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Time for fine-tuning? Programmers worry about future of classical music radio

When classical music people talk about the health of their favorite art form, as they often do, they need to talk about the health of classical music on radio. Why? Because that's where most people hear classical music.

This may not be the ideal time to point out that fact, just after Minnesota Public Radio's thrice-yearly fund-raiser cut into regular programming, but it's true. A 2002 Knight Foundation study found that for the 10 to 15 percent of American adults who have "a close or moderately close relationship with classical music," radio is "the dominant mode of consumption."

The health and future of classical music radio were questions in the wind a few weeks ago when public radio programmers gathered in Minneapolis for their annual conference. Classical music remains one of public radio's primary formats, but since the 1980s stations -- especially major market stations -- have been turning over more airtime to news. The number of commercial classical stations in the nation has dwindled to fewer than 30.

At the conference, public radio folks who have their finger on classical music's pulse were talking about two things: audience research and new ways to get the music to listeners.

Listener preferences
On the research front, programmers unveiled the findings of a study funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that tested the preferences of about 300 classical music listeners in Iowa City, Sacramento, Tampa and Washington, D.C. Researchers played 30-second snippets from 150 compositions and asked listeners to rate the appeal of each excerpt. They found, to no one's surprise, that bright, melodic music rated highest and passages that were dissonant, schmaltzy or not strictly "classical" got the lowest marks. (You can find more results here.)

"Where's the news?" asked Steve Robinson of WFMT, Chicago, in the Q&A session that followed the presentation. "This is all just common sense."

"But it's not being applied," answered researcher Peter Dominowski.

In addition to that, Dominowski found it significant that study participants who identified themselves as "serious" classical listeners responded very much as "casual" listeners did. The lesson is that programmers can emphasize melodic music without feeling as though they are "dumbing down" their programming.

"It was intriguing to see how people respond," said my friend and former colleague John Birge, the morning classical host at MPR. "But it's not a set of rules on how to program a radio station. For us, the research offers a way to integrate those things that have high appeal with those that have more niche appeal, such as opera."

New media formats pose 'big issue'
What Birge described as "the big issue at the conference" had to do with new media--the Internet, podcasting, satellite radio. "No one has solid answers because the rights situation hasn't been figured out. Do we pay royalties to the people who record the music?"

Rights are not an issue in the case of at least one new medium: high-definition or HD radio. With this digital technology, stations can squeeze additional programming streams into their existing broadcast signals. Already, MPR is quietly offering its nationally syndicated service "Classical 24" on one of its Twin Cities HD channels. An official roll-out is planned for December, Birge said, and the channel may later become an outlet for repeat broadcasts, offering a second chance for fans of shows like "Pipedreams," "SymphonyCast" and "Performance Today" to hear their favorites.

A second chance, that is, if they've got the right equipment. As far as Birge is concerned, too few consumers have adopted HD to justify a major investment in HD programming. "It's a classic chicken and egg," he admits. He says things will be different if and when HD becomes standard in cars.

"I'd be intrigued to do more with the HD stream. I'd treat it like a station with its own format and sound. This is conjecture, but you could do specialty programming--an all-vocal channel, as WGMS did in Washington, all quiet listening, all for kids, all Christmas music."

It is intriguing. But classical music is a niche to begin with. Can a station profitably narrow the field further? It's hard to imagine MPR bumper stickers trumpeting 24 hours of 12-tone, certainly, but how about a listenable all-contemporary channel? If you're skeptical about that prospect, spend a little time here.

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Comments (2)

The testing methodolgy is completely flawed and therefore the results are meaningless. If you have just a very short work sample to base a judgement on, the slower developing music never has a chance.

It's this kind of market research that has reduced the number of classical stations to 30. In our culture of immediate gratification, woe to the composer who's work needs time to develop and take shape.

It's not my role to defend the researchers but since they haven't spoken up, I will point out that the study does not claim to evaluate complete compositions. Here's a quote from the report: "The research did not test
complete pieces of music, but rather, music segments chosen to represent different types of sounds
that listeners hear on classical stations." In their conclusion, the researchers offer this advice: "Many
different types of sounds can be programmed if they are chosen carefully."