Cries of pain

“The reason I subscribed to Capital Public Radio is for classical music,”  says a subscriber to the public radio station in Sacramento, CA. Which, like many (most?) public radio outlets, has cut back on classical programming. And now, adding insult to injury, is moving its jazz broadcasts to a classical station it runs, displacing classical music even more.

“Many classical music lovers feel they have been left in the lurch during their prime listening time at home,” says the news story I linked to. “I’m feeling disenfranchised,” says the subscriber I’ve quoted.

This is an old story. “”The mission of public radio is to enrich and educate the community,” says an outraged classical listener. Which is just what people said years ago when WNYC, the public station in New York, cut back on classical music.

And why do these stations cut back? Because people aren’t listening. The Sacramento station offers these numbers, based on hour-by-hour surveys of what people listen to: 400,000 people listen to its news broadcasts each week, and 130,000 listen to classical music.

So the station — not unreasonably — decides to educate its community with news, because that’s what the community wants. And how could public broadcasting survive, with an audience less than half the size of what it has now?

What gets me, in all  of this, is how illogical the outraged classical music fans can be. “Looking at rating numbers – this is just not right for public radio,” says the listener who wants the station to educate the community with classical music. “I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot because they’re going to lose listeners like me. And once we’re gone, we’re not coming back.”

Right. They’re going to worry about losing 130,000 classical music listeners, while if they kept classical music, they might lose 400,000 news listeners. Not that there isn’t some overlap, but still. Which group should the station want to hold on to? (And, of course, some of the classical listeners will in fact stay, because they like “All Things Considered.”)

As I said, we went through this in New York, when classical fans howled — quite literally screamed, in public meetings — when WNYC cut back on classical music. They called for a boycott on contributions. Classical listeners wouldn’t support the station anymore! Which must have made WNYC laugh, because it’s well known in the public radio biz that classical listeners don’t give money in proportion to their numbers. That is, 10,000 people who listen primarily for classical music give less money than any 10,000 listeners chosen at random.

If news listeners give more, on the average, than classical listeners, then the stations have yet another reason to favor news over classical music.

This may be a right decision, or a wrong one. The stations, conceivably, could downsize, so they could still broadcast classical music. Or, perhaps, they could market themselves aggressively, and attract more classical listeners. Not a likely prospect, I have to say, given that classical listeners are, on the average, quite a bit older than public radio listeners in general. When WNYC, in New York, bought WQXR, a commercial classical station, it inherited listeners with a median age of 73.

But however we parse all this, I ask just one thing: That classical music fans use a little logic when they dispute these changes. If a public radio station cuts classical music, acknowledge the reasons, and don’t threaten revenge you can’t deliver.

For more on this:

A New York Times Magazine piece about why public radio cuts back on classical music.

A piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, about the howls of rage — and empty threats — when WNYC made its cutbacks.

An op-ed piece from the New York Times, in which two very smart classical music leaders — who should have known better — fall right into the trap, and urge the reinstatement of classical music, without even once mentioning the reasons why it was cut.

(I’ve assigned all three of these in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. The link takes you to last year’s curriculum. I’ll post this year’s — since the course starts on Wednesday — very shortly. I’ve cut the public radio reading, so I can focus more on entrepreneurship.)

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  1. says

    Hi! Actually in Houston we now have a fulltime public classical station, 91.7, KUHA. What once was just news/classical now is fully news and fully classical! Houston wanted more classical and they now have it along with groups like ROCO that give them current content for shows like “Hear in Houston” and “The Front Row.” Yeah for Houston! Alecia

  2. richard says

    Does anyone really listen to music on the radio anymore? (Just joking). I think radio, like broadcast tv is circling the drain. Anyway, classical radio doesn’t really play much music I want to listen to. (The same holds true for most jazza stations) At some point the “jukebox in the sky” will be a reality, and accessable anywhere.

  3. says

    I am fortunate enough to live at the confluence of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Here I can pick up (of course) the classical AND new stations of Iowa Public Radio, and a public radio station from Augustana College in Rock Island. If I drive just a few miles across big muddy into Wisconsin, it’s the stations of WPR. At least here in the Heartland, life (in terms of classical music choices, not caucus candidates) is good.

  4. Douglas Clifford says

    Try streaming the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s 24/7 ABC Classical FM (yes, an Australian Government-funded station!)

