The Future of Classical Radio

As any economist knows, it is a difficult and precarious task to try and predict the future. Usually, the best you can do is make clever, educated guesses. Here, at the risk of getting it all wrong, I will offer predictions for what might happen to classical radio in the future if it continues the way that it is now, as well as suggestions for what we can do to improve it.

Before we go down this path, a review of the current state of classical radio is in order. Although it is not dead, it is certainly not very alive: the image of a dying animal in a rusted steel trap comes to mind. Programming on classical radio stations across America is for the most part, pleasantly vanilla flavored—at best. At worst, it is repetitive, boring and incredibly narrow in scope.

The music selections these classical stations program seem to be drawn mostly from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. I do not have a scientific survey to back this up, but every time I turn on the radio during peak hours (i.e. from ca. 8 - 6, Monday through Friday) this is usually what is being played. Specific composers I most often hear are Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, J. S. Bach, Handel, and Haydn. When these stations are feeling particularly adventurous, I might hear the music of composers such has Salieri, Musorgsky, Telemann, Copland or Arnold Bax.

The exception to this programming nightmare is classical radio during "off hours," meaning late at night when none of their valuable core listeners can be offended. When most people are asleep, if you are lucky and happen to be an insomniac, you might hear some new music. The big question we need to ask is why do classical radio stations program this way?

While I was looking for answers, I was startled when I came across information on the Internet about a survey that was conducted in 1991 called the Denver Project. The following description of this project is taken from a New Music Box interview with American composer Libby Larsen:

"The Denver Project was a marketing research effort directed by WCFR-FM, a classical radio station in Denver, Colorado, which was trying to determine the listening habits and preferences of its perceived market. Using typical commercial market research methods, they determined that the general population prefers classical music to be light and buoyant and played in the background as an accompaniment to everyday life activities. Rather than broadcasting an entire piece of music, such as a symphony, the Report suggested that audiences prefer pieces to be broken up into smaller doses. It went further to recommend what kinds of music should be played at what hours of the day, and made recommendations about the nature of dissonance in music. They "discovered" that people don't want dissonance before 9 o'clock in the morning and that people don't like to listen to the singing voice broadcast over the radio."

Of course, I was shocked. Although I should have assumed that something like this existed, I had never heard of this particular project before. Most composers are well-aware of the fact that what they generally hear on classical radio stations fits a certain, narrow mold, but here is proof of actual "scientific research" that some radio stations use to validate their myopic programming!

There are many, many problems with this project. Unfortunately, discussing all of them is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, its existence raises interesting questions:

  • Who exactly were the people who were polled for the Denver Project? If the radio station that conducted this research used its own listeners, then it was relying on the opinions of an old "tried and true" audience, not those of potentially new listeners. Also, you obviously cannot apply the results of this so-called "Denver Project" to the entire country.
  • Shall we now assume that all classical music should be "…light and buoyant and played in the background as an accompaniment to everyday life activities"?
  • Does this report assume people cannot learn to appreciate music that they are not initially familiar with?
  • Did the members of the "focus group" grow up in families that primarily listened to old, conservative classical music?
  • Was the focus group exposed to any modern music mixed into their test pieces? What pieces and composers were used?

As for the music that was included, the following lists give us an idea. They contain the five best-liked and five least-liked pieces that this 1991 focus group were exposed to. This research was conducted by WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, and was published in Current, Sept. 2, 1996 By Steve Behrens:

Five best-liked pieces tested
96.3% Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, 3rd movement
94.3% Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Overture
92.2% Mussorgsky: Promenade from Pictures from an Exhibition
91.2% Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1st movement
88.8% Rossini: William Tell Overture

Five least-liked pieces tested
27.2% Scotto: Carnival Song (c. 1505)
26.3% Scriabin: Four Preludes (piano)
20.5% Bonfire: Born to Be Wild
18.5% Stravinsky: Soldier's March from Soldier's Tale
18.0% R. Strauss: Standchen (vocal)

These lists fascinate me: there are no new classical works post 1918 (the year that Stravinsky completed the Soldier’s Tale)—even in the list of the five least-liked works. Again—was this test audience exposed to any contemporary classical music at all?

I should note here that supposedly, many radio stations did not or do not use any of the information offered in this survey. In fact, many smaller radio stations cannot afford it. You cannot view the findings unless you pay $5,000 to $12,000 for part or all of the data. The specifics of this "modal music" research survey originated at KCFR-FM, Denver, and are proprietary and not available to non-subscribers. Since this research is generally unavailable to the public due to its high cost, I am sure most composers never knew this type of specific, calculated research was being conducted.

