Whither classical music radio

Jasper's Antique Radio Museum (thanks to trustynick)

The Station Resource Group and Walrus Research, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, published a report in June on the Performance of Classical Music Stations.   The report is part of a larger effort at the Station Resource Group to advance thinking around what it would take to expand audiences for public radio stations of all types.  Organized under the project name Grow The Audience, this multi-year effort has convened station leaders, studied high-performing stations, commissioned research, and published provocations from field leaders.  In the case of the classical station study, George Bailey of Walrus Research looked at the factors that go into differential performance.  Why do some classical music stations have an audience share two or three times larger than others’?  (“Share” is measure of the average quarter-hour audience as a percentage of all the people using radio during that quarter hour.  In other words, in any given 15-minute increment, how many of the people listening to radio are listening to a given station?  That’s “share.”  A whopping, huge share for a public radio news station would be the 7.5 share reported in SRG’s study of news listening, measured at the Raleigh-Durham station WUNC.  That’s unusual.  The SRG website details the relative share numbers for news and classical stations in the top 30 markets in the U.S.  Take a look and see how your local stations measure up. )

Over the summer I did a fair amount of driving around, a pleasure made even better if you love radio.  Some of you may pack a pocket-sized digital collection or even old-fashioned CDs for your road trips, but for me, a road trip means tuning in to local radio stations and listening to what they have to offer.  If you’re lucky and you get a truly local station, you can learn about your surroundings as you speed through the countryside, getting a sense of who lives there and what interests them.

The problem with classical radio is that’s seldom the case.  A local station for folkies, rockers or country music lovers — public or commercial — inevitably will have a DJ who’s eager for you to know who’s at the local bar playing live.  Some tiny towns will mix the local town council business with an eclectic mix of local favorites and music from the band who’ll be at the Friday night dance.  But if you happen to hit on a classical station — you almost always get an announcer with a “that was …. this is” interstitial between two musical works, and you have the sense that the announcer is far away, not with you in the here and now.  You rarely get any context such as why the specific recording was picked over dozens of others, whether there is any tie to an upcoming local or regional performance, or whether the musical work itself has any relevance other than to offer you companionship that asks little from you in terms of engagement.  (Apologies to those stations that are not like this. Feel free to complain.)

SRG’s report looks at multiple factors to determine whether they affect the size of any given local classical station audience.  No relationship was found between the size of the market and a classical station’s share.  No relationship was found between the number of stations in a local market and a classical station’s share.  The strongest indicator found was the level of educational attainment in a given market.  The percentage of people in the market with a college education accounted for about 50 percent of the differential among high-performing stations.  For the research period covered by the Walrus analysis, WETA (Washington, D.C.) had a share of 4.4 — huge — while Dallas’s WRR , in a city of comparable size, had just over a 1.0 share.   And, according to the research, about 50 percent of that difference can be attributed to the census data for persons over 25 with a college degree in the specific market.  (Note that Washington has a very high percentage of college graduates, approaching 50 percent, according to the report.)  And that is where the report stops. Nothing suggests what beyond college education accounts for differences in listening to local stations.

This all connects to my road trips.  It has to do with the 50 percent of station listening that can’t be attributed to educational attainment as measured by the US Census Bureau.  It must have to do with something else — and as someone involved in programming, I have to ask the obvious.  Maybe it’s the programming, don’t you think?  And maybe, if stations want more listening, the programming needs to change to more directly connect with the energy in the classical field today.  The field is far less stodgy than it was even ten years ago, and our energy is nothing like the “that was…..this is” announcing that prevails on far too many stations.  And maybe classical radio audiences are ready to hear something more akin to the energy and passion we hear reflected on high-performing popular music stations — connected to artists and the music they’re passionate about playing, connected to local performances and events, and courageous with respect to new music and surprising musical connections.  Something that demands more of our attention, and rewards us for it.  After all, anyone with a computer or an iPod can create their own DJ-free listening mix (and we do).  In the vast sea of available background music, classical radio will need to become more compelling, it will have to matter more, if it is going to grow its audience.  At least that’s my perspective.

Are there stations where you live where the classical mix is supporting the most vibrant aspects of our field?  Do you work at a station that’s trying new things?  I’d like to hear your thoughts about it.



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Eric Friesen says

    Thank you for this, Sarah. Yours is a very timely spur to the discussion that will flow out of the SRG’s study. The most important sentence in your blog is: “Maybe it’s the programming, don’t you think?” Why does that seem like such a radical question? Of course success has to do with the fertility of the audience a station is serving, the level of education in the community and so on. But smart people need smart programming, they need hosts that meet on their level, they want to be surprised, delighted, moved, and yes, educated by the people that make the programs they listen to. They want to be connected to the life force that is classical music today. They want to be connected to their community and their world. This is still the hallmark of talk programming. Why should it be any different for music programming? Answer in two words – it isn’t.

  2. says

    As a manager (and occasional music host) of a public radio station in northern Michigan, I’ve heard for years classical programmers say that listeners use classical music on the radio as a background service and that’s the way it is.

    I agree with you, Sarah, that the difference is the music choice and the way it is presented — programming. As you say, classical music radio presenters usually ask little of listeners in terms of engagement. It is simply presented as a classical music jukebox, so that is the way it’s received. When a host gives some useful, interesting information about the music: what was going on in the composer’s life at the time he/she wrote it, what the performers are doing this week, why this particular performance is so interesting, etc, the music is much more likely to connect with the listener in a real and personal way. And there is real passion for great music. When I played an abbreviated version of Ravel’s “Bolero” and asked listeners what they thought of it, the phones lit up and for a half hour listeners shared their opinions. One said “it was like a quickie, and not a very good one at that.”

    The difference is programming. Just today, I heard from an 80-something listener saying she really appreciates “our new approach” of giving interesting bits of information about the music we’re playing.

  3. Walter says

    Listen to BBC Radio 3 and you will hear first hand how clever, informed presenters and innovative programming make all the difference. Every point cited in this post is exemplified in BBC Radio 3 programming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *