing programming, the extra step is carving out time to audition the final executed product. It behooves station managers to listen regularly (as their audience does, though surgically) for the nuances “on the other side of the speakers.”

Benda-Stamitz Dilemma. A fiendish dilemma haunts the catacombs of your music library: the ghosts of third- and fourth-tier composers. Such ghosts may lure you to fill that 8-minute slot in the hour with any of their simple symphonies or concertos. Kudos for choosing Classical-era orchestral works, among the most listenable of genres. But not all such music is created equal or worthy.

Select for your rotation only the best works of lesser composers. How? Have a seasoned programmer devote off-air time to auditioning and identifying such works most appealing in melody and rhythm. Pick gems offering variety that’s meaningfully enjoyable. On the other side of the coin, consider occasionally surprising (confounding?) your listeners, for example, with that flute arrangement of Mendelssohn’s famous violin concerto or with Beethoven’s own recasting of his violin concerto, for piano and orchestra. You’ll lend a fresh perspective to these beloved warhorses.

Programmers may readily recognize this dilemma as the Dittersdorf-Cannabich Conundrum or the Vranicky-Myslivecek Malady.

Overlooked dayparting. Is dayparting, an undervalued tool, important in your programming? A full 20 years ago, an admired Ohio station data-based every piece from thousands of music CDs. But their process went further. Every selection got coded for mood, energy level, instrumentation, era and such matters as holiday-specific and daypart-appropriate.

For dayparting, pieces of a particular mood and energy level are matched to the likely habits or outlook of most listeners at a particular time of day; typically energetic for drive-times, but more “adagio” or pastoral for post–10 p.m. Of course, the rationale for the latter is that you aim for listeners to be lulled to bed with you, then wake up with you.

A couple of years ago, there was a vivid instance of the opposite of dayparting at a major-market classical station: the airing of an hourlong symphony by Anton Bruckner in the 4 p.m. hour one weekday afternoon. What was their programmer thinking? Yes, a case for the philosophy of predictably unpredictable can be made, but this sprawling work encroached on urban drive time. Listeners during this daypart are better served by shorter, upbeat pieces enabling the interspersing of underwriting, concert information and tomorrow’s weather.

As new hosts replace the old guard, station management has the opportunity to further craft the direction of the station’s personality. Do you want individual quirky hosts drawing listeners with their stand-out personalities, or low-key hosts with attractive voices allowing the music to shine? 

Amid a pandemic, with more folks suddenly working from home, admittedly a whole reassessment of dayparting’s best use is warranted. Will today’s pendulum of mass telecommuting swing back?

Several years ago, a station out west daily programmed 90 minutes of mostly tranquil uninterrupted segued works for the dinner hour, Candlelight and Silver. As the name conveys, the station set the mood as listeners set their tables. Peaceful background music aided conversation, digestion and recovery from the whiplash of daily events. C&S commenced at 6:30 p.m., with a prior half-hour transition from peppy drive-time fare. It was something to look forward to.

Mandatory vacations. Only one station I worked for embraced this policy concerning on-air talent: Full-timers must enjoy holidays and take vacation time, by policy. You could not carry over days to the next year. On reflection, this requirement makes sense in the long run in two ways. Down time rejuvenates hosts for a fresher return on-air. It also acts as insurance against burnout. “Enforcing” this approach may require careful presentation to junior managers of the egalitarian benefits of such a new policy.

Molding station personality. No pressure (ha!), but when a host is on-air, that person is the radio station. You then can say that the overall personality of your station is the total of regular on-air personalities, plus the mix of programming, of course. Having a variety of personalities may reflect the demographic of a listening area and offer “spice of life” listening with diverse voices.

Americans seem intrigued by foreign accents, for example. Even otherwise sports-indifferent classical listeners may be mesmerized if thick-accented Henry Kissinger expounded on his personal passion for soccer. Overall and over time, classical radio has greatly benefited (IMHO) transitioning from an early male-host–dominated venture to a mix of genders now.

As new hosts replace the old guard, station management has the opportunity to further craft the direction of the station’s personality. Do you want individual quirky hosts drawing listeners with their stand-out personalities, or low-key hosts with attractive voices allowing the music to shine? Different answers may work best for various stations. The retirement, for example, of a senior host with a colorless on-air presence provides an opportunity to find a contrasting replacement.

