Classical Radio’s Magic Still Rules In Face Of Change

Popular WQXR morning host Jeffrey Spurgeon talks classical music with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (Matthew Septimus)
To survive in the digital world, WQXR concentrates on providing “quality and context” to NYC’s lively classical music scene.
Popular morning host Jeffrey Spurgeon talks shop with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. (Matthew Septimus)
By John Fleming

Most everyone who loves classical music has a vivid memory involving the radio. Maybe it’s of hearing opera for the first time on a Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast. Or of having what felt like an intimate connection with one of classical radio’s iconic announcers, such as Robert J. Lurtsema on WGBH in Boston, known for the recordings of chirping birds that accompanied the opening theme of his morning show. Or of being introduced to a piece of new music, such as Gorecki’s haunting Third Symphony, which seemed to be on the air everywhere for a while in the 1990s.

For classical music radio, it's adapt or die.
Classical music radio faces a brave new digital world.

Classical radio continues to provide those kinds of seminal listening experiences, but as a medium it is also in the throes of wrenching change, partly because of the same issues symphony orchestras and opera companies are struggling to overcome, such as an aging audience and the marginalization of classical music.  A big push now is to come to terms with the Internet and how it is transforming the way people access music. Apps, podcasts, downloads, audio streaming and other virtual products have the listener’s ear nowadays. How is classical radio adapting to the brave new digital world?

That was something of a theme when the general managers of two of the country’s oldest and most important classical stations, Steve Robinson of WFMT in Chicago and Graham Parker of WQXR in New York, participated in a panel discussion on the state of classical radio at the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America in Chicago in June. Both painted a fascinating, provocative picture of an industry in flux, and I followed up with them with interviews in September.

I also interviewed Brenda Barnes, who, as president of USC Radio, presides over a pair of California classical-music broadcast institutions, KUSC in Los Angeles and KDFC in San Francisco; as well as Mia Bongiovanni, assistant general manager for media at the Metropolitan Opera, whose responsibilities include the Met Saturday radio broadcasts, the longest-running program in classical radio.

Steve Robinson, general manager, WFMT. (Teresa Crawford)
WFMT’s Robinson: “Finally the Internet is starting to peck away.”

Robinson, a well-traveled classical radio executive who has been with WFMT for 14 years, set the tone by relating recent data on radio listenership that has stations in all formats, not just classical, worried about the future. “Over the last 24 months, the overall radio audience nationally has gone down 13 percent,” he said. “What that means to me is that finally the Internet is starting to peck away at radio the way it has been doing in the newspaper business for 25 years.”

Younger people in particular are less likely to tune into radio, instead turning to iTunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and other online services for music they access through smartphone, tablet or other devices. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that lots of people under 30 don’t even own a radio. Classical stations — there are about 200 in the United States, mostly noncommercial, that specialize in classical music — have responded to this profound change in listening habits by developing web sites and streaming their on-air signals. But the online audience is still relatively small.

Barnes: "Online still doesn't hold a candle to on-air."
USC’s Barnes: “Online doesn’t hold a candle to on-air.”

“Online doesn’t hold a candle to on-air,” said Barnes, whose two California stations combined have the largest classical radio audience in the country. As an example, she cited the approximate number of people who listen in a given week to KUSC and its affiliated Southern California stations. “100,000 to 150,000 people will be streaming our signal, while 800,000 are listening on the radio. That online number has grown a lot over the years, but it still pales in comparison to broadcast.”

Although the intersection of radio and new technology is an abiding concern of classical stations these days, Robinson sounds a cautionary note. “I may regret saying this, but those in the industry who think they are going to save themselves by depending on the web site for listenership are wrong,” he said. “Sorry, it’s not going to happen. It’s the over-the-air signal that is your bread and butter. And the more money you put into your web site at the expense of your over-the-air signal, the sorrier you’re going to be.”

Graham Parker, general manager, WQXR
Parker: Live broadcasts tie into NYC fabric. (M. Antonio)

Parker was executive director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for eight years before being hired to manage WQXR in 2010, not long after it was purchased by New York Public Radio from the New York Times. Part of his strategy has been to air more live broadcasts from Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Caramoor Festival, and other venues around the city, as well as the station’s own performance space.

“We really try to tie ourselves to the fabric of New York City, which I think is the greatest classical-music city in the country and one of the top three in the world,” he said. “You’ve got everyone coming through our concert halls, and we want to be sure we’re capturing and passing along that energy to anyone who wants to listen to it.”

