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Music Notes

Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio 
Fall 1999 


  How Music Can Be The Lifeblood Of Public Radio

Frank J. Oteri

          In recent years, public radio stations around the country have been abandoning classical music in favor of an all news/talk format. There has been a variety of justifications given for these actions: everything from the abstract numerology of CUM ratings to the philosophical rationale that public radio listeners want and need the relevant topical information that a news/talk format can provide and which music, apparently, cannot. 
          This argument operates from a fundamentally flawed premise. The root of this premise, seeded both inside and outside the minds of a great many classical music programmers, is that “classical music” is a realm separate and apart from our everyday lives. Classical music’s definition, among both its most ardent supporters and its most vehement detractors, maintains that its core is European and from either the 18th or 19th century. That belief, more than anything else, is what has made classical music unviable in the final year of 20th century America. How can we expect the music of Europe’s past, however great, to compete with the latest political debate in the senate, a report about the latest medical or technological breakthrough, or even last night’s baseball scores? 
          At many stations where music and news/talk formats co-exist, there has been a dangerous policy of playing statistical astrologer to try to keep the larger news/talk audience listening when the music segment begins.  But while the news and talk are always current, the music rarely is. Melvillesque lightening-rod salesmen such as the creators of the Denver Project and other similar strategies have told us that we can keep news/talk listeners tuned to our station if we abandon solo vocal music, contemporary music, and even the cello! The result, in many cases, has been programming created out of fear of our audiences, broadcasts that we would never anxiously seek out ourselves, and ultimately stations that our audiences have tuned out on time and time again resulting in more all-news/talk formats nationwide. Perhaps such programming would work if the main news items were the trial of Robespierre or the discovery of penicillin! But how can we expect seekers of in-depth, undiluted, up-to-date news material to settle for soporific, diluted, old music programming.
          At a time when classical record sales have dropped to under 3 percent, the advice of marketing consultants should be to stop broadcasting classical music over the airwaves because so few people are listening to it. If all we care about is our CUM ratings, logic would tell us to forget about Beethoven and promote Cher or Ricky Martin or Missy Misdemeanor Elliott. After all, isn’t that what our listeners really want? But that is not what our listeners want, listeners who seek out an alternative source for information within the forest of commercial talk radio and commercial music radio.
          To borrow the terminology of our colleagues who have been trying to determine what music public radio listeners want to hear through focus groups and statistical research, we have confused the words “quantitative” and “qualitative.”  Non-profit organizations do not function the same way or for the same reasons that commercial entities do. Replicating commercial paradigms will only bring short-term quantitative success, and what we all want are long-term qualitative listeners.
          The classical recording industry has started to figure out that recording the same repertoire again and again doesn’t sell recordings any more. Yet too many of us still continue to make the erroneous assumption that in order for high culture to have credibility, it must be European and old. Europe is a great place, but the United States is also a great place. There is so much exciting music being created here too.
          We must look to the present and to the future instead of dwelling on the past. We must also expand the definition of classical music to acknowledge the historically relevant achievements in other non-commercial “genres” of music, whether it’s Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, or even Jerry Garcia. We can no longer present classical music as a hermetically sealed continuum. For Americans who are not yet fans of classical music, we offer something that is mostly historically and geographically removed from their lives. How do we expect to bring a new audience to Mozart when we do so little to make audiences aware of our own great composers: whether it’s Copland, Gershwin, Ives, Amy Beach, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, or. . .shock. . . John Cage, who wrote so much music that would intrigue and inspire public radio listeners?  How many stations have programmed music by an American composer this month?  How many stations have pro-grammed music by a living American composer this month? The broadcasting of new American music should not be an isolated radio surprise but an integral daily feature of public radio programming. Only then will we be able to compete with the relevance and immediacy of news and talk radio and show how music can and should be the lifeblood of public radio.

Frank J. Oteri is a composer and the editor/publisher of NewMusicBox, a monthly web magazine from the 
American Music Center (http://www.newmusicbox.org).

Copyright 1999  Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio