Bad news for classical radio

The radio world thought it knew how many people listened to each radio format.

But it turns out that this was wrong. Up to now, radio ratings have been calculated the old-fashioned way. A sample of people kept diaries in which they wrote down what they listened to, and all the ratings — how many people listen to each station, to each show on each station, and to each radio format — were calculated from what the diarists wrote down.

But now there’s a new system, which TV ratings switched to 20 years ago. In the new system, people in the sample have their radios connected to a device that automatically records their listening. And with this in place, classical listening drops 10%. Which means that, in the diary system, people weren’t accurately reporting what they listened to. They were fibbing, just a bit. Reporting what they wanted to say they were hearing, not what they actually heard.

The New York Times story about this stresses that classical radio isn’t the only format affected by the new ratings. The really surprising finding — and the one most notable in the radio biz, the one that’s already making advertisers change where they advertise — is that more men listen to soft rock than was formerly reported. Apparently men didn’t like to admit they listened to soft rock stations, and undereported how often they did. Now the truth comes out.

But the story does emphasize that this is a blow for classical radio. The new ratings, says the story, “are part of what an industry consultant, Marc Hand, calls ‘a smorgasbord of issues’ facing commercial classical music stations,” whose number has been steadily dropping.

Sometimes people hold out classical radio as a beacon of hope. People may not go to classical concerts, but they listen to classical radio. Well, that may be true, but the number of listeners is smaller than we thought.

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  1. Joe Shelby says

    Well, there’s only one classical station around here, and its non-profit (connected with the DC PBS station). As such, it seems to avoid the 20th century like the plague. *maybe* a Prokofiev or Copland (in the populist years) piece once a day, or some late-romantic Russians, but I’ve had hours where nothing existed after 1850.

    A few things the article misses, especially on the “men and soft rock” category – the “radio” population of men has gotten older as younger kids turn to music more directly in their control (ipods). In addition, “classic rock” stations have been disappearing and one reason for this (that nobody likes to admit) is how horrendously small the playlist has gotten – 25 years of hard rock out there and yet it seems like every group only really has one song (unless you’re Led Zepplin or Tom Petty). Jethro Tull fans can only put up with “Bungle in the Jungle” (the *least* representative Tull song out there) for so long. After 22 years of classic rock stations playing the same 500 songs (and nothing else), everybody is turning to something different.

    Increasing variety is the key to radio, which the station owners (ClearChannel) seem to miss (and SiriusXM isn’t immune to this). They make a program list of the best 500 songs, call that the “format”, and that’s it. It never changes. The only stations that have new, or at least different, material pumped into it regularly are the pop-40 stations.

    Or the news.

  2. says

    I don’t trust any measuring device for radio. When I worked at a radio station (and I did for 13 years), we filled out paper reports that reflected one week’s worth of programming per year of broadcasting. The only measurement that anyone had of our classical music audience was the occasional call, or the occasional encounter in the grocery store or the park with a person who had been listening. I believe that most of our audience was on the interstate highway a few miles from our University town.

    Out here in the Midwest there are strong-signalled Christian Stations that claim territory in the area of the radio dial that is supposed to be reserved for Public Radio. Those stations do stay within their own legal frequencies, but they make it impossible to tune in to NPR stations in some areas. This phenomenon keeps a good number of classical music listeners away from depending on the radio, but it doesn’t keep them away from listening to classical music.

    Much of the classical radio out here ends up being syndicated. The afternoon classical music programs come from Minnesota, mostly because the stations in our area can’t afford to hire the people necessary to host the programs. Listeners just have to put up with it.

  3. Phil Hoffman says

    Got a new car the end of last week. I can now hard wire my iPod into the sound system.

    This week, on the way to and from work, I began with the Beethoven string quartets in celebration of the great one’s 239th year. Today I returned to the late 20th century and the life works of the Turtle Island String Quartet. As much as I have admired and loved my local classical music radio station I am now liberated from their playlist protocol.

    It strikes me that in this new environment the classical radio has to begin creating and broadcasting an “event” rather than a playlist. Otherwise why would I want to listen? Sounds to me like its a return to the earliest days of radio; new, inventive and live programming.

  4. Bluelf says

    PPM uses a very small sample. 2000 meter carriers represent the 6 million residents of San Franciso, I understand. Meter carriers are incentivized for 50-100 bucks to carry their meter and keep it moving for months. While not all classical fans are well-to-do, there is a high preponderance of them. How many doctors lawyers and professors want to bother with this device all day for a few bucks? The check-out gal at the department store, and the receptionist at the parts store might. They probaby enjoy lite rock more than classical. No surprise. So who is actually being measured by this device? If you’re standing in line at the deli, and the radio station playing has Michael Bolton on, you’re now a Micael Bolton fan acording to PPM even if AC DC is your thing.