Classical radio competition - iTunes, Pandora
Classical radio competition – iTunes, Pandora

WFMT takes a similar approach in Chicago, with live broadcasts ranging from opening nights at Lyric Opera of Chicago to lunchtime recitals. “In any six-month period, we’re going to have about 150 live broadcasts,” Robinson said. “My philosophy is that the more music your station plays from CDs, the less chance you have surviving in the digital era. And conversely, the more you program that you can’t hear on Pandora, that you can’t hear on iTunes, that you can’t hear on Spotify – the more you can do that, the likelier you are to survive.”

Of course, live performances have long been a staple of classical radio. The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts began in 1931, and they became a tradition for generations of listeners (Robinson calls their Saturday afternoon time slot “sacred ground” at WFMT). The 2014-15 season of 23 broadcasts opens Dec. 6 with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It will be carried by 570 U.S. stations (including affiliates and translators) and heard internationally in about 40 countries.

“We don’t have concrete listenership numbers, but the estimated audience for on-air broadcasts on Saturday is 8.5 million,” Bongiovanni said.

Still, the Met’s Saturday radio broadcasts can seem like an anachronism in danger of getting lost in the shuffle as the opera company has moved into new high-profile, high-tech ventures, such as its Live in HD broadcasts to 750 U.S. movie theaters, also on Saturdays; the Met Opera channel on Sirius/XM; selected live performances streamed on the company’s web site; Met Opera on Demand, which offers hundreds of videos and audio recordings; and streaming services on iTunes and Amazon instant video.

Mia Bongiovanni, Metropolitan Opera media (Jonathan Tichler)
Bongiovanni: Met radio laid HD cornerstone. (J. Tichler)

Bongiovanni, who came to the Met with general manager Peter Gelb in 2006, after previously working with him at Columbia Artists and Sony Classical, clearly values the legacy of the radio broadcasts. “The Saturday matinee broadcasts have been the cornerstone of all our media activities,” she said. “They laid the foundation to do Live in HD and reach out digitally.”

Has there been slippage in the number of stations carrying the broadcasts? “Happily, very little,” Bongiovanni said. “I worry about that, but we have remained very consistent. We have had a handful of stations that have had to move their classical programming from on-air to HD channels to accommodate more news and information, but they have been few and far between.”

According to Barnes, who has been with USC since 1997, the Met has more or less held onto its loyal radio audience but is not reaching a new one. “The issue is the demographics,” she said. “The median age for the Met broadcasts is quite old, relative even to the rest of classical music. Listening to the Met on the radio was a habit that a certain demographic developed, but it’s not extending to other demographics in the same way.”

WQXR is on the air.
WQXR is on the air.

Despite the importance of live broadcasts, the essential format of classical radio remains that of an announcer playing recordings from a studio at the station. WQXR, for example, has a music library of more than 75,000 discs, and on any day of the week the station’s announcers air an impressive variety of music, each selection documented in playlists on the web site (complete with a link to buy recordings). When the format works, it creates a bond between station and listener. As Parker put it: “An amazing host and amazing music – that’s the magic combination.”

The most amazing host I ever heard was Garrison Keillor in the 1970s, when he had a morning show on Minnesota Public Radio, brilliantly mixing music, classical and otherwise, with poetry and commentary in a droll, deceptively laid-back manner. A few others have also been a joy to listen to, yet for the most part, classical announcers seem to have great voices and perfect pronunciation but not a lot to say.

Jim Svejda breaks the mold
Svejda at KUSC: Five-hour weeknight regular since 1979.

One announcer who breaks the mold is Jim Svejda, whose five-hour weeknight program has been on KUSC since 1979. Author of a popular  guide to classical CDs, Svejda does resourceful things on his show, like having Gramophone editor-in-chief James Jolly on as a guest to play and talk about recordings that win the magazine’s classical music awards, aired the night after they are given out in London.

Barnes, who received master’s degrees in clarinet performance and musicology before getting into public radio, thinks Svejda’s appeal is twofold. “No. 1, I don’t think there’s another person on the planet who can hold a candle to him in terms of the recorded repertoire,” she said. “The other piece is that he is a strong personality. He knows a lot and is able to convey information succinctly. He’s not the kind of guy who goes on and on and on. He has so much knowledge that he’s able to make it simple.”

Classical radio programmers, music directors and announcers pay a lot of attention to the time of day when choosing music to play. “In the morning it’s a bit quicker, because people are getting the kids up, drinking coffee, taking a shower, getting themselves off to work,” Parker said. “During the day, there is a lot of background office listening, people using the station to concentrate, or relax, or focus. And then we want to provide a slightly different feel in the evening with longer pieces as people are winding down, cooking, sitting down to dinner, reading a book.”

