Music that changes the day — for enough listeners

As we debate how best to program classical music on public radio, we seem often to take for granted that we face an “either/or” conundrum. We seem to assume that our music can only serve either mission or market, can only please either music lovers or music likers, can only achieve the music’s full artistic potential or build audience.

I believe that a “both/and” solution to the puzzle exists at a sweet spot in the middle of these divergent pairs of broadcasting goals, a solution which surpasses mere minimal compromise. Please note that my belief is not based on any kind of argument for or against the inviolable sovereignty of classical music. This will be a radio-based manifesto, not a music-based one.

Radio is an elegant technology for distributing content to a vast potential audience in a vast array of possible listening situations, some of which admit no other mass medium. But, paradoxical as it may seem, radio at its best is also a uniquely personal medium, one that makes it possible for a piece of music or a news story or the personality of a talented host to overcome listeners’ media-drenched numbness and truly touch them. Radio has the inherent potential, moment-to-moment, to change its listeners’ days or maybe even their lives.

TV sometimes touches its viewers, too, but not so often or so well as radio, being more naturally a pure mass medium. The finished texts of our society — novels, plays, movies, and so on — have more potential to touch and move and change, but not while you are brushing your teeth or driving down the Interstate, and only for one user at a time. Radio alone enjoys the potential to inhabit a golden middle ground in a spectrum between endpoints of pure mass medium and pure personal text, to succeed as both simultaneously.

There are plenty of classical stations that exist near one or the other endpoint on this spectrum. I’m sure you’ve heard, heard of, or worked at at least one of each kind. Each has its own strengths, but also its own characteristic shortcomings.

Stations that appoint salaried or volunteer aficionados to program their music, and then give them free reign, generally offer a service valued by a small audience of like-minded souls. As a result, those stations have little trouble garnering the listener testimonials which seem to them to justify and reward their work. Their audience numbers, however, should they even bother to look at them, are in the basement. Their programming succeeds as personal text, but fails to take full advantage of radio’s potential as mass medium.

On the other hand, stations that computerize a tightly restricted playlist centered on Vivaldi, Mozart and like-sounding composers may pull in the occasional 5 share, but their music mix, while unfailingly inoffensive, misses opportunities to work the personal day- or life-changing magic that is radio at its best. They succeed as mass medium, but fail to exploit the full power of radio to give listeners the intense emotional experiences they can have when they are engaging with the programming as personal text.

This failure may make little difference at commercial stations where the ad rates are determined solely by Arbitron numbers. It makes a significant difference, however, at the public stations that must convince their listeners to donate money come fundraising time. At public stations, quality of listening matters as well as quantity.

In my own daily work as a classical programmer I have approached the ideal of a classical service that succeeds both as mass medium and personal text by way of a long back-and-forth course between the two endpoints. Sometimes I have suppressed my own musical adventurousness and tried to build audience by choosing music that’s as “safe” as possible. Other times this has seemed boring (I subscribe to the dictum that if you are bored, your listeners will be, too), so I’ve sought to stimulate and engage my listeners with programming that is unusual, or even occasionally bizarre, until a pointed comment from upstairs sends me swinging the other way again.

In addition to this long see-sawing, I’ve endlessly argued the merits of individual pieces and of whole categories of music with my manager and with the announcers I supervise. I’ve listened to and myself tried on the air a wide range of programming systems, both computer assisted and 100 percent human programmed, both research intensive and exclusively ear-driven.

This on-going quest so far has brought me to three simple ideas that largely direct my daily music decisions. The first qualifies as the central tenet of my programming philosophy. The other two are essential to putting that philosophy to work on air. (See box at right for sample playlists.)

Maximum variety within greater unity. For each hour on air, I want as many opportunities as possible to catch my listeners’ attention. Every change of pace, I figure, gives me another chance to entice some background listener into memorable foreground listening — the kind of listening they will actually recall when we try to get them to place a value on their use of our station during the next fundraiser. So I strive for maximum variety of musical texture, period and scale. I consistently alternate at least two of these elements from piece to piece within a show. This variety won’t help me, however, if I keep driving my listeners away. It must occur, therefore, within a greater unity of selections that are consistently melodic, accessible and immediately pleasurable to the average classical music listener.

This is the point at which classical purists traditionally warn that programming will be reduced to offensively homogeneous pap, but it does not have to be so. Most classical programmers have large, generally neglected reserves of varied, unusual, yet highly listenable works available to them, which they avoid cataloguing or programming simply because they seem too short to bother with. Hence, essential tool No. 1:

Use the short stuff. Recently, as an experiment, I asked my classical database to count the number of pieces by length at 20-second intervals from zero minutes to one hour in length. On the resulting graph, the line climbed swiftly through durations in the one- and two-minute range to a huge spike at about three minutes, then dropped just as quickly through the four- and five-minute range to a low line that trailed off through the teens, 20s and 30s to negligible levels above half an hour. (There are many short pieces in our library even though we hardly ever excerpt movements from longer works.)