  5. says

    How rare and refreshing to read this perspective from a classical insider — thanks, Greg. Not that I don’t bleed a little when a sister station cuts its classical programming, but I’ve been around public radio long enough to know why these decisions get made. Fortunately, our classical programming more than holds its own in our mixed format in both listenership and support. Before I solely credit our programming for that, I’ll point to a large group of listeners we picked up when another nearby public radio station dropped its classical to go all-news. But it was doing well before that too.

    If you’re going to address fellow listeners this way, allow me to do the same, briefly, to my fellow classical broadcasters: Are you doing enough to make your programming essential listening? Is it inviting, involving, fresh, local and fun — every day? Have you built relationships with the other classical stakeholders in your community? If your programming were threatened with cuts, how strong a case could you make for keeping it? The right answers to these questions may still not be enough, but they’re worth asking oneself once in a while.
    John Montanari, Music Director, New England Public Radio (WFCR)

    • says

      Thanks, John. Good to hear from you, and I’m glad I’m making sense. Difficult questions, these. But we have to deal with the real world. The questions you ask your fellow broadcasters are the ones I’d ask anyone who produces classical music in any form — concerts, opera, whatever. And I’d even reach out beyond classical stakeholders (maybe something that’s more important for performing groups than for radio stations). Are you in touch with the people in your community who already reach the audience you might hope to find? For instance, the local arthouse cinema. They’ve got a young, educated audience made up of people who might go to classical concerts, but probably don’t. If you stayed in touch with the people who run the movie house, is there any way they can help you reach their audience?

  6. David Othmer says

    On October 29th, 1990, WHYY-FM, Philadelphia, changed its format from the then standard of some news, some classical music, some jazz and some folk, to all news and information. We were the second major market station to do so–KQED in San Francisco was the first–and gradually over the ensuing two decades most major markets have followed suit (Some, like Houston, have two stations–one news, the other classical.)

    The reaction in 1990 was ferocious–just as it has been everywhere since–and the decision to make the change, hard as it was, was exactly right–just as it has been everywhere since.

    The uproar is misguided, for all the reasons Greg mentions, but also because classical music is so widely available in other media, and increasingly so on the web. Classical music is a niche format (filled with sub niches, as we all know), and the airwaves of the world are populated with music stations that satisfy those niches, because in their country or markets they are mainstream, not niches. There is a 24 hour tango station in Buenos Aires, there are 24 specialized classical and pop music stations in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The best jazz station in the world is WWOZ in New Orleans, a station that gets more membership support from outside NO than inside NO–OZ’s GM David Freedman says “I run an internet service with a radio station attached”. He gets it, and thousands of listeners all over the world get WWOZ too. The point is that anyone interested in any genre of music can likely find several full-time stations providing that service.

    The weeks following the change at WHYY in 1990 were very difficult–who knew that classical music fans would make bomb threats? Since then the audience, the membership and the financial support has grown many fold, and most former critics have come around, though there are still people who stop me on the street and say “you’re the SOB who ruined 91FM”–though I haven’t worked at the station for years. But I knew we had done the right thing when one critic complained “now what am I going to listen to when I fold my laundry?”

    • says

      Thanks, David. One irony is that I — a classical music professional — listen to WNYC in New York a lot more, vastly more, now that it’s news/talk than I did when it broadcast classical music. Some of that is because the standard classical radio format doesn’t do much for me, but it’s also because I don’t need to listen to classical music all day long. I listen to the radio most when I’m driving, and I find myself involved, energized, by hearing ideas talked about, far more than I would if I heard familiar music over and over again.

      And, exactly as you say — there are so many other ways to get our music now. If I’m folding my laundry, or emptying the dishwasher, I can go on Spotify and listen to just about anything I want. On my iPhone. Broadcast radio seems a little distant from me.

      • says

        Thanks for all this Greg. Well reasoned and well stated all around. One remark worth dwelling on:

        [Sandow]: “I don’t need to listen to classical music all day long. I listen to the radio most when I’m driving, and I find myself involved, energized, by hearing ideas talked about, far more than I would if I heard familiar music over and over again.”

        Remember: you are a classical music expert, so what you hear on classical radio may well be overly familiar. I wouldn’t expect you to get your classical music fix from public radio any more than I would expect Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to get her expert foreign policy news from Time Magazine.

