What You Play
An examination of playlists from
approaches to classical programming.
by Kit Pfeiffer
Set aside other concerns for the moment. Assume you are good on the air:
you project your personality, manage traffic gracefully, and say interesting
and enticing tidbits about the music. All that in place, however, pales
to the importance of the music you actually play. A classical show is only
as good as the playlist. It is our job to put together an artful selection
and then get out of the way of the music. Listeners judge us primarily
by how much they appreciate the music selections. They will forgive us
our human foibles on air, for the most part, but they will turn off the
radio when the music does not please them.
At the Music Personnel Conference in New Orleans last February, I led a
session on analysis of playlists and how well they fit the declared guidelines
of a particular station. We investigated four diverse stations, analyzing
sample playlists for how well the station does what it sets out to do.
Here are profiles of the four stations, with their guidelines for classical
music selection and a sample playlist (understanding that one playlist
cannot be fully representative). We will conclude with a comparison of
the four sample playlists and a discussion of how well they fit their guidelines.
1. WWFM, Trenton, New
Jersey: “The Classical Network”
Profile: Six on-air hosts program all their own music. Theirs is a large
audience (110,000 cume), stretching from Allentown and Easton in northeastern
Pennsylvania through central New Jersey and Philadelphia to the Jersey
shore and on into Delaware and northern Maryland. They also serve Aspen
and Steamboat Springs in Colorado. The market share is difficult to measure
because they appear in several Arbitron books.
WWFM offers classical
music exclusively, 24 hours each day. “That may make us a throwback in
an era which has seen the demise of one classical station after another,”
says music director Glenn Smith. “However, our listeners love us and pay
generously for the privilege of having us.”
Guidelines: “When anyone here programs in advance for our program guide,
they submit one work per hour to the program director...for ‘traffic control.’
Who needs five Beethoven symphonies in the same day? Beyond that, all hosts
program all of the music without prior approval. This works here because
all of us are paid professionals with strong backgrounds as musicologists,
performing classical musicians, or experienced classical music broadcasters.
Morning Playlist, WWFM:
Friday, December 10, 1999
Britten: Five Flower
Songs, Op. 47
Henschel: Oboe Concerto
Etude: Au Matin
Haydn: Piano Trio
for Two Violins
J.C. Bach: Overture
Weber: 9 Variations
on a Russian Theme
Delarue: Suite from
the film “Two English Girls”
J. Strauss, II: Waltzes:
for Piano and ‘Cello
Bach: Chaconne from
Violin Partita No. 2
Mozart: Don Giovanni:
In der Sommerfrische
Smetana: From My Homeland
Chopin: Piano Concerto
Debussy: L’Isle Joyeuse
Scenes, Op. 146
Berlioz: Waverly Overture
Haydn: Piano Sonata
Bloch: Concerto Grosso
2. Maine Public Radio
Profile: Three on-air classical hosts program their own shifts. The Portland,
Maine, total survey area (TSA) is 365,000; the Bangor TSA is 338,000, the
two major markets for which they receive ratings. Portland Metro Service
Area AQH Share among listeners 18+ in Fall, 1998, was 6.8, and 5.3 in Spring,
Mission and Guidelines: “. . . A listener who tunes in to the many hours
of classical music offered mornings, afternoons, evenings, overnights,
and weekends will find a wide variety of selections from all periods and
representing all styles.
We strive for a mix which is consistently pleasurable to listeners of varied
musical experience, while remaining accessible to listeners in various
listening situations including background listening. While centered in
the instrumental music of the baroque, classical, and romantic periods,
these programs also include works carefully selected for radio listening
compatibility from the choral and vocal repertoires; 20th century music;
the repertoires for solo organ and solo harpsichord; and medieval and renaissance
music. In our presentation of these works we aim above all to communicate
our enthusiasm for the music, and we choose what we say and determine how
to say it in hopes of conveying information of interest to a range of listeners
from classical neophytes to connoisseurs.”