As with many other types of businesses that pit small mom and pop operations against huge corporations (farms, grocery stores, department stores, and theatres, to name a few), smaller, independent classical radio stations feel competition from large, syndicated music programs. They either find a way to compete or they die. The Denver Project was supposedly meant to help these struggling classical radio stations maintain and/or broaden their audiences. The only essential reason this survey exists is because of corporate pressure to make more money.

"We're probing, even attacking, the status quo of our daily broadcast schedule," says Eric Hammer, a radio programmer in Cincinnati "under the assumption that if we don't, Sony will."

Whether classical radio stations are guided by surveys such as the Denver Project, the Catch 22 is that if they refrain from playing adventurous and/or modern music, audiences can not begin to appreciate it and no new "classics" can be established. This is a self-defeating prophecy. I predict that after many decades of playing the same old humdrum selections, their listener base will continue to shrink and will eventually disappear. Since old classical music resonates with such a limited audience to begin with, each passing decade will only make the situation worse. Listeners will become more and more alienated from the music they program, music that was never really part of our modern culture to begin with.

As a composer I am obviously biased, but I will continue to believe that if audiences are exposed to the right new music, they will fall in love with it. To make my point brutally clear: if composers do not find a way of exposing audiences to great, new music, our lives will become increasingly more difficult and our works will be heard less and less until we go the way of the dinosaurs. We need to prevent this from happening!

On that note, I believe that the following suggestions, if carried out, could dramatically increase radio audience’s exposure to new music:

Educate radio station programmers.

Instead of only attacking the problem from the ground up—meaning with the audience—perhaps the problem should also be attacked from the top down: the higher-ups who do the programming need to be educated. The chance of an audience member calling a classical radio station and requesting a piece of new music is probably close to zero because half the time they do not know what to ask for. Of course, composers could call up and request new music, but who wants to listen to composers!

Educating the executives is a tough proposition: it requires composers to learn as much as possible about business, and doing business is something they are typically not very good at. However, the potential benefits of being more business savvy are great. As many seasoned composers know, a free CD of excellent, recorded new music placed in the right hands might pay off.

Composers could do their own radio shows.

Here, a friend of mine, Christopher O’Riley, inspires me. Chris is concert pianist and the host of a wonderful, well-known radio show called From the Top that showcases talented young performers. Chris is great at making listeners excited about what they are about to hear. If someone as captivating as Chris would be willing to host a show that showcased young composers, that would be a great start. Having a show that also interviewed and presented excellent, established and/or up-and-coming composers would also be fantastic.

Make available car and home radio receivers that seamlessly merge cybercasts with regular radio broadcasts.

It seems crucial to the future of new classical music on the radio that Internet streaming radio broadcasts (i.e. "cybercasts") become seamlessly merged with regular radio broadcasts. If this happens, cutting-edge internet-based radio stations can then be easily accessed in cars and any other receiver with out having to log on to a computer. An independent radio station administered by a composer collective or other organization could be alongside a national radio station that only plays pop music. This seems a little complicated, but I bet it could work. We could even have a "new Romantic" station, a "Minimalist" station, or even radio stations with broad, but distinctive play lists.

Another advantage of including "combo" receivers in every automobile (as opposed to only expensive, luxury vehicles) is that listeners will no longer be limited to local or regional stations. They will be able to listen to global stations that could potentially cater to exactly what they want to hear. (For more information on web-based radio, please search for the following article at New Music Box: Web Radio Challenges The Status Quo.)

The only thing left for us to do is to figure out how to intermingle cybercasts with regular radio broadcasts. We need to make it extremely convenient for anyone to access cybercasts, whether they are at their computer, in a car, at the beach or anywhere else. We can then forget about traditional, corporate-based radio stations all together. In a sense, I think we need to re-embrace the idea of public radio and make these cybercasts truly public.

Start Satellite Radio Stations that Focus on New Classical Music.

Another recent alternative to "free" radio is subscription radio, or satellite radio. Although this is a costly alternative, with a special receiver, satellite radio enables any customer to receive sixty channels of music-based radio. Each one is different and each company offers a slightly different service plan:

Sony DRN-XM01C XM Satellite Radio Receiver
Street price: $299.95
Home accessory Kit: $149.95
Monthly Service Fee: $9.99
Total Number of Stations: 100
Total Number of Music Stations: 60 (only 30 are commercial free)
Total Number of Classical Stations: 4

Click here for descriptions of XM Radio classical stations.
(Descriptions will open up in a separate window.)

Sirius Satellite Radio
Street price: $259.99 (for basic set-up)
Monthly Service Fee: $12.95
Total Number of Stations: 100
Total Number of Music Stations: 60 (all 60 are commercial free)
Total Number of Classical Stations: 3

Click here for descriptions of Sirius Satellite Radio classical stations.
(Descriptions will open up in a separate window.)

