Classical Music Rising’s Workforce Survey, which I blogged about here and wrote about more extensively in Current, has already been making waves in the classical radio community. To recap ever so briefly, the survey shows that over half of classical radio personnel are white men over 50. Station leaders anonymously quoted in the survey are concerned about this for two main reasons: a) a looming talent vacuum and the potential for the classical format to be eliminated from their stations when older classical announcers retire or die, and b) older staff are unwilling to retire, and have proven to be immovable and averse to change. What a fascinating conundrum: is the survival of the format worth keeping older announcers whose stale presentation potentially alienates new listeners? Or do stations risk losing loyal, older, and wealthier listeners (and maybe losing age discrimination lawsuits while they’re at it) by forcing out veteran announcers in favor of younger talent that may or may not attract a younger audience? Neither answer is good.
One of the biggest flaws in the survey is that while age, gender, and race and ethnicity were measured, length of tenure was not. Here are two questions I would have liked to have seen asked: “How long have your staff members worked in classical radio?” and “How long have your staff worked at your station?” Just because someone is over 50 and working in classical radio doesn’t mean that they have been working in classical radio for decades. Lots of people fall into it after careers in other media or even outside of media. Station-specific tenure is a very important metric as well; those who have worked in the same position and/or the same station for long periods of time are likely to be more sensitive to change than someone who has worked for many different stations or someone who is just getting started in their classical radio career. That’s just a fact of life, and certainly not unique to classical radio. At the same time, it also needs to be recognized that veteran announcers can also be a station’s most valuable assets, having cultivating devoted listeners over many years. This value is hard to quantify, but it cannot be ignored.
Perhaps the most alarming finding of the survey is the wide gulf in both the current states and the outlooks of all-classical stations versus mixed-format stations. Naturally, the numbers of classical staff at mixed-format stations were lower than at all-classical, but the age and gender discrepancies were more pronounced as well. Classical staff at mixed-format stations also have much less control over their own content as it relates to the overall station sound and promotional strategy, and have to compete for marketing resources with those who work in news programming. This is even true at stations who have split formats, like my former organization, Vermont Public Radio. VPR split classical and news onto separate frequencies in 2007, yet did not roll out a concerted marketing effort for VPR Classical until over five years later. Although I can’t say for sure, I suspect that this problem also exists (or existed) at other stations who operate dual services, like Minnesota Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, and Iowa Public Radio. A quick scan of staff lists on each of those organizations’ websites indicates no one in the marketing staff whose primary focus is classical music, and no one in the classical music staff whose primary focus is marketing. Independent classical stations, whose destiny is under their complete control, seem to be having the most success.
Despite the overall optimistic picture of classical radio (data show clear increases in both AQH and cume from 2012-2016), I suspect that in the next ten years we will see a large decrease in the number of classical music hours being broadcast at mixed-format stations. We’ve seen it recently in Atlanta, and I suspect it will spread to other smaller markets as older staff retire and station brass decide that replacing them and/or maintaining the format isn’t worth the effort. I’ll have more thoughts on classical radio’s inevitable contraction and consolidation in a later post.
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