Don’t Overestimate Your Audience

This will be a very brief post, and I hope it generates some discussion.

One of the biggest mental hurdles I’ve overcome is overestimating my radio audience’s level of involvement in the world of classical music.  When I began in radio, I felt a lot of pressure to speak the language of those who were “in the know.”  I envisioned a typical listener as an being older, affluent, regular concertgoer who expected a high level of discourse about the music I was presenting.  My presentation could be very much “insider speak” (and I still battle it a bit to this day), without much regard to those who may not have the foggiest idea of what I was talking about.  I thought that if I could show how much I knew to other people who also knew a lot, that I was serving my audience in the best way possible.

Without a doubt, older, affluent, regular concertgoers are a part of the classical music radio audience.  And they’re likely a very engaged part of the audience – the ones who email us or call us in the studio, and the ones who we see at concerts that we attend ourselves.  But they’re just one part – and likely a small part – of a much larger group.  If we focus too much on those listeners who already know a lot about music by tailoring our presentation  to meet them at their level of knowledge, then we are doing a disservice to everyone else who may be curious about classical music, but are likely bewildered about some of the things we have to say.

I had a conversation with my host at WFIU recently about his choice of recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  He had chosen an old, early stereo era recording featuring Jascha Heifetz.  I asked him to replace it with something more contemporary.  We went back and forth a bit about it, and he said to me, “If I were to ask someone on the street if they’d rather hear Janine Jansen or Jascha Heifetz, of course they’d say Heifetz.”  To which I replied, “Perhaps if you were asking people on the sidewalk outside the concert hall, but what about everyone else at any other time?”  I certainly don’t disagree that Heifetz was an amazing musician and that his recordings deserve to be heard, even today.  It’s the notion that so many of our listeners would have such a specific opinion about the recorded legacy of one piece of music that I was trying to dispel.

So that’s what I mean by “don’t overestimate your audience.”  There will always be highly knowledgeable and highly opinionated listeners who won’t hesitate to point out if we make a factual error or if we play what they think is the “wrong” recording.  But they are a tiny segment of our potential audience.  Which leads me to my next thought: don’t UNDERESTIMATE your audience either – their ability to learn about music and acquire a taste for more and more complex music.  More on that later.  For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – it’s been on my mind since 4 o’clock this morning!

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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4 thoughts on “Don’t Overestimate Your Audience”

  1. Greetings, Joe Goetz —-

    I worked 20+ years at pubradio stations in Indiana, Arizona, and my native Texas. But I’ve been out of the bidness for 5+ years….

    While you make good points in wanting to opt for the younger [read: “hip”per] performer, i hope it doesn’t lead to what I fear is the next logical step: just toss out that Heifetz recording, or bury it deep under the library, because — well, you know, he’s just such an old guy and all that. Really? Well, maybe there are occasions when both pf. belong in your library. For xm., let’s go to another pf.: Lang Lang [maybe he’s old hat by now, but he was a hot thunderbolt across the sky not so long ago] vs. Van Cliburn/KKondrashin et al with the Tch. PC 1/23. Now, if LL is app. in town soon, then he’s a no-brainer. But if Olga Kern is in town instead, then maybe it’s Kern as soloist. Or….say Van Cliburn [sine she was in the Fort Worth Kid’s comp.], supplemented w/ some solo sel. by Ms. Kern.

    Another thought: different pf. can say diff. things. XM: Handel’s ‘Messiah’. It could be sel. from [yet another] period-pf. orig-instr. version, but another time, a really old-school, mod-instr. pf, say, Ormandy-Phila.Or. MTChoir et al. Yet another: that quirky, good-humored trek through the Hallelujah Chorus by Th. Beecham, ever twirling his hirsutity as he. cd. in London for RCA Victor — what a hoot! A 4th: contemp. readings of Messiah by contemporary artists [in decidedly small samplings in careful situations, to be sure].

    All of the above requires a library that’s not only existent, but alive and vibrant. That means Heifetz, while not played early and often, doesn’t gather dust on a shelf cuz he’s that “old guy, ya know.” Maybe Janine Jensine is Jascha’s equal; maybe she’s even better [imagine that]. Both perhaps both belong on the shelf, and, when the occasion fits, each can be played in its turn. And not just cuz she rocks it in an glittery evening dress, or Heifetz puts aq new-penny shine on that old NBC short film.


    BTW, some smaller stations don’t have a large enough library to make such esoteric choices; say, for xm., my old station in Texas. They have plenty of CDs, to be sure, but they also sport LPs on the air, incl. some that date to its existence as a student-only arm of the music department in the mid-1960s. They still have on the shelf – and b’c on occasion – the collection of Rossini overtures cd. by one Pierino Gamba. And if you can guess who he is, you win your Daily Cookie! 😀 Be well, and thanks for letting an ol’ platter hog ramble freely — DAVID HARRINGTON, ancr. [ret.]

  2. Hi Joe,
    Here’s my current approach – and I’ve been hosting classical music for a few decades. I rhink of myself as part of the audience. That means constant involvement on a daily basis. Making the music as interesting for myself as for whomever’s listening; old hands and newbies alike. I guess you could call it the “equal opportunity” approach. Finding new ways of presenting something I’ve played for years. Doing daily “diggiing” to discover new nuggets of information that might be intriguing to newcomers, but also refreshingly different for people who have heard the same old stories for years (like Beethoven destroying the original title page of the Eroica symphony in a fit of rage). Zeroing in on a particular performer – one who has been around for awhile but is still going strong like Argerich, or some new and exciting artist whose latest release has just hit my desk.. Looking at artist websites for current news and touring schedules, etc. If you get a chance, for instance, check out Gil Shaham’s site to see what he has planned for April 1st. I’m looking forward to telling my listeners, but I won’t share it here …you’ll have to do your own research!

    Jan Simon
    WBAA-FM, Purdue University..

  3. I would play Gil Shaham, Hilary Hahn, Christian Tetzlaff, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, or any number of current violinists instead of Heifetz or Oistrakh because: 1) these living artists play the Tchaikovsky gloriously; 2) today’s recorded sound is way more beautiful – and while aficionados (like me) may “listen through the sound” and love old recordings by the greats of the past, the vast majority of listeners (especially casual ones) experience music [partly as a sensuous experience, so glowing beauty of recorded sound is a crucial “hook”; 3) there’s a meta-message in playing a new recording by a current artist: that the classical music scene today is vibrant and artistically excellent RIGHT NOW. Believe me, I used to have a bad case of the “golden age” mentality (“whiz kids these days have great technique but they’re mere technicians – now Cortot, THERE was a pianist!”) – but I was wrong. MANY artists today have both amazing chops AND abundant poetry, insight, and style. Of course, David has a good point – I do play older greats sometimes if the sound is acceptable and the recording quite special (Oistrakh and Rubinstein left some fine examples), but when in doubt, I favor the now. (And yes, Joe is right that the listener I’m trying to reach doesn’t necessarily know who is considered “great” but only cares what it sounds like on their radio.)


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