        But for the vast majority of regular listeners who are not musicians, Vivaldi on the radio counts as their new discovery. The Four Seasons really makes them feel “involved, energized” in precisely the same way you feel when you listen to news/talk radio! Classical MPR has smart, engaged listeners with multiple graduate degrees — tho none in music — who tell us they find this music intellectually stimulating and emotionally powerful. They’re not experts. They just love it. We in radio forget this at our peril.

        Remember: there’s a person born every day who has never heard the Emperor Concerto. God, do I envy them that!! And even the musical expert can keep coming back to it for its infinite beauty and layers of meaning. Classical radio also adds human companionship and a real curatorial presence that Spotify and Pandora have yet to offer, or even figure out. So I’ll keep broadcasting the Emperor Concerto on my radio show. It’s what we do. Thousands of people enjoy it, and willingly pay for it with their membership. Who knows? Maybe they’ll become so curious about Beethoven that they’ll buy a ticket to a performance by one of those Juilliard students in your class. Or care enough to pay their child’s Juilliard tuition and enroll in your class. Or be so gratified by listening to Bach on WQXR on the way to their hedge fund gig at Caxton Associates that they donate $20 million to Juilliard’s Early Music Department:

        Just imagine the possibilities! :-] And keep the radio on.

        • says

          Here’s the longer version of my story. I used to listen to classical radio, even when I was a classical music professional. Then three things happened. (1) I spent much more time with new classical music and with pop music and jazz. I got tired of the mellifluous sound of tonal harmony, as practiced before the 20th century. Not that I don’t love that sound, but I don’t want it hour after hour. (2) I got tired of hearing the same pieces over and over again. In concerts as well as on the radio, I might add. And, for that matter, when I play recordings at home. Not that I can’t be thrilled by a performance from time to time, but the prospect of hearing the Emperor concerto one more time doesn’t, as a rule, do much for me.

          Plus (3): The news/talk shows on public radio got so absorbing that they became my favorite thing to listen to. Plus sports radio, which I enjoy, both because I love sports, and because listening to men who’ve never — in their own view — been wrong about anything is greatly amusing.

          As for the new listeners, who’ve never heard the Emperor concerto (and bless them! may they hear it and love it). How many of these do you actually get on your station? Do you have any hard numbers? I’m sure you have a few, but enough to make your broadcasts important, for this reason alone? Not saying they aren’t important for other reasons — to please the listeners you have, and who support you — but if you’re going to cite this one as important, let’s see the numbers.

          And even if you do have some, is investment in classical radio the best — most cost-efficient — way to introduce people to classical music? And to renew classical music’s audience? I don’t believe that for a minute, though I’ll confess that this is just my bias. But we should look at this question seriously, without prejudgment. We all say sentimental things, and take them to be the truth. But they might not be.

          As for Bruce Kovner, and his gift to Juilliard. You really ascribe that to radio listening!?!?! Kovner, first, is an older guy, who’s been involved with classical music his whole life. Starting, like most listeners his age, in a time when classical music was far more popular than it is now, and was even broadcast on network TV. Second, he’s a seasoned board member, again for a long time. So his gift to the historical performance program at Juilliard has far deeper roots than anything he might have heard on the radio. Radio might have focused his decision, but the aha! moment could have happened in many other ways, too. It’s the deep roots that make the difference here, not the immediate stimulus.

          • Condorcet says

            Oh my God, thank you for writing: “I spent much more time with new classical music and with pop music and jazz. I got tired of the mellifluous sound of tonal harmony, as practiced before the 20th century. Not that I don’t love that sound, but I don’t want it hour after hour. (2) I got tired of hearing the same pieces over and over again. In concerts as well as on the radio, I might add.”

            I have often thought I was the only one who felt this way about classical music stations! I have heard far more interesting pieces at music stores like Academy Records–that’s where I first heard Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” which, as you probably know, plays a key role in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “1Q84”–or cafés where someone had popped in a CD. Classical music stations so often play the same 17th-19th century European music (with a few divergences) over and over and over.

            Some of that is fine. An endless diet of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and a smidgeon of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Bruckner, Dvorak, Berlioz, Faure, and Richard Strauss grows tiresome quickly. At least to these ears. It’s like most of the 20th century and none of the 21st even exist!

          • says

            So glad you liked this. We’re not the only ones who feel this way. I know a former classical music professional, a violinist, whose son became a jazz musician. He plays music that’s rigorous, smart, and not tonal or mellifluous at all. The former violinist (she had a fine career, but made a midlife career switch) got so caught up in her son’s music that mainstream classical concerts seem dull to her.

