How classical stations can compete against AI-powered streaming services

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This is an adaptation of a commentary originally published by the Boston Globe.

With the launch of Apple Music Classical as a stand-alone streaming app and the continued popularity of algorithm-driven streaming services, I’ve been asked repeatedly what artificial intelligence means for classical music and how classical music media can compete against databases of millions of tracks. 

There is no simple answer. But, after four decades in the business, I’ve realized that success comes to those who value the emotional human connections that music stirs. We should welcome Apple’s efforts while remembering that we compete across a complex, crowded and challenging entertainment landscape.

At GBH Music, we take an audience-centric approach that acknowledges that music consumers, like any audience today, have more options than ever before. The cornucopia of choices impacts the amount of time a listener has for our music offerings as well as their budget for supporting us. Today’s media environment requires that we engage with our audiences on every available platform and in as many ways as possible, with content that welcomes them to the music.

At the core of every interaction is that personal guide who gently informs without ever making the new listener feel uneducated. It is that human connection that sets us apart.

Spurred in part by the challenges of the pandemic, we’ve learned to connect GBH Music with audiences in new ways. Broadcasting is at the heart of our operations. But we also publish newsletters that speak engagingly about why our music matters. We’ve created hybrid music events that bring curious listeners into our studios; we work with our TV and production partners to make these events accessible to many more audience members at home. We’ve positioned CRB Classical 99.5 as the central hub of our local music communities, elevating what musicians and classical performance groups do in a way that reaches many listeners — more than would fit into Boston Symphony Hall. CRB, the jazz programming on GBH 89.7 and our digital streams are loud megaphones for local music. We use them proudly.

In the classical music world, there is a tendency to highlight the music’s complexity while ignoring its most central quality: emotional richness. As purveyors of music, we need to remember our target audience is made up of people who’ve never been introduced to the beauties of the genre.

As my father, conductor Julius Rudel, was about to enter the orchestra pit to conduct his 100th performance of La Boheme, I asked him how he was able to keep it fresh and interesting. He replied, “Someone in that audience is experiencing it for the first time, and they deserve our best.” That is the mantra we follow. For that listener, the door to great music only opens with a human connection.

What does the launch of Apple’s classical app do to us or for us classical music broadcasters?

Apple can use its vast resources to market classical music to millions of people, something the classical music industry writ large does miserably. Apple’s service is much like a cafeteria that offers every food imaginable, but with no one to recommend or differentiate the offerings. Its newest gambit in classical doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the availability of multiple classic rock channels on SiriusXM. Rock music is familiar to our core audience, and the knowledgeable hosts of Sirius can connect with listeners as we do. And we have to acknowledge that SiriusXM’s service costs less than being a CRB sustainer while providing hundreds of other hosted and curated listening experiences.

In my book, Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio, I wrote about the earliest days of radio and how the launch of that new medium gradually eroded the reach and impact of America’s newspapers, so I’m always wary of new competition. However, the reality is that as broadcasters we amplify the voices of real people who share genuine love and deep knowledge of classical music. We should use our collective intelligence to establish ways to bring this great music to all kinds of listeners. Finding ways to share nonbroadcast content, such as the streamed concerts and conversations with interesting musicians, is a great place to begin. There’s nothing artificial about connecting engaging musicians with your audiences.

Anthony Rudel, GM of GBH Music and station manager of CRB Classical Radio Boston

Any great experience, like being thrilled by a simple melody, is enhanced when it is shared. That is the beauty of broadcasting; it is a shared experience. We connect new listeners to old music, and old listeners to pieces they may have never heard before.

Even the most complex algorithms and AI soundtrack generators will never replace the human connections we as hosts find and enjoy making with our listeners.

Anthony Rudel is GM of GBH Music, station manager of CRB Classical Radio Boston and author of multiple books, including Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio and Classical Music: Top 40.

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