Music Can Be The Lifeblood Of Public Radio
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
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.
J. Oteri is a composer and the editor/publisher of NewMusicBox, a monthly
web magazine from the
Music Center (http://www.newmusicbox.org).
Copyright 1999 Association
of Music Personnel in Public Radio