by Frank Dominguez, WDAV Program Director
I recently returned from a meeting in New York City of specially invited classical radio professionals called together to discuss the future of classical music on the radio. It was a stimulating and congenial conversation hosted by WNYC at their future location (appropriately enough) in Lower Manhattan.
The stations and producers represented a variety of approaches to classical radio programming, but I think it’s accurate to say that they fell into two broad camps: those who are interested in preserving a tradition, and those who seek to invent a new one for a different kind of listener.
I was invited to this gathering primarily because of my work over the past six years on two national research projects undertaken by the Public Radio Program Directors Association. These projects sought a deeper insight into the motivations and preferences of classical radio listeners. Lots of information was generated, but in a nutshell what we learned is that most classical radio listeners experience the music primarily on a spiritual and emotional level. This perception is borne out by the comments we continue to receive at the My Source page WDAV has created to mark its 30th anniversary.
We’ve arrived at a point in the classical radio industry where there’s very little dispute about that broad characterization of the listener. What’s also undisputed is that the audience for classical music stations has gradually been contracting over the past decade. WDAV is not an exception to that trend, even as our listeners report higher levels of satisfaction with the station, and our fundraising has grown more and more successful – but then, public radio has always relied on a generous and passionate minority to support the listening of the many.
What some stations, such as WNYC in New York, are proposing is to target a different kind of listener, since traditional classical radio doesn’t appear to be what you would call a “growth industry.” They’re looking for a listener who’s more intellectually engaged with the music, more open to other cultural influences, and is generally more forward looking (as opposed to seeking escape in the glorious traditions and accomplishments of the past). A good example of their approach is their Evening Music , hosted by a bright, young announcer who mixes in music from other genres, emphasizes new music, has occasional unconventional guests in the studio (such as the adult film star interviewed recently), and continuously solicits real time listener engagement through the program’s blog . Prominent music critic Greg Sandow has called this approach “the future of classical music,” and for all I know, he may be right.
What I do feel I know, from my nearly fourteen years of experience here at WDAV and the recent research projects I’ve been involved with, is that an approach like that would also alienate a majority of our most loyal current listeners, the ones who’ve invested in our station and made it what it is today.
It’s not a choice to be made lightly, and yet it doesn’t appear to be a choice that can be avoided, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of common ground between these two groups. One thing is certain: classical radio is definitely at a crossroads. That’s especially true for WDAV as we approach our 30th anniversary.
As always, we’d be interested to know what you think.