Maine Public Radio Morning
Thursday, September 9, 1999
Pavane de Spaigna
Leroy Anderson: Sandpaper
(for chamber wind ensemble)
Santiago de Murcia:
La Tia y La Sobrina (baroque guitar)
to Afternoon of a Faun
Vivaldi: Cello Concerto
Berlioz: The Trojans,
Beethoven: Piano Sonata
Piazzolla: Adios Nonino
Johann Christoph Pezel:
Rossini: La Cenerentola
Stravinsky: Our Father
Brahms: Piano Concerto
Anonymous: La prime
3. Interlochen Public
Radio, WIAA, Interlochen, Michigan
Profile: Interlochen Public Radio (IPR)
in northwest lower Michigan
is licensed to the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a non-profit organization
which sponsors the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and the Interlochen Arts
Academy, grades 9-12. The programming is almost exclusively classical,
with four hours of NPR news a day and a little jazz and folk on weekends.
Fall, 1999, Arbitron rated
IPR third of 28 stations in their listening area. Cume is 33,000. TSL is
9.5 hours per week.
Guidelines: “For music selection Monday to Friday, 8-4:50pm
1. A solid lineup
of quality, familiar, primarily orchestral music throughout the day.
2. Other quality works
for solo instrument and chamber ensembles.
3. No more than two
short, accessible, listenable vocal works per shift.
4. Good contrast from
work to work—period, nationality, instrumentation, etc.
5. Rarely, if at all,
play early music, pianoforte, etc. during the weekday. Make sure
it’s the best choice when you do.
Music in the evenings and on the weekends should include more vocal music
and lesser known works, but should still be built on a thread of familiar,
Morning Playlist, WIAA
December weekday morning,
Mozart: Lucio Silla
Chopin: Bolero, Op.
Alfven: Swedish Rhapsody
Schubert: Five German
Symphony No. 9
Chabrier: Suite of
Verdi: Prelude to
Act I of La Traviata
Quintet No. 4
Dvorak: Slavonic Dance
Op. 46, No. 4
Delius: In a Summer
J.S. Bach: Suite in
E, BWV 1006 (lute)
4. WBHM, Birmingham, Alabama
Profile: The station serves north central Alabama, including Birmingham,
whose metro population is 814,500. Of that, the station’s metro cume is
70,700. Their metro share in Arbitron’s summer 1999 book was a 4, up from
2.4 in the spring 1999 book. The program director selects 32.5 hours of
music each week for the 9 am-3 pm locally hosted shifts. He uses a computer
database of music, but builds the playlists manually.
Guidelines: None published. In a telephone interview, program director
Michael Krall said, “Generally, I program music this way: I make every
effort to play both familiar and un-familiar works and composers. I try
to have a good variety of styles in a three hour span (chamber music, symphony,
concerto, duet, etc.). Given our format of NPR news on the hour, I try
to leave some time to play longer works (from 25 to 45 minutes). I use
my intuition and common sense.”
Morning Playlist, WBHM
Tuesday, November 16, 1999
Telemann: Wind Quartet
No. 5 in a
for Clarinet in F
Capel Bond: Concerto
No. 6 in B-flat
Sibelius: Valse triste
Hoffmann: Love and
Verdi: String Quartet
for guitar, two horns and strings
Chabrier: Danse slave
Violin Concerto No.3 in b
At first blush, the above playlists seem fairly similar and within their
station’s mission. All have some variety of texture from solo piano to
full orchestra; time periods ranging from early music to 20th century;
and true to their stated guidelines, minimal vocal or choral music, organ,
or harpsichord. However, on closer examination, there are certain differences
which set the programs apart. For example, WBHM is heavily programmed in
favor of orchestral music on this particular day. The 9 o’clock hour opens
with a wind quartet of 7 minutes’ duration. The listener then hears all
orchestral pieces for a full hour, until the Verdi quartet begins at 10:08.
Similarly, WIAA plays three orchestral pieces back to back at 9 am before
airing the Boccherini guitar quintet (probably beginning around 9:40).
In contrast, Maine Public Radio’s choices for this particular morning contain
a liberal libation of solo and chamber sounds. An 8-minute Chopin nocturne
in the first half-hour between 8:30 and 9, then a baroque wind ensemble
for the first half of the 9 o’clock hour, and a 20-minute Beethoven piano
sonata beginning at 10 am. Then, as if to make up for lost time and fill
the ear with orchestral sonorities again, the Brahms Piano Concerto No.
2 fills all but 5 minutes of the final morning hour of music.