            I certainly noticed the Janacek motif in Murakami’s latest. Was striking to me for many reasons, one of them being that in his other books (at least the ones I’ve read) he has endless pop music references. As in the very title of Norwegian Wood. Made me wonder how he came across the Sinfonietta, and why it made such an impression on him.

  7. Daniel Gilliam says

    Your comment about feeling “involved, energized…” is exactly what can turn a listener into a supporter for a news station. Classical listening is a more passive experience, and we know this. So how do we grab the attention of listeners who are using us as background (the majority of them, in fact) to giving members? No silver bullet answer.
    It’s never an easy decision to drop one format for another (WEKU in KY did something similar a year or so ago). One financial aspect to ponder: it’s far cheaper to run a music station than a news station. Of course, if your average news member gives more than a classical one, it may work in your favor, but the decision to drop/add is rarely based on ratings alone.

  8. Karen J says

    With so many young people listening to their music on ipod etc Classical stations have to fill the listener void with more popular content. Then there are the numbers of classical streamers on the Internet and iTunes like and others now. It’s a new world out there.

  9. ken nielsen says

    My music radio station of choice is mostly Naxos Music Library.
    I can choose what to listen to and how much of it to hear.
    FM radio – ABC Classic – over breakfast and sometimes in the car but that’s about all.
    I really can’t see a model for a music radio station any more.
    And it’s not just classical music. Pop music is most places declining on air.
    But bluegrass, perhaps that is the hope for radio. There are many bluegrass and other country stations thriving…
    Great fun here in Sydney listening to a small Southern town radio station streamed over the net.

  10. says

    I understand your points, Greg, but one sentence leapt out at me: “What gets me, in all of this, is how illogical the outraged classical music fans can be.” Yes, they are illogical in terms of economics, but not necessarily in terms of aesthetics. If a reliable source of music you love changes its policies then while it may be perfectly reasonable from an economic point of view, a listener may still feel real sorrow and abandonment.

    I have such a ridiculously old-fashioned view that I tend to think that the invention of devices to record and broadcast music have been a Faustian bargain for classical music. I keep thinking back to the reason Artur Schnabel, the great Beethoven interpreter of the first half of the century, stated when for a long time he refused to record his performances of the Beethoven piano sonatas. “Sometime, somewhere,” he said, “someone is going to be listening to my Beethoven sonatas while eating a ham sandwich.” I can almost see the New Yorker cartoon…

    • says

      Bryan, I think — I hope — that I’ve often said I sympathize with the feelings of outraged classical musics fans. But if their love for the music makes them so upset when it’s cut back, then they ought all the more to be clear-headed about what the problem really is. So they could be equally clear-headed about possible solutions. I guess, though, that I’m going against human nature here! That still doesn’t mean, though, that their outraged cries do much good.

      As for the results of recording, Robert Philips, in his books on the early days of recording, notes something that might not occur to any of us, because we now take recording for granted. The classical musicians who first heard themselves on record, so long ago, were surprised at how badly they played! This is about details of ensemble, in group playing — intonation, rhythmic accuracy, and so on. Not about aesthetics. Some of the 20th century move toward Toscanini-like precision came from people hearing their performances for the first time. Though Toscanini came on it all on his own. He didn’t need recordings to hear what he thought was wrong.

  11. says

    I listen to my own music all day long (rock influenced compositions, often with heavy backbeats), so the last thing I want to listen to after a hard day’s work is turn on a rock or electronica station. Fortunately, here in France, we have a station that plays classical music 24/7. I usually listen to that in the morning to chill and the jazz station (24/7 jazz) at night. I’m astonished that America doesn’t have a station devoted to classical music 24/7. Music by these dead white composers do have their uses! 😉 Anyway, thanks Greg for the heads up and your thoughtful piece, I had no idea. I’m out of the loop, as far as the USA is concerned.

    • says

      Hi, Rhys. You’re reminding me of the time I interviewed one of the members of Sepultura, a death metal band. He told me he listened to very mellow music, for the same reason that you listen to the old masters. He got enough head-banging in his band. But he wouldn’t let me print this! Said it would hurt his image.

      We do have some full-time classical stations in the US. Sorry if I gave the impression we didn’t. There are a handful. They just aren’t commercial entities, as some of them were just a few years ago.