Sunday, May 6, 2012

Classical Music's Radio Future

In November, 2010, I wrote three entries in this blog about the future of classical music on US radio. WGBH-FM, Boston's premier classical music station since 1951, had nearly a year earlier acquired the other Boston classical music radio station, WCRB-FM, and decided to switch the flagship station to a mostly talk-show and news format. In the year and a half that followed, an increasing number of public radio stations, ones that once played classical music for at least part of the day, have gone over to news, opinion, and information, sometimes making classical music (chiefly the warhorses) available 24/7 on radio channels that require the Internet or special receivers.

Seldom, if ever, have public radio stations justified these decisions in front of the public. Classical music on radio goes (away) without saying. And so the May 3 announcement, on the public broadcasting blog "Current.com," is of interest not only because it offers a rationale but also insight into today's public radio climate. I quote from the entry: "WUIS, a public radio station operated by the University of Illinois Springfield, will transition from classical to news and talk in July, reports the Illinois Times. The shift follows the retirement of Karl Scroggin at the end of March, who had hosted the weekday Classics since 1984. The station has already started streaming a 24-hour classical digital channel with live announcers. 'We recognize classical radio is one of those things that's slowly going away, but we're still willing to make an effort to get it to people who want it,'" General Manager Bill Wheelhouse said. [Italics are mine. The quotation is from Current.org, May 3, 2012.]

"Slowly going away." Fade to black. Belief in the inevitability of this departure must be shared by most pubradio (as it's called in the trade) managers--that classical music has become a niche market, no longer popular with the majority of listeners. One might argue that because so much different music, and in such quantity as never before, is available today on the Internet, for streaming and download, all genres, not only classical, have become niche musics. At the same time the number of pubradio programs available to stations by subscription has also increased enormously--and these are chiefly talk and information shows, not music.

Nowadays pubradio stations rely more and more on local and regional fundraising from members and business underwriters. Surveys reveal that talk radio attracts more listeners than classical music programming; more listeners supposedly translates to more members, or at least to an argument (made to legislative bodies that still fund pubradio) that the taxpaying public is being served. Classical radio isn't "slowly going away" of its own accord; pubradio programmers are squeezing it out in favor of talk, opinions, points of view. Everybody has one, today--and talk radio is there to air the chatter.

The decline of classical music programming on pubradio signals a cultural shift; cultural in the Arnoldian sense as well as the anthropological. People of a certain age will recall that in its earliest days, public television was called "educational televison." Public radio also was meant to have an educational purpose, and because the consensus among educators in the twentieth century was that classical music was the music of the highest quality, it followed that music programming on pubradio should emphasize it, just as the news programming on public television and radio was meant for a well-educated audience.

Classical music on radio, then, reflected the kind of highbrow cultural uplift characteristic of the rising middle classes in the second half of the twentieth century. A person of that rising class subscribed to symphony orchestra concerts and attended opera as well as musical theatre; a person of that class read The New York Times and the better novels that were reviewed there, perhaps through a book club. A family of that class made certain that their children were exposed to classical music: piano or violin lessons, most likely, along with Young People's Concerts.

It is no coincidence that with the decline of the American middle class--the idea of a rising middle in today's "developed" economies is laughable; it is, rather, a rapidly falling middle--classical music's future on US radio (as elsewhere) is unsustainable in its present form. It is that economic reality, a decline in the patron class, coupled with the media availability of so much "other music" to interest people with eclectic taste, that accounts in large part for the cultural shift that causes pubradio program managers to say "We recognize that classical radio is one of those things that's slowly going away..."

2 comments:

  1. To me, this change reflects a growing trend in our culture; namely, to market towards what people *are* rather than what they aspire to be. Though the middle class -- or upper class, or lower class -- may aspire to appreciate classical music, absorb beauty slowly and patiently, connect with the past, and so on, the market-tested reality appears to be that they presently prefer to listen to talk radio and news analysis. Not that the latter is valueless; I enjoy it myself.

    But, by analogy, parents don't do A/B market testing of "candy vs vegetables" with their young children at dinnertime. They serve them vegetables (or, at least, they should!). I imagine they do this because they want their children to aspire towards healthy eating decisions when they're independent. Now, I don't want to go to far and equate "This American Life" with candy, but I would be curious to know whether the classical music pubradio format had the effect of actually shaping the tastes of a region, or whether it only caused people to switch stations. That is, over the course of decades, can classical music on pubradio turn some of us into what we aspire to be?

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  2. "go to far" --> "go too far"; why don't they let us edit these things afterwards? :)

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