I’ve been listening to both regular programming and fund drives on a number of classical stations over the last several months, and after a while I began to notice a pattern. Hosts tend to open up in a big way when they’re paired with other people. They set aside all those preconceived ideas of what they should sound like as a classical radio host and began to talk like normal people. The act of asking someone for money uses a different part of your social skills – you’re forced to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and ask yourself what you should say to appeal to their personality. That’s one part of it, but I think the other part is having someone else in the room to talk to other than just the lonely microphone.
I think a lot of classical music hosts tend to forget that they’re talking to other people when they’re in a studio by themselves. I hear a lot of heavily affected delivery – grandiose vocal gestures, unnecessary pauses, and kitsch. The radio presentation becomes insincere and narcissistic. I was talking to my newest coworker, Aaron Cain (WFIU’s new Morning Edition host) about this phenomenon the other day and he related a perfect analogy from Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
In other words, kitsch comes in two steps: the first step is the act of being moved by something, the second step happens when you are so moved by the fact that you are moved. And that is something that I hear a lot in the presentation of classical music on the radio. It’s one thing to allow yourself to have a visceral reaction to the music you just presented, but it’s another thing to allow that reaction to overwhelm the listener’s experience.
Too often, I suspect, music hosts make the mistake of assuming that the listener will have a certain reaction to a piece of music, then they alter their presentation of that piece to fit the assumption. To me, this is the cardinal sin of classical radio. We know a lot about classical music listeners as a group from many pieces of research, but to offer a syrupy back-announce to a Chopin Nocturne or Barber’s Adagio, or perhaps give an overly jovial back-sell for Sibelius Finlandia or the resounding C major chords that end Beethoven’s Fifth diminishes the ethos of the music and robs the listener of the chance to react in their own way. Playing to these assumptions also has the unintended consequence of masking the host’s own personal reaction, replacing it with an unnatural fabrication that is unappealing and insincere. The radio host then becomes a performer in a one-man or one-woman show, rather than a partner in an intimate conversation.
I hear this phenomenon far too much as I peruse streams of classical stations around the country. And the worst part of it is that it has become part of what people expect when they find out I work in classical radio. Anyone who’s in this business has had the experience where someone asks you to “do your radio voice.” Or perhaps you’ve heard someone do a mocking impression of what they think a classical music hosts might sound like (often an overly theatrical presentation with a hint of a British accent). That tells me that the existence of kitsch is real and widespread, and that people expect classical hosts to be performers, not companions.
Yet, to go back to my original point, when another person is added to the equation, it’s like a switch gets flipped (the Kitsch Switch?!). I heard a host do a solo back-announce during a pledge drive that had maximum kitsch, then as soon as the business of fundraising resumed within the same break, that same person had a completely down-to-earth conversation with their on-air partner about the virtues of sustaining memberships and how seeing your pledge on your credit card statement will make you feel great, unlike that natural gas bill, et cetera et cetera. The difference, I think, was that this host was actually talking to a human, not creating performance art. It was genuine. It wasn’t forced or contrived.
As program directors look to fine-tune the sounds of their stations, listening to fundraising breaks might be a good place to begin in the battle against kitsch. In my experience, fundraising breaks are where hosts are most likely to let their hair down and actually talk like normal people. The “radio voice” melts away and reveals the human voice, and the need for listener appeal becomes the focus. Let Milan Kundera’s first tear fall, but beware the second.
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