When Graham Parker left his position as General Manager of WQXR last year, I wondered who in the public radio ecosystem would rise up to take his place. Clearly I wasn’t thinking broadly enough, as it was announced yesterday that former Viacom Senior Vice President for Music Strategy and Operations Shannon Connolly had been hired to fill Parker’s old job. From WQXR’s official press release:
Connolly brings over two decades of digital music experience to the role, including product management, ad sales, and business development. As Senior Vice President, Music Strategy & Operations for the Viacom Music Group, she built and managed a cross-functional team responsible for growing digital reach and revenue for the world’s largest music channels (MTV, CMT), shows (Unplugged, Crossroads), and live events (Video Music Awards). As Vice President, Digital Music, her team helped put the “M” back in MTV by launching mobile apps, original programming, and strategic partnerships that doubled MTV’s music traffic in one year. Shannon was also the co-founder and General Manager of Ripcord, Viacom’s first creative studio and digital lab, whose goal was to make hits on new platforms for a global youth audience.
At first glance, hiring a former MTV content executive to run a public classical music radio station raises a few eyebrows, but the message WQXR is sending with this hire is clear: they want to corner the market on digital classical music content and delivery, and they think that Connolly is just the person to lead that endeavor. It opens up a world of opportunity for the station, which is already rich in resources and geographically positioned in one of the classical music meccas of the world.
Predictably, though, some people are incensed with the hire and think that Connolly is some sort of Trojan horse designed to destroy a sacred institution. Norman Lebrecht’s widely-read Slipped Disc blog covered her hire in a way that presupposed her apparent ineptitude before even considering her virtues:
The New York classical music station is to be led by Shannon Connelly [sic], a digital music specialist with no apparent classical expertise.
The comments section for Lebrecht’s post were slightly more, shall we say, apocalyptic. Here’s a sampling (there are lots more you can read, if you wish, on the page itself):
Soon NYC will have no classical music station. What a disgrace. What a tragedy.
Very disappointing. So many talented knowledgeable folks to choose from and they choose a random digital person.
WQXR has long ceased to be relevant. They now occupy a precarious perch on the FM dial allocated to Newark, New Jersey, with a power of 600 watts, They are crowded out by a powerful station from Hartford operating on the same 105.9, with its transmitter about 80 miles from New York. They are further squeezed on central Long Island by a public radio talk station at 105.7. All the seems to matter to WNYC management is the stream. What gets me is how they try to get old fogies (like me) to bequest legacies to WQXR. The station may not be on the FM dial for long. Would anyone notice?
First, a note: WQXR’s signal does not originate in Newark, but rather off the top of the Empire State Building’s radio spire at approximately 1,400 feet above ground level. That makes its mere 600 watts go pretty far. I’ve received WQXR clearly into Fairfield County, Connecticut and throughout the I-287 corridor in New Jersey. This coverage map lines up with my experience. It’s smaller than its previous signal when it was owned by the New York Times, but most of the same population is covered. It’s not leaving the FM dial anytime soon.
Secondly, having a classical music expert as general manager of a station is becoming less and less common. My first GM at KCME in Colorado Springs was a trained vocalist, Jeanna Wearing (she has since retired from that post, but her successor, George Preston, is also a singer). Other than that, I have never worked at a station run by a classical musician. Mid-level management is typically where you will find the music experts: program directors and music directors. And naturally, on-air talent in the classical music radio world is comprised of many former and actively performing musicians. I’m not sure where this expectation comes from that only classical music experts are qualified to run classical music radio stations. I think it’s worth pointing out, yet again, that cume and share for classical music radio programming have increased over the past several years, even as fewer stations are being run by classical music experts. Food for thought.
Shannon Connolly is a content expert. She knows how to identify and build audiences, and has a proven track record in doing just that. Here’s a segment from Bloomberg TV a few years ago about the smartphone app development for MTV she oversaw (h/t to WBAA’s John Clare for finding this). When I watch that clip, I see someone speaking a language I’ve never heard used in a classical music radio setting, as well as someone tackling general media consumption questions that are essential to classical music media’s survival. Like it or not, digital is the future, and while I’m not convinced it will match or surpass terrestrial radio listening anytime soon, I am convinced that Shannon Connolly is a home run hire for WQXR. I may have quibbles with WQXR’s on-air presentation and music selection, but its forward-thinking strategy is the best in the business and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.
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