WWFM seems to weigh in somewhere in the middle of the orchestral/solo continuum:
a short piano solo piece by Debussy in the 9 o’clock hour, and a full Haydn
sonata in the final hour of the morning, with the 10 o’clock hour entirely
All these observations about orchestral music selections are just that—observations.
The judgment about whether this is good or bad, right or wrong, lies with
the programmer and ultimately with the listener. However, there is a high
level of agreement among all four stations presented here that variety
is an important aspect of good programming. So we need to use that measuring
stick to see if they are following their own guidelines.
To take up another issue, let’s look at the length of the selected works.
Granted, in the classical realm we have the luxury of length, so it’s to
be expected that there will be numerous selections of 20, 30, 40 or even
50 minutes. In between, though, is the opportunity to drop some shorter
works. These short 2- , 3- , or 4-minute interludes will give you the opportunity
to keep in close communication with the listener, and they offer a chance
to be experimental. (When you are about to play one of these short, out-of-the-ordinary
offerings, it helps to put your audience on notice as to the length of
the work.) Maine Public Radio’s playlist seems most tuned in to the treasure
trove of short pieces.
For a third and final point of analysis, what about “Top 40” sound? The
four stations we are scrutinizing said:
WWFM: “Our experience has told us that radio stations which tinker with
the product, play the same “top 100,” limit it to the two allegro movements,
etc., are insulting their listeners and ultimately do pay the price.”
Maine: “In our locally programmed classical segments we strive for a mix
which is consistently pleasurable to listeners of varied musical experience,
while remaining accessible to listeners in various listening situations
including background listening.”
Interlochen: “A solid lineup of quality, familiar, primarily orchestral
music throughout the day…good contrast from work to work—period, nationality,
WBHM: “I make every effort to play both familiar and unfamiliar works and
Interlochen’s mission seems to be leaning most heavily in favor of
“the classics,” and indeed their sample playlist shows that persuasion.
The other three give more emphasis in their guidelines to playing a variety
from well known to unfamiliar, both in terms of the composer and the particular
chosen work. WWFM fills this mission in the sample playlist by opening
the morning with Britten’s Five Flower Songs—a familiar name, but not his
“Simple Symphony.” Maine Public Radio also strives for variety by including
Santiago de Murcia’s baroque guitar work in the 9 o’clock hour, with a
modern Piazzolla tune arranged for guitar quartet in the next hour. These
unfamiliar works are balanced with the ever-popular “Afternoon of a Faun”
by Debussy and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 at other times in the show.
WBHM is also true to its stated intention, with selections ranging from
Bond and Ziehrer to Sibelius, Telemann, and Saint-Saëns.
In a study I conducted two years ago of the commercial classical stations
in Maine (of which there were four at the time, now consolidated into just
one), I noted what a narrow range of selections they played, which was
their clear intent: “Consistency is one of the hallmarks of good radio,”
said Louis Vitali, then owner of WBACH, one of the stations I studied.
“When you walk into MacDonald’s, you expect a Big Mac. When people push
the button to WBACH, they know they’re going to get classical favorites.”
To that, I say, “Yes, and just as tasteless and unhealthy!” I believe that
what public radio classical programs must do is dare to be different from
the homogenized commercial sound— “cutting-edge” is how one AMPPR conference
participant put it. The public radio news and information programs do this.
Why not the music, too? To paraphrase PBS, “If not here, then where?”
Careful examination of your own and others’ playlists can both challenge
you and give you good insights. Are you doing what you said you would?
Where are your blind spots? Your habits (good and bad) and your preferences?
In the day to day pressures of working at a radio station, some time should
be blocked out at least once a week to analyze and evaluate how well you
are choosing music to suit your station guidelines. Whatever tool you use
to assess your work, the important thing is to do so. Sharing playlists
and discussing programming issues
with colleagues at your
station can be helpful; or if you’d rather get outside help, contact a
colleague at another station (you could try the AMPPR listserv to find
someone, rather like taking out a personal ad in the local paper).
And above all, have fun! If you enjoy your work, your listeners will too.
Thanks to Dave Bunker, Janeen Freeman, Michael Krall, Thom Paulson, and
Glenn Smith for sharing their stations’ information and sample playlists,
and for being open to this analysis.
Kit Pfeiffer is a Radio
Consultant based in Searsmont, Maine, firstname.lastname@example.org