Once you’ve chosen your target audience, ‘modes’ help you choose music for them

“There is classical radio. And then there’s secular radio.”— Deejay Johnny O’Neil

Not all classical music is created equal. Exactly what is meant by this seemingly heretical statement? Simply, that in the ears of listeners, some classical music is appealing and some is not.

This is not to say that certain classical works are “good” and others are “bad.” That’s not it at all.  What is meant is this: different people prefer different kinds of classical music. The point then becomes which classical music appeals to which listeners, and further, which kinds of classical music will public radio choose for its target audiences?

In the Denver Project, an intensive multi-year exploration of classical music, research revealed that classical music (like any other kind) can be broken down into modes.

Formula for tuneout

As described in past Current articles by David Giovannoni, modes are unified sounds, moods or appeals that attract or repel listeners.  For example, the Denver Project found that respondents in the 25-34 age group were least attracted by the mode that included Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major, the Introduction to the Centone Di Sonate (Op. 64, No. 1) by Paganini, and the Agnus Dei from Faure’s Requiem. While this mode caused extreme tune-out for the younger people among those tested, it scored relatively well for respondents in the 50-60 age group.

Another example: the mode containing Mahler’s First, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, and the Tchaikovsky Sixth, was a turn-off for the 25-44 listeners surveyed, but was liked by respondents ages 45 and up.

“This decision-making is based
not on historical or musicological criteria,
but on criteria expressed by listeners.”

A classical radio station playing all of these works would splinter the audience and drive away many of the listeners it hoped to serve. Choosing music by genre, instead of by appeal, actually discourages listening. And, as the Audience 88 study drove home, without listening there can be no personal importance, and without personal importance there can be little membership support. And without membership support …

I’ve described some modes determined by age, but age is only one of the possible variables. Modes can be determined by gender, education and even by other listening tastes. How about classical modes that appeal to NPR news listeners? Or classical music “likers” (as opposed to “lovers”)?  Or, hypothetically, how about the types of classical music that would attract listeners from the “new age” station in town? There are many, many possibilities.

The idea of modes usually has been discussed primarily from the researcher’s point of view. But the research should be “actionable,” in the words of researcher George Bailey.

This is where programmers step into the picture. Making practical use of the research requires their know-how, intelligence and sensibilities.

Once a station chooses a target audience, the programmers can shape a format that attracts those particular listeners. Modes, as defined by listeners, are ways to shape that material.

Suppose the intended audience is classical music “aficionados” — listeners who say classical music is their favorite kind. The KCFR research indicated that one of the modes that appealed to this audience was the mode that included Mouret’s Rondeau and the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F Major. On the other hand, one of the modes that had little appeal was the one with La Belle Excentrique by Erik Satie and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in A Major (BWV 1055).

Framework for judgment

The program director or the music director would use this knowledge in a systematic way. When auditioning music, he or she would decide which mode the piece most closely resembled. If the work shared characteristics of the attracting mode, it would be added to the playlist. If it sounded more like the repelling mode, it wouldn’t.

This decision-making is based not on historical or musicological criteria, but on criteria expressed by listeners. It is not programming delivered as if “on a mission from God” (a criticism leveled at many in public radio), but rather programming delivered as “a mission to serve listeners in our communities” (the mission expressed in most of our mission statements).

Programming in this way is not easy. It takes a great deal of time, a lot of patience and a good ear. The example above of two conflicting modes implies that the process is simpler than it is. In reality, there would be several modes attracting a given audience, and several repulsing. The programmer would isolate the shared characteristics of the modes, and then make comparisons between the relatively small number of pieces contained in a mode, and the thousands of works falling under the category of classical music.

Using the musical taste of listeners (and potential listeners) is not the only component shaping a modal format. Announcing must also match the appeal, in terms of both content and style of delivery.

Imagine a station whose target audience is classical music “likers.” For these people, classical music is merely one kind of music they listen to. They listen to the news on public radio, but they often go elsewhere for other kinds of music.

Let’s say that these listeners have indicated that one of the reasons they don’t listen more to the classical music on public radio is the announcing. Perhaps the announcers talk too much about the European prince who commissioned the music centuries ago … or go on at length about obscure influences … or pizzicato.

This kind of information often distances the music from the listener and further widens the gap in intimacy that normally occurs in one-on-one radio communication. How much more involving to talk about the composers, performers and conductors as real people, rather than musty, dusty museum pieces. One way to do this is to talk about the music and the
performers in “relatable” ways.

Maybe these same classical music “likers” have said the classical deejays sound stiff, hollow, and more like Announcers (with a Capital A), and less like the warm, friendly, conversational human beings on the other stations they listen to. How much more inviting for the announcers to loosen up, look the listener in the eye (figuratively), and use colloquialisms.

For example, an announcer in the “liker mode” might sound like this (minus call letters and positioning statement): “Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 in B flat Major, with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Schubert would have been right at home in the ’60s. He lived in a sort of commune, where he and his friends shared just about everything. Clothes, food, and the rent … Here’s I Musici and …” That’s just one example of literally hundreds of stopsets that can be created with a specific audience in mind.

Aligning the appeal of the announcing with that of the music takes time, effort and tremendous attention to detail. But this alignment has to happen before unified appeal can attract the target audience. The process involves adopting a station-wide “attitude,” or stationality, orienting the on-air staff, and collecting audience-specific information about the music and the performers.

Modal programming may seem radical, and it is not without controversy.

Some have said that this programming approach “stoops to lowest common denominator.” But this has not been the case at KCFR. According to Media Audit, KCFR has had, and continues to have, the most highly educated audience in its market.

Reliability: a virtue of service

Others have said that modal music results in “over-homogenization” of the programming. What this objection fails to realize is that radio is a service and the hallmarks of good service are reliability and dependability, both of which a modality delivers.

Another objection: modal programming, and the research behind it, takes the creativity out of public radio. On the contrary, research provides only information. It does not create radio programming. Only programmers can do this, by considering the information available to them, making decisions, and realizing those programming decisions.

One other objection has been raised about modal programming: the idea that choosing an audience to serve means that we cannot serve multiple audiences. This is true, but only if we continue to think that serving multiple audiences means that one station must be many things to many people. With increasing competition in public and commercial radio, plus the advent of 30-channel cable audio, we need to develop multiple streams of programming (and make better use of existing streams) in order to serve the various people in our communities. As public broadcasters, we need to face the reality that a single station can no longer try to be many things to many people. A modal approach to classical music, and the parallel work being done by KERA, Dallas, and WXPN, Philadelphia, are just the beginning.