Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Classical music radio R.I.P.

Is there any industry in America more confused than broadcast radio? Here's what the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz has to say:

All these folks (including me) are paying for satellite [radio] because they're tired of cookie-cutter radio formats stuffed to the gills with commercials. They're also fed up with focus-grouped music stations that play the same 60 songs until you start hearing the chords in your sleep.

And local radio stations covering news? There are a few across the country. For the rest, forget about it.

Really, can you think of an industry (okay, maybe American automakers) that has frittered away such huge advantages and sent its customers scrambling for alternatives?
Guess not. One of the really distressing aspects of this overall decline of broadcast radio is the decline of classical music radio. One station after another of this venerable industry is being sold to create yet another unneeded sports or top-40 station. Each of these stations will be chasing the same stagnating pool of advertising revenue and drive away more listeners.

The most recent casualty is Washington's WGMS, once a flagship of classical radio. It switched for good from classical broadcasting in January. (Fortunately, public radio WETA took over WGMS' call letters and repeater and switched back to classical from its former news-talk format. And Baltimore still has the great WCJB.)

WGMS follows hard on another recent causalty (wounded, not dead - yet), Boston's WCRB, which recently switched to a different frequency, lower power, and programming even more dumbed down than the recent trend in classical radio, which was bad enough. When the big classical radio audience changes happened in the 70s and 80s, the trend was to eliminate opera and obscure works. Short works were in demand for drivers in the morning and afternoon rush hours. But in the 90s, the trend got much worse - longer, more difficult, or lesser-known works of all types were eliminated at all hours, and the playlist reduced - like the pop playlists - to the same 40 or 50 works, repeated incessantly, along with ever growing time devoted to ads. Whole works are now being cannibalized for movements - anything that can be played in under 10 minutes.

The obvious explanation, changes in audience, is off the mark. The same trend is visible at non-commercial public radio stations, which have been dropping their jazz and classical programming in favor of more and more news and talk, even when listeners don't want it. The problem is the people running the industry: in the commercial sector, they will not budge from the totally safe formula; in the public sector, they won't give up the pretense of 'round-the-clock "serious" journalism. You can't fill 24 hours in the day with "serious" journalism - there isn't enough to go around. But you can fill it up with music - not just the standard composers and works, but lots of beautiful lesser knowns as well.

The result will be what Kurtz predicts: listeners will jump ship to satellite or Internet broadcasts as soon as they can. There's no evidence that listeners want more news, more ads, or the same playlists repeated ad infinitum. FM was once a haven for better-quality broadcasting, but the same forces that destroyed AM are now destroying FM too.

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