The ears have it: classical that’s upbeat, melodic, forward-moving

Published in Current, Dec. 14, 2009
By Mike Janssen

Looking to lift up your midday radio audience? Try some uplifting music.

That’s a lesson from 10 classical radio stations that have been jiggering their midday playlists with help from a listening study backed by CPB and conducted by the Public Radio Program Directors Association.

Eight of the 10 stations saw their midday audiences grow after changing their mixes of music — some grew quite significantly — and the two that lost audience suffered only very small declines.

The study began in 2007 when researchers hired by PRPD played 150 half-minute samples of classical pieces for test audiences in four cities. The listeners were asked to rate the snippets based on whether they’d want to hear them on the radio during middays.

Pieces that tested well shared qualities of being melodic, upbeat and traditionally classical in tone, with a “bright” sound and a sense of forward momentum. Less appealing were compositions characterized by dissonance, lack of structure or a frenzied or aggressive sounds. Schmaltzy and sentimental tunes also fared poorly.

After these results were gathered, the test stations — eight all-classical and four news/classical, in varying market sizes — began changing their playlists — more frequently playing pieces with the positive qualities and removing or reducing plays of those without. They reported the results to CPB and at PRPD’s conference in September.

“These data demonstrate unqualified success in terms of increasing midday Average Quarter Hour (AQH) listening on both mixed format and all classical stations,” PRPD said in the CPB report.

Charlotte: audience grows 40%

WDAV in the Charlotte, N.C., area, saw the biggest increase in midday listening by far, with a 40 percent gain since all the stations began following the research in January 2008. Program Director Frank Dominguez said he felt “guilt in retrospect” — he realized that before the change in strategy, the station simply hadn’t been playing enough music with broad appeal to its audience.

At the PRPD Conference, Dominguez cited pieces the station no longer airs regularly during middays: Brahms’s “Tragic Overture” (too dark and stressful); George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” variations (too schmaltzy, not classical enough); and Henryk Wienawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (too virtuosic). Like other participating stations, WDAV also reduced crossover classical, choral music and contemporary selections in middays.

But Brahms and Gershwin remain in WDAV’s midday repertoire with their “Academic Festival Overture” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” respectively, along with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for example.

As a result, WDAV’s audience increased its time spent listening, which pushed up the average quarter-hour rating and share. Dominguez said he hopes the changes in midday programming will also earn the trust of listeners, making them more likely to stay with more challenging music during other dayparts.

As part of following the research, some stations began airing more excerpts rather than pieces in their entirety, a move that sparked complaints from some listeners. But the audience gains appeared to outweigh these concerns.

At All Classical FM (KQAC) in Portland, Ore., changes were executed “so gradually and so subtly that you’d really have to be a very, very attentive listener to notice that something has changed,” said Music Director John Pitman. Station programmers had started to revise their playlists before seeing the PRPD findings and were pleased it was supportive.

All Classical now airs fewer string-quartet works and long-form solo piano sonatas at midday and avoids pieces that have a complex or “agitated” sound, Pitman says. Though it still airs choral music, the works generally share a smoother, uplifting sound, major keys and simpler melodies.

Pitman said listeners pledging during fund drives have responded positively to the changes. All Classical’s midday audience has reached new highs for four Arbitron books.

All of the participating stations said they intend to continue applying the research to their music selection, with some periodically revisiting the preferred snippets to calibrate their ears to listeners’ tastes. Although CPB has ended its support to PRPD for the project, the association says it will continue to track listening data for participating broadcasters and promote the results to other classical stations.

A reader writes: We must not underestimate listeners’ high expectations

To the editors:

The latest classical music testing ("The Ears Have It," Current, Dec.14, 2009, above) has a familiar sound.

In 1988 the Denver Project also illuminated the audience appeal of classical music. The results were called "Modal Music" ("Jazzcasters Try Music Testing to Pick Cuts," Current, Sept. 2, 1996), and our many discussions [included] the consequences of mixing modes and the advantages of appeal versus genre-based programming in targeting a specific audience. I remember resistance from many stations to these ideas.

To those now involved in the new research, I would put forth a few caveats. In some places and times Modal Music may have been applied too vigorously, sounding like an endless stream of early Mozart symphonies. Some were able to back off from that precipice. Consider Dave Bunker's concerns, and his solutions, regarding the dilemma of boosting audience numbers while denying the emotional component and shared values that make public radio unique ("A Radio Programmer's Strategy for Classical Music Selection," Current, Sept. 20, 1999).

There are more aspects of classical music than are dreamt of. The Brahms Academic Festival/Tragic Overture choice goes beyond "One laughs; the other cries." The first may indeed be lightweight; but the other is a heartfelt testament. Shunting "darker" music from midday to the fringe of the schedule belies what we know of listeners tuning in when it's convenient for them, not for us. There are unpredictable aspects to listener reactions, and these may be the very works that would have reached in a meaningful way, and ultimately served, the listener.

We must not underestimate the capacity, even the hunger, of listeners who have the highest expectations of all public radio programming. We're in this for the long haul, and so is our audience. If "Public service begets public support" (Audience Research Analysis, Audience 98), we can't fail to maintain perspective in determining precisely what that service is. These are challenges at any time. Now it's up to us.

Wayne Angerame
Program Director
KLRE-FM, Classical 90.5
Little Rock, Ark.
wayneklre.org            

Web page posted Dec. 16, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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A reader writes: We must not underestimate listeners' high expectations

EARLIER ARTICLES

Perspectives on PRPD’s classical music tests:

Peter Dominowski on the research: Casual, serious listeners agree on sounds of music: some you love to hear (PDF)

Wes Horner's commentary: Study’s answers are questionable — and the question aims too low (PDF also available).

RELATED STORY

In Boston, meanwhile, WGBH-FM has acquired the commercial classical station and is overhauling its music mix to end its stigma of "classical light."

LINKS

PRPD's recordings of sessions about its Classical Midday Project: How stations have put the research into practice in midday music selection. Sounds that most polarized listeners. Webinar: Applying the PRPD Midday Classical Research.  

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