The predominance of short pieces was a revelation to me — I would have guessed we had more in the 10-minute range than any other length. That was certainly how I had been programming. I therefore adjusted my mix to more closely represent the full range of the program material available to me. Now, no less than one-third of the pieces on my playlists are shorter than five minutes. Another third are under 12 minutes, regardless of the hour I air them in the morning.

More short pieces means more time spent programming, especially if you catalogue everything you play, but the increased variety of the programming more than makes up for it. Increased use of the shorter duration pieces also leads to rediscovery of many unusual musical forms and instrumental textures, such as Renaissance lute songs, pieces for bassoon quartet, etc., which exist almost exclusively in this range. This is especially true when you consider the air-worthiness of every single piece independently, regardless of whether or not they come from certain oft-maligned categories of music. Hence, essential rule No. 2:

No forbidden categories. My manager and I argued for years about vocal music, to name one notorious example, but we only started finding ways to agree, and started producing an air sound we both deemed better, when we stopped talking about the entire body of vocal music as a single entity and started discussing the merits of individual works. As with the short-stuff rule, it takes more time to examine selections one at a time, but once again the extra work pays off handsomely in increased programming variety, without any sacrifice of the greater unity of consistent broad appeal. Here at Maine Public Radio, some of the pieces that pull in the most calls and letters, and favorable comments from upstairs, too, now come from the vocal repertoire. (Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, his vocal setting of his Adagio for Strings, is one outstanding example; another is Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere.) In addition, we are able to maintain an almost completely level core loyalty line between Morning Edition and our noon news with a program that includes a sprinkling of carefully selected works from the often-constrained categories of 20th century music, early music, and the solo organ and solo harpsichord repertoires.

Most of the public radio stations I have ever worked at or listened to seem to exist in a curious state of schizophrenia as they seek the best way down the path between the mass-medium and personal-text styles of programming. Managers crafting classical music guidelines tend to rely on hard data, whether Arbitron reports, RRC numbers, or proprietary audience research. This is understandable, since it is much easier to measure the time listeners spend listening than it is to gauge the intensity of their listening experience. When the time comes, however, to approach our listeners for financial support, we roll out all those great pitches about emotional involvement with your radio. For example, here’s a classic with many variations: “We here at WXXX love to talk about what we call the ‘public radio moment’, that instant when a piece of music (or news story or commentary or whatever) touches you, inspires you, moves you to laughter or tears . . .” In short, there’s often a gap between what we do and what we say we do.

I don’t claim to have cured this schizophrenic tendency or to have found the only bridge across this gap. But I do believe this method of programming classical music could gain the approval of both the ratings-watchers and the aficionados. It is a philosophy you could read aloud on the air with pride during a fundraiser. It is also a philosophy which you could present to any air staff without apology as a real-life, workable method for using almost all that classical music has to offer to take full advantage of radio’s potential to succeed as both mass medium and personal text.

Two mornings at Maine Public Radio

Monday, Aug. 23
8:30-9 a.m.

Franz Schubert: March Militaire (orchestral version), 3 min.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, 11 min.
Daniel Dorff (20th cent.): Sonatina for Two Contrabassoons (new release), 6 min.
Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces: Melody (solo piano), 4 min.

9-10 a.m.
Felix Mendelssohn: string symphony (new release), 26 min.
Giaches de Wert: madrigal (Renaissance vocal quintet), 2 min.
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Excelsior! (symphonic poem), 13 min.
Louis Gottschalk (19th cent.): The Union (solo piano), 8 min.

10-11 a.m.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: violin concerto, 21 min.
Heinrich Biber (baroque): sonata in six parts for trumpets and strings, 5 min.
Srul Irving Glick (20th cent.):
Sonata for Flute and Piano, 15 min.
Sir Arthur Sullivan: MacBeth Overture, 7 min.
Domenico Scarlatti: sonata (arr. for two guitars), 3 min.

11 a.m. to noon
Bernard Herrmann (20th cent.): quintet for clarinet and strings (new release), 28 min.
Johannes Brahms: Hungarian dance for orchestra, 1 min.
Franz Joseph Haydn: piano sonata, 9 min.
George Frideric Handel: concerto grosso, 7 min.

Tuesday, Aug. 24, 8:30-9 a.m.
Johann Sebastian Bach: choral prelude (orch. Schoenberg — new release), 2 min.
Carl Reinecke (19th cent.): Trio for Oboe, Horn and Piano, 23 min.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: piano prelude (arr. for guitar), 3 min.

9-10 a.m.
John Stanley (baroque): organ concerto, 7 min.
Franz Joseph Haydn: symphony, 19 min.
George Gershwin: Impromptu in Two Keys (solo piano), 1 min.
Franz Schubert: Concert Piece for Violin and Orchestra, 10 min. George Frideric Handel: recorder sonata, 6 min. Nikolai Kedrov (20th cent.): Lord’s Prayer (Russian choral setting), 3 min.>

10-11 a.m. Gustav Holst: The Planets, 49 min.
Anonymous: dance (Renaissance band), 4 min.

11 a.m. to noon
Various: live, in-studio chamber music performance.

Durations are rounded down to the next lower minute.