Why Classical Music on the Radio is Important

Authormarty72x72Mike suggested I write about why classical music on the radio is important. If you’re reading this you’re already a believer, so this topic is sort of preaching to the choir. But — don’t die of shock — I really don’t think classical music on the radio is all that important for the listeners. Ach! Heresy! (Keep reading.)

The real reason classical music is important on the radio is for the musicians. Classical musicians can’t survive professionally in this day and age without radio.

–It’s still the most effective way they have of communicating with their audience.
–It’s how they let you know about their concerts and their recordings.
–It’s how they demonstrate who’s good and who isn’t.
–It’s how they help you figure out what music you like.

And in turn, you help them make a living. Radio is the cheap, portable way for musicians to communicate. Ads in the paper are prohibitively expensive and lack that minor little detail called audio. Downloads are ok if you already know what you want to hear. You might ask, “what about the web?” Well, we’re not there yet. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcasts, for instance, reach some 350,000 listeners a week on-air, but fewer than 2,000 are listening online each week.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice if classical music listeners get their share of bandwidth, just as sports, news, and country music listeners do. But getting what you like on the radio isn’t a divine right.

And I do believe culture on the radio is just as healthy for a community as museums, concert halls, and libraries are.

But I don’t think it’s the listeners or the community that need classical music on the radio at all. We like it and we want it, but if we don’t have a classical station we’ll get our music in other ways. If we miss a concert we won’t die from it.

But if the musicians don’t have radio, they will die from it. They will shrivel up and lose their jobs. And if the musicians lose their jobs, we lose our music and with it our inspiration. So we don’t need classical music on the radio for ourselves. We need it for the musicians who light up our lives, and whose work gives us the ability to carry on in this complex world. Classical music on the radio is keeping our beloved musicians alive and working.

How important is classical music on the radio to people in general?

In 2002 the Knight Foundation talked to 25,000 people to find out (it was a partially targeted audience, not totally random), and they concluded:

–Radio is the dominant mode of consumption of classical music.
–Nearly 60% of adults express at least some interest in classical music, and
nearly one-third of those fit classical music into their lives regularly, in their
autos and at home.
–Nationally, the most common setting for experiencing the art form is the
automobile, followed by the home.
–Increasing the availability and quality of classical music on the radio, and increasing
ownership, exchange and use of classical recordings is strategic to the long-term
vitality of the orchestra field.

Unfortunately, the preliminary report I got those statistics from is no longer available online, but several other reports from that 10-year study are. It’s called The Magic of Music.

About Marty Ronish

Marty Ronish is an independent producer of classical music radio programs. She currently produces the Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcasts that air 52 weeks a year on more than 400 stations and online at www.cso.org. She also produces a radio series called "America's Music Festivals," which presents live music from some of the country's most dynamic festivals. She is a former Fulbright scholar and co-author of a catalogue of Handel's autograph manuscripts.

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4 thoughts on “Why Classical Music on the Radio is Important”

  1. Great article, Marty. A much harder question is how to convince boards and executives of the importance of classical music on the radio when it is so easy these days to change formats in order to create a better “business model”.

  2. Good point, Chris. When I worked at a commercial classical station, there was virtually no difference in the station’s ability to make money. They had to sell ads, and the Arbitron ratings were equivalent to the other formats. Still, it was the commercial station that got sold twice and was managed on a shoestring.

    But when I worked at a public station, the classical listeners donated far less than news listeners did. I don’t know why. But I think that with good fund-raising practices, classical can hold its own with any other format. I like what Virtuoso Voices is doing in the fund-raising area — they are getting top musicians to share their passion about the music, and it’s a lot more interesting than the same old begging spiels. I’ll ask the folks at Virtuoso Voices to write a post about it.


  3. Interesting points, Marty, and I mostly agree. Free over-the-air classical music radio is an invaluable service for classical musicians.

    However, I would say there are many cases where classical radio is more than something listeners “like” and “want”.

    A perfect example is live concert broadcasts. Here radio puts a listener in the concert hall whether he’s driving along on the freeway or relaxing at home in his easy chair. Perhaps he gathers his kids around the radio–maybe they’ve never heard a classical concert before. (Okay, maybe I’m getting a little Pollyanna here…)

    A live concert broadcast also allows thousands of people access to a performance that they maybe couldn’t afford or couldn’t attend because tickets were sold out. Here radio has grown the audience of a live classical concert, and I believe the benefit extends beyond musicians being able to get their product to more people.

    At Classical KUSC in Los Angeles, where I’m a producer, we broadcast each concert in the Pacific Symphony’s Saturday night subscription series. Within the last year we also aired live performances from the LA Chamber Orchestra’s complete cycle of Mozart Piano Concertos with Jeffrey Kahane as soloist and conductor; live opening night broadcasts of the LA Opera (including a special performance of the Verdi Requiem given in memory of Luciano Pavarotti); and other important concerts across the Southland.

    Later this month we will broadcast two performances by the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall with Music Director Designate Gustavo Dudamel–classical music’s newest superstar. These concerts have been sold out for months, but thanks to KUSC, Southern California listeners can hear them live on the radio as they happen. And people around the world can listen online at kusc.org.

    Classical music radio isn’t important to listeners when it’s nothing more than a classical jukebox with a carefully polished host spinning dusty CDs. It rises above, though, when it becomes relevant, interesting, and provocative.

  4. Point well taken, Brian. When stations play live concerts everybody wins, the musicians and audience alike. The live Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts I produce are performances you can’t hear anywhere else and people all over the world are listening to them. My post was a huge helping of hyperbole with more than a dash of sarcasm. You and I both know that classical music on the radio is important to many people in many ways. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t be writing this blog.

    Let’s hear more about KUSC. It’s a great station with innovative ideas.


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