Our Women’s History Month special focus will be wrapping up soon. As usual with efforts of this kind, I’m left wondering if it really makes a difference. We’ve commemorated Women’s History Month before, as well as Black History Month and everything from the Summer Olympics to Mozart’s 250th Anniversary and Shostakovich’s 100th, with specials and programming “focuses.” That’s “radio speak” for scheduling – and making a special point of talking about – a certain type of music. We’ll be doing this again on March 21st to mark the anniversary of Bach’s birth. We used to use this type of tactic fairly regularly in the 90s. Then somewhere along the way, we stopped doing as many after we collectively thought: “Does this really make anyone tune in?” And also, “If this ‘special’ music is worth hearing, shouldn’t we be playing it regularly, anyway?”
That led us to expand the list of selections that were part of our rotation (that’s more insider talk for those pieces that are heard regularly as a matter of programming policy). We made an effort to include more music by 20th century and contemporary composers, by women and African-Americans, and more selections in “niche” categories (in other words, particular genres) such as opera, choral music and organ music. We tried to add these elements while still preserving our grounding in the standard repertory and music that is, generally speaking, appealing to a broad range of listeners.
The net result was far more variety in our programming, and I like to think more musical integrity. Listeners didn’t have to wait until February to hear the likes of William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge Taylor or Scott Joplin, or for March to roll around to hear music by Amy Beach, Germaine Tallieferre and Ethyl Smyth.
In spite of that a listener complained some time back that we didn’t play enough music by women composers, which led to our reviving the Women’s History Month focus.
And even though we play a broader variety of music than we did 10 or 15 years ago, I still hear from time to time from listeners who want more choral music, more opera, more 20th century, more (fill in the blank). Often these listeners are completely unaware of entire programs we carry devoted to their particular passion, such as Sacred Classics, Viva Voce, and orchestra series such as The New York Philharmonic This Week, which routinely program modern and contemporary works along with the “war horses.” (Regrettably, it sometimes seems the only listeners aware of those shows are those who complain that they don’t like that kind of music on “their” radio station.)
I suspect people are going to listen to the radio, not when their favorite kind of music is on, but when it’s convenient for them to listen to the radio.
I remember one listener who decried our choice not to carry The Metropolitan Opera broadcast season live, and wasn’t mollified when I told him he could hear NPR World of Opera Saturday nights at 7. “I like to listen to the opera while I’m washing my car, and I don’t do that at night.” I couldn’t argue with him there.
And I don’t think he would have been persuaded by the fact that a majority of listeners (judging from our Arbitron audience surveys) would prefer to hear instrumental classical music while they pursue their Saturday routines. That’s the nature of broadcasting, I guess.
So I’m left wondering: are special focuses such as ours for Women’s History Month really meaningful on a classical radio station? Or any type of program that focuses narrowly on a specific type of music? I’d like to think that, even if only a handful of listeners discover an enjoyable composer or selection, it’s been worth it. But I’d also be interested to know what you think, either here at the blog or privately at email@example.com.
Frank Dominguez is WDAV’s Program Director.