Programming for Sound vs. Programming for Engagement

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.

About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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8 thoughts on “Programming for Sound vs. Programming for Engagement”

  1. Hear, hear – i agree totally! Classical programmers must try to square all kinds of circles. On the one hand, classical music on the radio is “functional,” like the music that Mozart wrote for aristocratic garden parties or that Bach wrote for the church. Our particular function is to provide “nice background” that gives emotional uplift and improves the listener’s day (it’s called, I’m told, emotional regulation – in the sense that a nicely decorated room provides uplift and “emotional regulation” for many people). BUT we must also engage the intellect, curiosity and adventurousness of our listeners. They are (typically) public-radio people – they want to learn, be engaged, find out about the world, and be respected. Another circle to square is novelty vs familiarity – on the one hand, knowing that you’re going to hear your favorite piece keeps you listening, but on the other hand if that’s all it is, why bother? – you’re a pubradio listener and want to hear something new and engaging. It can’t be all hits all the time but it can’t be NO hits ever. And the hits have to be in excellent recordings. Meanwhile, it also has to beautiful and also not disturbing to the listener’s office-mates or workflow. My own personal rules: 1) I try to play at least one “hit” per hour (a favorite that gets people to say, “I LOVE that piece!”) and make sure the recording is special: 2) I try to play three pieces per four-hour shift that were composed by somebody who is alive today, but these pieces, too, must work as functional radio music (one reason is that they support the meta-message that classical music is a vibrant part of today’s culture that Terry Gross should be covering, and another is to address the need for novelty) – but these new pieces tend to be short and I often will play only the “nice-sounding” movements; 3) play at least once composition by a woman (it makes me stretch to vary the playlist and seems right); 4) yeah, I love pre-19thC music, so I do play a lot of it, but it’s gotta be good. And YES to the interesting commentary you did about the scherzo and the programmatic theme. I realize we have to keep our commentary brief and easy to follow (not too many ideas in one break), but relaly, if we can give a listener that feeling of “I just learned something really interesting about the world!” – well, that’s why people love public radio. And yes, again, to the programmatic arc (what you did with the scherzo). What you described would be easy for a listener to follow and understand – and these arcs, done right, as in your example, really do add something that a streaming service cannot. It makes listening to a full hour of the program that much more interesting for the listener – not just a pleasant succession of sounds but a coherent, enjoyable experience that you can learn something interesting from (but that – squaring the circle – also works as perfect background for those who just want background). So, yes, hear, hear!

  2. Classical radio broadcasters cannot leave it to Siri to curate this format. But, we cannot continue to think of “curator” in museum terms, either. “Crazy smart” has replaced “Intelligent talk” as a catch phrase for public news/talk formats, perhaps “crazy smart classical” is something to consider.

  3. “Crazy Smart Classical” as opposed to “Crazy Insane Classical,” with emphasis on “Smart.” I try to think in terms of engaging the audience with a classical version of James Burke’s “Connections.” (Before your time: google ‘James Burke’). Satisfying for the host as well as the engaged, inquisitive audience (we hope). On the face of it, the selections may belie the host’s curating. In the end, it’s really up to the tour guide, isn’t it.

  4. Hi Joe — I agree there is a place for “theme programming” when the substance and listener appeal of the music is strong enough to support the theme. Regrettably, we don’t always see or hear this in action.

    I’m curious: you mentioned that you “got two phone calls (still a valid form of feedback) during the set conveying gratitude and enjoyment for the programming. Could you explain your thinking on this?



    • DS –

      My point was that even though we shouldn’t rely on immediate listener feedback (such as phone calls or emails) too heavily, they are still valid. It is easy to say “well, I got phone calls each day this week so I’m sure my programming is great!” and have your programming be totally not great. But we shouldn’t discount the people that take the time to express their gratitude, either. If it touched someone enough for them to call, chances are it touched other people, too.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Joe. I’m on the side of this article that the PRPD produced some time ago. Here’s an excerpt.

        “A myth exists at some stations concerning listener letters or phone calls. The assumption is that each call or letter received by a station represents a specific percentage of people with similar opinions who did not contact the station. Something like, “for each letter we receive, that represents another 100 or 1000 other people with the same opinion.” Statistically, this belief is ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Taking the time to contact the station may be a measure of the intensity of one person’s opinion, but that is all that it is. No meaningful projection of the opinions of the entire audience can be made from one person’s contact with the station.”

        The article makes some strong points, including the recommendation to take listener feedback seriously, but the question is how seriously.


        • I don’t disagree with this at all. All I’m saying is that when you apply best practices, get creative, and get a response, then it’s a good thing.


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