Classical music broadcasting (in most places) has come a long way from what it used to be. Mostly gone are the days of take-your-medicine programming that didn’t take audience preferences or listening habits into account. Many stations are on board with appropriately dayparting their music so that the music one hears will be more congruent with typical activities at any given time of day.
That’s great – but I think a lot of stations have gone too far in programming for a certain sound at the expense of being truly engaging. It’s easy enough to string together, say, a block of music from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm that is daypart-appropriate, has a good blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and, for lack of a better description, “sounds nice.” But other than accomplishing those simple goals, what has a classical music station truly accomplished during that time?
We know from audience research that even with the rise of streaming services, radio is still the place that people are most likely to discover new music. By extension, it’s logically safe to assume that radio is the place where people are most likely to discover classical music (or at the very least, it’s close to the top of the list). In an era when classical music is struggling to stay relevant, classical music broadcasters are in a position to be on the front lines of the effort to cultivate new audiences and be passionate advocates for the approachability of classical music. Yet many stations have diluted their playlists to the point where, with occasional special exceptions, they are indistinguishable from the streaming services with whom all of us struggle to compete.
I’ve looked a lot of classical music station playlists in recent months, and there’s a distinct lack of music choice that engages the minds of listeners. The focus seems to be more on sound and less on substance. Again, I’m not advocating for a return to the days where station managers and hosts who programmed their own music did so with the “you HAVE to hear this NOW” mindset. But when a large portion of your playlist consists of no-name 18th century composers writing only in D major or G major, you’re not really offering anything except something that “sounds nice.” Worst of all, you aren’t inspiring anyone or cultivating an active interest in the medium. Reasonable people will say that it’s not up to classical music stations to cultivate an interest in classical music or to “educate” listeners, but I think that is a choice stations make at their own peril. I don’t believe that having an audience that is a mile wide but an inch deep is a sustainable plan for long-term success.
However, I understand why stations make this choice. I know that people use all radio, classical radio included, as background music. I’m not denying that at all. Hell, I’ve even blogged about it. And there are plenty of people that are perfectly happy to hear 18th century G major all day long. That’s fine. Plus, if you’re scheduling 12, 18, sometimes 24 hours of music a day, it’s very difficult to go through each hour with a fine-tooth comb to make it as thoughtful as possible. And many stations use an auto-scheduling function to create their playlists, not just in the interest of preserving a certain sound, but also for the sake of expedience.
But there is a balance to be struck. And we can still accomplish the goals of audience growth AND education (sorry if that offends anyone) but being smarter about our music choices. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to program my own music through the vast majority of my career, and I’ve done my best to employ best practices in dayparting and sound AND to create music playlists than offer a bit more. An example: a few weeks ago, I was substituting for our long-time weekday morning host at WFIU and programmed a simple three piece set of “joke” music. I started with the Scherz-Polka (“Joke” Polka”) by Johann Strauss, then played the Scherzo No. 3 in C# Minor by Chopin, then the Valse-Scherzo by Tchaikovsky. I wasn’t pedantic about the relationship among the pieces, but explained a little bit about how we sometimes hear the word “scherzo” in classical music, and how it derives from that German word “scherz,” or joke. After the Joke Polka, I said a few words about how Chopin’s scherzos, despite their titles, were no laughing matter, then played the Chopin scherzo. Then I returned to the “lighter” side of the scherzo with the Tchaikovsky. Three pieces, less than 20 minutes of music that “sounded nice” (or at least sounded familiar), and a small lesson learned for listeners that cared. I got two phone calls (still a valid form of feedback) during the set conveying gratitude and enjoyment for the programming. My station manager told me that it actually sparked a dinnertime conversation with his wife (neither of whom would identify as classical music aficionados) about….scherzos?!
My point is that we should all, as broadcasters, try to think of better ways to add fun morsels like these to our playlists, rather than focusing purely on the sound we are trying to create. It doesn’t have to be every hour, but it should happen every day at least once per day part (morning drive, midday, and evening drive at least). Pick a fun theme and riff on it. Pull the audience in, rather than treating them like passive consumers. And, of course, do it with music that’s approachable and appropriate for the time of day. It just takes a bit of imagination. Whitewashing a playlist with music that sounds pleasant but with elements that are disconnected from one another may seem like a good idea to grow audience easily in the short term, but it is not a recipe for true engagement in the long term. And as traditional radio continues to compete with streaming services, listener engagement and listener loyalty will be our biggest weapons in the struggle.
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