Classical Radio Doesn’t Have an Audience Problem. It Has a Personnel Problem

As I continue to reflect on the results of Classical Music Rising’s workforce survey, CMR is busy working on new endeavors; most recently, “Classical Spark” has been a valuable resource for stations to get back to basic radio fundamentals of self-identification, branding, and forward promotion.  It’s easy to forget these fundamentals, and Classical Spark project leader Craig Curtis has an excellent outline you can read here.  I don’t think it needs much analysis or explanation.  It’s a document that every station should read and implement if they aren’t following similar practices already.  And many stations have already committed to it full-bore, including the station for which I freelance, KBAQ in Phoenix.   My point is that in terms of audience cultivation, classical stations are for the most part doing a great job.  Audience numbers are steady or rising for stations in nearly every market.  This is great news, but I still can’t shake the worries stemming from the survey.

No matter how much I try to convince myself that it isn’t true, I keep coming back to what seems to me to be a self-evident truth: classical radio has a personnel problem.  Aside from the issues surrounding long-tenured announcers  who have passed their primes, which I have already covered, the much larger concerns to me are talent attraction and talent retention.  I troll public media job listings frequently.  Despite the fact that I am mostly content where I am, I always like to make sure I know what other opportunities are out there.  I think that’s a healthy attitude in any industry, and it keeps me from becoming complacent.  Within the past year, I was cold-called by a manager at a classical station in a large market, asking if I was interested in applying for a job that had recently opened up at that station.  I will not name the person, the station, the timing, or the position so as to protect anonymity.  The job, as I interpreted from the description and title, was not an entry-level position, and was responsible for a wide range of tasks both internally and relating to external content partners.  I explained to this person that it sounded attractive, but I was concerned about the cost of living in that market and wondered what their salary range was.  You can probably guess where this is going…indeed, the planned salary offer was barely enough to rent a one bedroom apartment within a 30 minute commute of the station, let alone a 3 bedroom house for a family.  I politely declined, and followed up with an email asking this person to please consider a significantly higher salary range, as there were likely few people with the requisite experience who would be willing to move to that market for that salary.  I also wished them luck on the search.

I wonder if this is becoming a new normal in classical radio, and public media in general.  Salaries like the one I was quoted for this job are great for people who are single, have no strings attached, and are willing to live in a large, expensive city in a roommate situation.  And as classical radio, like all of public media, looks for new, young talent, that’s completely appropriate for entry level producer positions and new hosting talent.  But what happens when those new people grow older and want to live in their own place?  What if they desire to have children?  Will they be able to stay in the industry, or will they be forced to leave in search of greater income to support their families?   And what about positions for experienced professionals in large, expensive markets?  Can stations afford to offer competitive pay and benefits to attract qualified applicants to relocate to a more expensive region?  The CMR workforce survey indicates that, in the next year, 12 all classical stations are “very likely” to hire new hosting talent, with an additional 12 either responding that such hires were “likely” or “possible.”  An additional 4 stations indicated a likelihood of hiring management-level positions, and still others expressed a likelihood of hiring development staff, web producers, and other positions.  The majority of stations also indicated that they have experienced, and likely expect, that new jobs will be filled by people already working in the public media industry.  In an industry as small as ours, those are a lot of positions to fill.  The USC Radio Group alone, which operates classical stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, is hiring TWO hosts right now, in addition to other positions.  The stations, which already share a music director and many hours of their daily playlists, now also simulcast middays with content originating in the San Francisco office.

This consolidation may be only a temporary solution for KUSC/KDFC, but it serves as a model for a possible future of classical radio.  As I have mentioned previously, such regional simulcast partnerships are already happening. Classical radio is already unique in many areas in that it is truly live for a significant portion of the day, whereas news/talk public stations usually only have a “butt in the seat” during morning and afternoon drive.  Classical stations who staff every daypart with a live human are both providing a great listener service AND creating a potential future headache as those positions inevitably open.  As stations see staff retire and they desire to stay completely local, I imagine the calculus probably goes something like this:

Recently-retired employee made $XX,000.  We aren’t going offer that amount to a replacement, because recently-retired employee had been on the air for 30 years and we’re unlikely to find someone with nearly that experience.  So we will budget $XX,000 x 50% to 70%, DOE.

That sounds all well and good from a financial perspective for the station, but it fails to account for the likelihood that the recently-retired employee probably owned a house that he or she purchased in 1985, and had since paid off while it doubled or tripled in value, and anyone making 1/2 – 2/3 of that retired employee’s salary won’t look particularly appetizing to a mortgage lender or rental broker in the current market.  Or maybe that employee was already on Medicare, whereas a new employee will have to pay more out of pocket for health insurance.  So the potential talent pool is narrowed to people who can afford to take the financial hit, have supplemental income from another source, or people who have a life partner with substantial income.

“But Joe, ” you’re probably thinking, “this issue is hardly unique to classical radio.  Or radio in general.  It happens in every industry and affects everyone.”  And of course this is correct.  Bill Lueth, Vice President of the USC Radio Group agrees.  “I think our industry is going through what many are experiencing,” says Lueth.  “Retiring baby boomers and fewer trained people coming up behind them.  It’s interesting that classical radio has wonderfully strong numbers showing our business generally is in good shape and that there’s an audience for what we do.  I’m not sure classical radio has ever looked like an enticing career path for most, but remains a legitimate career for those who have interest.  Our industry needs to work at telling our story better that classical radio is attracting nice-sized audiences across the country, and hosts are needed.”

Hosts are indeed needed, but I worry that classical radio, a tiny industry already, is in danger of shrinking further unless something can be done system-wide to address these issues.  Perhaps to a point where stations who have spent decades cultivating a unique local identity will face incredibly hard choices about how to forge ahead.  Further consolidation seems very likely as stations try to control costs, stay at least semi-local, and avoid becoming national network repeaters.  Or, perhaps instead of consolidation, stations will make previously full time positions only part time.  That may be an attractive option for certain applicants (perhaps professional musicians or music educators), but leaves many others out.   In short, and to be more specific, classical radio has a personnel planning problem.  For those of us already in the industry, we will likely be fine.  We have our jobs, the audience is there, and we’re getting better about adapting to new trends.  But if stations desire long term stability, localism, and low turnover, they’re going to have to think about more creative ways to attract and retain the next generation of talent.

Note: this post was updated from the original at 4:02 pm September 15th to reflect quote from Bill Lueth.



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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