Parker and his team have learned it’s hard to please everyone. “At any moment of the day, people listening to WQXR have all sorts of musical backgrounds and expertise levels, and we have to try and figure out how to serve all of those at the same time,” he said. “Some listeners will closely scrutinize why we played a Mitsuko Uchida recording of a great Schubert sonata, while others will just feel, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that piece was, but it made me happy and took me away from the stress of my kids for a few minutes.’ Both those responses are valid and we have to try to serve both.”

Classical radio competition - Spotify, Rhapsody
Classical radio competition – Spotify, Rhapsody

When WQXR polls listeners for their favorite classical music to be played in a year-end countdown, most of the usual suspects are on the list – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was No. 1 in 2013 – but there are also some revealing outliers. The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams is not a work that is often considered a masterpiece, but it is consistently popular in surveys of radio listeners.

“I would say that the reason people love The Lark Ascending could be the length of it – it’s about 15 minutes – and it has a beautiful tune,” Parker said. “It’s very relaxing and ethereal and transparent. Probably many people don’t even know what they’re listening to. They just know it’s lovely.”

Robinson doesn’t like the notions of background listening or music to relax by – “We’re never selecting music because we think it will relax you” – but WFMT has lately bumped up the percentage of standards it plays. “The program director, at my urging, has raised what we play that is core repertoire, the warhorses, to about 40 percent of the time,” he said. “Now, some stations are at 80 percent, and you hear the same pieces day in and day out. It can drive you nuts.”

Classical radio tends to be cautious about new music. WQXR has a digital stream called Q2 Music that is devoted to living composers, and it is loaded with adventurous programming, such as back-to-back 24-hour marathons of music by Finnish composers Einojuhani Rautavaara and Kaija Saariaho in September. But on the air, play lists run to more frequently heard composers like Philip Glass, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Arvo Pärt, and Christopher Theofanidis.

“Some of Michael Torke’s music has this wonderful balance of high energy, beautiful orchestration and quieter moments with a lovely arc that people seem to really like,” Parker said. “We play quite a lot of contemporary music, but it may be more of a sonic thing. What we try to avoid is that reaction of ‘Oh, my God! What is that on the radio?’ You want to avoid those switch-off moments.”

Parker subscribes to Nielsen ratings reports on listenership, and he can track the station’s digital audience in real time — all data that is useful in measuring how people are reacting to what the station does. But ultimately he relies on the musical taste and savvy of his programmers, which is something many online rivals lack.

“Things like Spotify or Pandora or Rhapsody are algorithmically driven,” he said. “There’s really no human element of curation involved in that, and I would say there is no true quality control. The level of oversight we bring to every single piece, every single track, every single CD is all done by hand, by a real person. These other platforms can offer enormous scale. I don’t have the scale that Pandora has. But I think it’s very clear that once you start listening to classical on Pandora that it’s a very narrow play list. And there’s nobody telling you anything about the music. WQXR is all about quality and context, and those other platforms don’t bring any of that.”

Something else that streaming services like Pandora and Spotify do not have is any sense of place, coming as they do from cyberspace, but perhaps global listeners don’t care where their music emanates from. Just before interviewing Parker, I heard midday host Elliott Forrest give the time and temperature. Why would somebody in Beijing want to know the weather in New York?

“We do talk about that, and how much we should do it,” Parker said. “But I think it is the New Yorkness of the station that many people want to hear. Hey, it’s fun to know what the weather is in Central Park at that particular moment.”

John Fleming covered the Florida music scene from 1991 to 2013 as performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

Backstage after the first matinee broadcast, Christmas Day, 1931: Merle H. Aylesworth, president of NBC; Deems Taylor, announcer; Karl Riedel, conductor; Henriette Wakefield, Gertrud; Dorothee Manski, Witch; Editha Fleischer, Hänsel, Queena Mario, Gretel, Gustav Schützendorf, Peter; Peral Besuner, Dew Fairy; Guil Gatti-Casazza, general manager. Photograph, Carlo Edwards
Met Opera radio broadcasts began on Christmas Day, 1931, and continue to flourish as classical music radio struggles.
(See full credits, courtesy of the Met, below.)

[Official Metropolitan Opera caption for the Dec. 25, 1931 archive photo: “Backstage after the first matinee broadcast, Christmas Day, 1931: Merle H. Aylesworth, president of NBC; Deems Taylor, announcer; Karl Riedel, conductor; Henriette Wakefield, Gertrud; Dorothee Manski, Witch; Editha Fleischer, Hänsel, Queena Mario, Gretel, Gustav Schützendorf, Peter; Peral Besuner, Dew Fairy; Guil Gatti-Casazza, general manager. Photograph: Carlo Edwards”]