The audience we want, the audience we got
When I got into public radio in the late 1970s, I knew nothing about my audience. I couldn't tell you in even the most general way who was listening, and what they wanted to hear. Rather than being exceptional, my ignorance paralleled that of public radio as a whole, minus a few audience-research pioneers. Neither was our ignorance a source of shame. Au contraire; we in pubradio were proud about not knowing or caring about the size of the audience. If folks were good enough for our programs, we reasoned, they would listen, and if not, too bad for them. That's what generous governmental and institutional support will do for you. And our programming reflected it. How I wince nowadays when I flip through old program guides and remind myself what indigestibly high-minded fare I presented my listeners, whom I now realize must have been a small and very hardy cohort. Heck, if I were on the receiving rather than giving end back then, I'd have probably tuned to something more appealing myself.
How times have changed, in ways both harmful and beneficial to the state of classical radio. Harmful because the potential pool of classical music lovers, measured against the population as a whole, is shrinking, and thus also has the amount of classical programming through the system. Once assumed to be a major part of almost every public station's offerings, classical music has in many areas been relegated to late-night hours, shunted to the HD radio spectrum (a promising technology that has yet to take off), or dumped altogether. Beneficial because we now have a better idea of what works for you and what doesn't. And we care. That's what relying on your listeners for your very existence will do for you. Maturity helps, too. You can only hole up in the ivory tower for so long before you realize that the other people down there are having more fun. Oh sure, some stations overdo it with the focus groups, market-testing and audience-counting, unti they've stripped all the adventure and risk out of their offerings. But artistic quality, risk-taking and audience appeal can go hand-in-hand-in-hand. Besides, playing something the listeners love gets more oxytocin going than spooning out the castor oil and tone-rows.
One of the things we in pubradio learned along the way is that most listeners — up to 90% in some studies — use radio as a secondary activity. Or, in English, they have the radio on as an accompaniment to something else, be it talking, working, driving, sleeping, whatever. This seems to be practically a law of radio physics, and you know what Star Trek's Scotty said about changing the laws of physics. It cannae be done, Captain! So, what's a serious-minded classical programmer like me, a true believer in the complex greatness of the music I champion, to do with that information? I could ignore it. I could deny it. I could rail against it. I could keep programming the same old way despite it. Or I could embrace it, and factor this immutable fact into my selections. Call them the five stages of classical programming. And I've been through all of them. To indulge in one more Tom Friedman-esque analogy, you can only swim upstream so long before you realize that no matter how hard you stroke, the stream isn't going to change direction, and that very few of those going with the flow are turning around and joining you.
Then today, I read this: "'The day I walk into a doctor's office and hear WWFM,' says station manager Peter Fretwell, 'is the day we've failed, unless the doctor happens to be a serious aficionado. Our goal is not to be played as background music. If it's art, it deserves full attention. Front and center.'" Mr. Fretwell was quoted (whole piece here) by classical critic David Patrick Stearns on the occasion of Trenton, NJ-based WWFM ("The Classical Network"), expanding its coverage into Philadelphia and New York City, albeit only on the aforementioned HD. Mazel tov and best wishes for continued success to WWFM, and indeed to any radio station that sticks to classical music. I'm not here to tell Mr. Fretwell how to run his station, just as I wouldn't want him to tell me how to do my show. But, assuming he was quoted accurately, I can't let this statement go without comment.
Every time someone has classical music on the radio, classical music wins. Something is getting through, and someone's appreciation of a great art form is being enhanced. As soon as our signal leaves our broadcast antenna, you're free to do with it exactly as you like. And while not every station is equally devoted to serious works and adventurous programming, and some my commodify the music more than others, we are hardly at a time in history when we can be picky about whom we admit to the classical club. I wonder whether WWFM has a longer of list of whom they consider unworthy to bask in the sacred glow of the station's signal — and presumably, whose financial support they would also decline out of principle. In any case, Mr. Fretwell may want an audience that puts aside everything else and just concentrates on the music. But he's not going to get it. So like it or not, he's better off dealing with the audience he's got, not the audience he wants.
(Photos: My two favorite radio doctors, who would be more than welcome to play WFCR in their offices. Can you identify them?)