  5. a currious reader.. says

    honestly, i think id rather hear more ABOUT music on the radio…not the actual thing. Tell some more news from around the classical community and get us acquainted with the big players in it.

  6. Richard says

    Personally, I think broadcast radio, like broadcast tv, is a dying dinosaur waiting to turn into petroleum. I almost never listen to music on the radio, and I’m a pro., and I can make my own choices of what I want to listen to, or I can find trusted “gatekeepers” who can make suggestions. All this study does is show what the radios are tuned to, not how the audience is using the. I don’t think most folks, most of the time, are seriously concentrating on the music when the radio is on. For most of the time this music is background noise. I just don’t think humans are great multi-taskers.

  7. Janis says

    The idea of hearing about the music is a great one — people (and I’m one of them) use their ipods. We don’t go to broadcast radio to get our music, as Richard said. The best thing radio can do is supplement the avenues that people ARE using to get their music with additional stuff that I can’t get on an ipod, live event coverage, news about the music scene in my area, that sort of thing. Even then, I’d like to download them as podcasts later on. :-)

  8. Radiovet says

    Classical music radio’s trends over the last 20 years have helped, and are helping, to kill. In their efforts to draw in new listeners, many stations have taken a formulaic programming approach while hiring broadcasters from other formats that don’t know the music. The resulting lack of “soul” in the content can also be credited to the “Top 40 Classical” style many stations use in determining what is played. Repeated airing of the “1812,” New World Symphony, etc. chases away core listeners while attracting those who don’t mind if a format is “dumbed down.” Omitting certain types of music (examples: all vocals, 20th century music) because some consultant said it was a good idea fails to take into account the tastes of the area the station serves. (Lots of community bands or choirs in the area?) Classical radio is the victim of alot of things, including changing technology. But folks in classical radio who don’t know the wide range of programming possibilities they have at their fingertips… who lost all caring because they were forbidden a long time ago from using their own brains to program their own shows… and announcers hired from other formats who can’t pronounce composers and titles are helping to kill the format. For lent, let’s all cut the “classical hits” in half and start playing the listenable yet little-known stuff that is available. Like oldies radio, the playlist has been reduced way too far to keep my interest.

  9. John Montanari says

    Radiovet may lament changes in classical radio over the years, but the things he/she cites have actually caused audience growth, not shrinkage. To those reading this blog: You’re almost certainly in the 95th or higher percentile of classical radio listeners when it comes to knowledge and commitment. But collectively, you’re but a tiny portion of the overall audience. And there aren’t enough of you to support a radio service. For financial reasons, but also (in public radio) as part of our mission, we have to serve the broader classical public. And we want the most accurate measurement possible of how many listeners we’re serving. If PPM helps to do that, it should be welcomed.

  10. BobG says

    In New York we now have one classical station, the new WQXR, which is part of NPR. The broadcast signal is weak and many people cannot get decent reception over the air. I can’t get it, and I live in Manhattan. But I’ve run the computer sound through speakers and I now can get WQXR plus a host of other classical stations through the Net. But all the stations–NY, US, and international–have the same format: 1812 Overture, etc., as noted above. No vocal, no piano, no chamber music, no lieder–not even in Germany. And the music streams are not at all informative–they play the music but they don’t say what it is or who is performing it. This is extremely dispiriting because I think the only hope for developing a future audience is through internet radio. I wish I could be more optimistic, but the reality seems bleak.

    I have to say, WQXR is by far the best classical music station around for its variety and integrity. It is not perfect, but it is serious about classical music and treats it with respect. Even the BBC and French system are trivial in comparison.

  11. cdthomas says

    Don’t forget WQXR’s internet-only station, Q2. They have the blend of 20th/21st c. music and classical works that should be broadcast, but isn’t.

  12. says

    Nice post! These are vital things to keep in mind, it’s usually straightforward to forget about the easy things after you get consumed by a project.

  13. says

    Out here in the Midwest there are strong-signalled Christian Stations that claim territory in the area of the radio dial that is supposed to be reserved for Public Radio. Those stations do stay within their own legal frequencies, but they make it impossible to tune in to NPR stations in some areas. This phenomenon keeps a good number of classical music listeners away from depending on the radio, but it doesn’t keep them away from listening to classical music.