The obvious disadvantages of using either of the above-mentioned services are the costs involved. One advantage is that you can listen to one hundred virtually commercial free stations anywhere in the country and potentially even in your own home. But where are the classical stations? Sony and XM Radio have four (or really three) and Sirius has three. (An interesting aside: according to theRecording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the average percentage of classical recordings sold between 1991 and 2000 is3.25% [clicking 3.25% opens a PDF file]). This is interesting because each satelite radio service offers three classical stations out of a total of one hundred stations, or 3%.) This is obviously not great news for the classical music world, and it is especially bad news for modern composers.

Of the two satellite receivers, the one that looks most promising is Sony’s XM Radio. They have one more classical station and they say that their XM Classics station plays a "touch of the modern," but what does that mean? Again, although I have not substantiated this, I am guessing that they probably program modern music when nobody is listening, in the dead of night. XM Radio’s "Fine Tuning" station is really just a modern pop station cloaked under the "classical" title.

XM Radio also has a station called XM Unsigned. The description on their website implies that they might play classical works by young composers. However, when you glance over at the sampling of what they play, it seems to not include even a single young classical composer—it is all pop music.

Satellite radio could offer a classical new music station someday, but it will take demand. When all of the details are considered, what it really comes down to is whether the companies offering satellite radio will make money offering a new music station. Perhaps portable cybercasting is a better alternative after all. Or, maybe composers need to aggressively market themselves and create a demand for their music so that the satellite radio companies will have no choice but to offer a station dedicated to new classical music.

Start up independent radio programs or cybercasts.

As much as I like the thought of "free" public radio programs such as National Public Radio (NPR) that offer shows featuring music, they continue to program very little old classical music and almost no modern classical music. In fact, they are currently at a point where they will probably not play any more modern music, folk music or jazz —at all. Supposedly, audiences really just want to hear news when they listen to NPR.

Alternatively, composers could pool their resources and fund specific radio programs that make it their mission to program modern music. Although convincing a regular radio station to include a pre-funded new music program might prove to be difficult, cybercasting makes the idea of a new music program very feasible.

One new music-based cybercast that has been receiving a lot of attention lately is Vermont-based Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. This eclectic, adventurous and original program is an example of how cybercasting will change everything for the better. The Kalvos & Damian website is filled with useful links, interesting articles and best of all, cybercast and show archives. This is a wonderful example of the great things that are possible in the realm of cybercasting.

Stop expecting major radio stations to be something they are not.

These large "classical" radio stations will never exclusively program modern music. At best, they will incorporate a little more of it, but even if this happens—please forgive my graphic imagery here—it is like putting a Band-Aid on the stump of a freshly severed limb. The real problem is that they are intent on trying to cater to their current audience by playing antiquated, fossilized selections over and over again. Freshness, development and variety are concepts that are currently not in their programming lexicon and probably never will be.

Classical radio stations will most likely continue to be lounge chairs for your ears: they will focus on playing couch music.

Composers could write music to fit the medium.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. This extreme view is bound to be an unpopular view with many composers, but just for fun, I am throwing it out there.

A lot of music throughout history has been and continues to be written for specific events and purposes. Bach wrote liturgical music for services, Schubert wrote parlor music and Liszt wrote musical vehicles for displaying his own virtuosity. Perhaps composers of today need to think about writing music that fits the radio medium if they are intent on having their works played on the radio, and also if they want to appeal to what listeners are really looking for. (This assumes of course, that composers care what people think, or that they "care if they listen.") What does this mean? What would be ideal new, classical music for the radio medium?

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, here is a potential list of parameters for composers to follow if they want their music played on current classical radio stations:

  • Model you music after the "old masters": J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. That’s what audiences know best, so copy the dead. Compositional necrophilia, if you will!
  • Make sure your pieces are less than five or six minutes long, three to four would be most convenient. Short and sweet is the key phrase here. Also, do not construct your music in multiple movements. When Cynthia soccer mom is picking up little Johnny from after-school soccer practice, she does not have time to listen to an entire symphony—and how pretentious of you to think she would want to do such a thing anyway! Shame on you!
  • No dissonance, please! You might make our gentle listeners spill their coffee in their delicate laps. Then you will be sued, and you know as well as I that as a composer, you cannot afford to pay legal fees or damages resulting from a legal battle, no matter how small the amount.
  • Remember: your music is essentially musical wallpaper. Please do not make it interesting or exciting, as people really want to concentrate on what they are doing and do not want to be distracted.

All joking aside, the future of classical radio is a serious issue for composers to think about. I believe that in our business, everything fits together and contributes—either positively or negatively—to our success or failure. If we can increase audience’s exposure to great new music via cybercasts and the radio, audiences might learn to appreciate and crave it. Maybe then we will all sell more recordings, receive more commissions and have much greater success at making a living as composers.

 [March, 2002]