These are somewhat subjective judgments, but management can seek qualities in new hires to reinforce the warm station personality they desire. An aspect of listener attraction is the companionship hosts offer, and certain individual voices may be more expressive or offer more of a sense of companionship listeners come to rely on besides the music. Of on-air companionship, an overlooked dimension when hiring: Will your prospective host convey warmth, friendliness, curiosity and a sense of humor? Will they share information not to show off but to enhance the music experience or to be memorable?

Differing streaming salutations. Speaking of station personality, which of the following online streaming overtures seems friendliest to you?

  • “Support for KXXX comes from …”
  • “Donate now and you’ll ensure …”
  • “Hey, welcome to WXXX …”

These are actual openers for folks tuning online to three different stations. The last one gets my vote. Your answer may jibe with the impression you want listeners to have of your station and its personality. Maybe you rotate different types of greetings. And some listeners will appreciate getting directly to hourly news headlines without a salutation.

Today’s technology offers a rich set of options for classical radio listeners. On a recent New England–to-Rockies road trip, I rotated through classical stations in New Zealand and England and the on-demand Berlin Philharmonic archive along with satellite radio, plus local stations en route. Thanks be to two cellphone apps and the car’s Bluetooth! In this radio environment, more worldwide and competitive as ever, consider these mostly low-tech but overlooked tweaks to give your sound a boost.

Peter M. Johnson, MBA, MS (ecoessays@aol.com) was a producer at KUNC in Greeley, Colo.; music director for four public radio stations; and exclusive radio producer for the Aspen Music Festival.

4 thoughts on “6 overlooked tweaks to please your classical listeners

  1. Worth pointing out: a mandatory vacation policy can and will backfire badly if you don’t pay your staff well enough for them to AFFORD a vacation when you want them to take it.

    Forcing someone to take a vacation where they just sit around at home all week, unable to afford to do the things they want to do or go the places they want to go, is a breeding ground for resentment at being treated like a child instead of a valued employee.

    The same is true for coronavirus. Everyone responds to the incredible stress of this pandemic differently; some people may be coping by throwing themselves into their work. That may or may not be more psychologically healthy than even a “staycation”, but to just blithely demand they “take your vacation days” is an HR disaster waiting to happen.

  2. Aaron, you make some good points. Maybe that’s why I only encountered this policy at one station (and in the last, less-progressive(?) century). But how a policy is presented and how it’s implemented (creatively/flexibly) makes a tremendous difference. Far from “being treated like a child,” the reasoning of their policy was very employee-focused and as experienced made me feel not exploited or overworked, indeed more respected because of it, you felt management cared about your well-being. This was not time off without pay, of course. (At other stations, fine colleagues in other departments might come and go; sometimes you don’t really know why, did they burn out?) Like most of us I always tried to work very hard in my roles and practically never took a sick day so such a policy was refreshing. The down side to any proposed new policy of course needs examining. Ultimately, I don’t think I ever recalled it over the decades except in thinking about it as food for thought for this article!

    • Yes, that’s true; policy is important, but *execution* of the policy is everything. I’ve had less-than-ideal history in that arena.

      I worked for a place where my supervisor would regularly yell at me for not taking vacation. Then, whenever I *did* take vacation, would ride my ass for weeks, if not months, leading up to the vacation, because they didn’t trust that things would continue working in my absence. Did I have at least three contractors’ lined up to cover? Was I reachable at all times? Could I always log in remotely? Some vacation! >:-(

      Another place I worked, I once took 10 days’ vaca in Europe, in an era when international roaming on a cellphone was a very expensive deal. I told them all my phone was going to be off and to use email only, and only call in a really dire emergency – I’d check voicemail once a day (for a tidy per-minute sum) just in case. And sure enough, every freaking day my boss called and left a voicemail for no reason, just because they wanted to check in or ask about something literally anyone else in the office could’ve answered. I didn’t respond to any of them and never heard anything about it when I got back. (rolls eyes)

      • OMG, Aaron, sorry you had those lousy, unfair experiences, hopefully not typical in public radioland and chalked up to “unreasonable management,” a possible (rare?) draw in any hand you’re dealt at a new station. Those experiences sound seared in your psyche, and I also had a couple in that general category (not to be detailed) which molded my attitude and strengthened my values.

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