Coming up on classical radio, it’s crunch time

One day last week, the world’s self-styled ‘leading classical label’ signed a sweetheart deal with an online upstart.

Naxos of America licensed its entire catalogue to Pandora, an internet radio service that is gnawing away at pop and rock radio stations across the USA. Now, it’s into classical. Be afraid. Be more than a little afraid.

Pandora wants your ear time and will trample on existing outlets to get it. The energy is all flowing one way.

Pandora allows listeners to choose the music they like. Personalized stations launch instantly with the input of a single “seed” – a favorite artist, song, or genre. The Music Genome Project®, a deeply detailed hand-built musical taxonomy, powers the personalization of Pandora® internet radio by using musicological “DNA” and constant listener feedback to craft personalized stations from a growing collection of more than one million tracks.

If Pandora wins the classics war, many will say that classical radio was the author of its own downfall. For two decades, stations have been laying off presenters and putting large chunks of airtime into the hands of a central syndicator, eliminating local character and musical know-how. Listener loyalty is probably at an all-time low.

It need not be that way, however. One Texas station is trying to buck the trend (see below). Others should take note before it’s too late.

In Britain, meanwhile, a man with no broadcast experience has taken over as head of BBC Radio 3.

wireless

 

 

As it approaches its 50th anniversary, Austin’s classical music radio station KMFA 89.5 opted for a little rebellion of sorts.

The nonprofit station recently went more local.

And that bucks a trend followed by other Texas classical music radio.

Stations in major markets such as San Antonio and Houston have, in the last few years, eliminated nearly all of their local programming and opted instead to broadcast nationally syndicated channels, primarily Classical 24, produced by American Public Media.

KMFA, on the other hand, significantly increased its locally created programming.

Now the station features 22 hours of locally hosted or produced programs on weekdays. And while it kept popular national shows such as “From the Top,” “Concierto” and the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, KMFA has dropped Classical 24 entirely, even from the convenient overnight slot.

 

 

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  • Lucy Harbin says:

    This is like saying the invention of movable type threw all of Europe’s monks out of work.

    The important thing is that people are listening to classical music, and if Pandora can provide a more user-friendly way of making that music available to listeners than radio can offer, then why should we feel nostalgia for what is essentially an outdated technology?

    Technology exists to serve users, not the other way around. If Pandora does the job better than radio, then why not listen to Pandora? (And when something better than Pandora comes along, move over to whatever that is.)

    • Fiddleman says:

      What’s really important is getting people to listen to classical music–live. This is where local programming comes in. Local time slots with in-studio talent connect local listeners to local musicians. Houston used to be a wonderful market for classical radio. KUHF had a terrific show, “The Front Row”, that brought local and visiting artists and musicians into the studio to perform previews of upcoming concerts and talk with the hosts about their concert season in general and the program in particular. Sadly, KUHF has gone down the syndication road, and laid off most of its talent. I believe “The Front Row” is no longer on air.

      Over the years, I was a guest on “The Front Row” many times–perhaps 10 or 12. I can’t tell you how many times patrons came up to me after concerts and told me they only heard about my concerts because of appearing on the radio. So very thrilled to see that Austin is bucking the trend!

  • Michael B. says:

    Classical music radio, at least in the United States, is a complete and absolute disgrace. Most of the public radio stations act as though they were commercial stations and cater to the lowest common denominator. They are scared stiff to play any contemporary music or any vocal music, seemingly relying on “market research” and “focus groups” that must have been conducted in Frog’s Nose, Nebraska. Their mantra is that vocal music doesn’t “test well.” I guess that is why performers such as Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, and Luciano Pavarotti had such unrecognized careers and sold so few recordings. They won’t play such staples of the repertoire as the Prokofiev or Shostakovich violin concertos, just to name a few works. They are even reluctant to play Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a work composed in 1830(!!).

  • Nick says:

    I would have greater faith in Naxos than seems to be the case in the article above. Throughout its history Naxos has shown its commitment both to the full range of classical music (how many other labels can claim that today, I wonder?) and to the development of a new audience for classical music. And we surely have to admit it has done both brilliantly. Not being American, I have not heard of Pandora. But I am well aware of Naxos and it will not be in this deal purely to make money, that is for certain.

  • Christy says:

    I don’t understand. Pandora is terrific. 24 hour classical music of any kind. And the artists get royalties unlike on the radio. Even more, composers of new music get played and paid, unlike on the radio. There’s a built in “suggestion” algorithm that allows exposure to new artists. There’s a toggle feature that allows a mix of genres not possible on radio. And again, their royalty structure is the highest in the business.

  • Michael Smith says:

    Christy, how does Pandora compare with Spotify for classical coverage? I swapped from the former to the latter a couple of years ago because there was so much more on the latter.

    I guess things might be changing . . .

    • Ben Ordaz says:

      I have an account for both Pandora and Spotify currently. For people like us Spotify is still much better. You can get the latest copy of Gramophone and instantly find their top picks on Spotify, whereas if you want “cherubini” on Pandora, you will still get a playlist that includes Claire de lune and Four Seasons! So much for their algorithms

  • Joe Shelby says:

    Pandora’s algorithm isn’t the greatest when it comes to classical, as I’ve seen with the Universal/EMI/Sony items they already have access to.

    Trying to keep Pandora focused on orchestral and not chamber/piano is difficult. Keeping Pandora focused on the 20th Century and later is impossible. I can’t go more than 3 tracks without it popping back into the romantics. If Beethoven and friends are your thing, it is probably fine.

    I agree that losing the ‘local’ aspect (where concert promotion is a part of things) is a bad thing, but as I noted in other threads, most classical radio in America is “publicly funded”, and caters to a least-common-denominator mode as someone said above. They do this both because there is this illusion that only playing the “hits” keeps an audience (not noticing the steady collapse of classic rock radio has coincided with the reduction in songs in that format’s daily playlist), and because sticking to music before 1900 in general means paying MUCH fewer royalties to ASCAP/BMI because the music is public domain.

  • Bob Stevenson says:

    Many thanks to “Fiddleman” for his kind comments about “the Front Row,” the daily, hour-long arts magazine that ran on Houston’s public radio stations, KUHF and KUHA, for 9-1/2 years, January, 2004 – November, 2013. I was the producer of that show for its entire duration, and I can truthfully and proudly say that it was the most mission-driven, most listened-to, and most talked-about locally-produced program in the station’s 63-year history. The show’s sole mission was to make the listening public aware of what was going on in the Houston area’s diverse, lively, innovative but often under-appreciated arts scene, through our presentation of interviews, produced features, audio portraits and live and recorded concert and studio performances. Classical music was the art-form to which we devoted the most air-time, and we were fortunate to have musicians, conductors and composers of Fiddleman’s caliber as frequent guests on the program, talking about and often performing great music, right there in our studio. In the process, the radio station gained recognition as a full-fledged, collaborating partner with all of the region’s other professional arts and performance groups and organizations, and the chief means many of them had for communicating with their potential and existing audiences and patrons. Unfortunately, a change of priorities on the part of our licensee, the University of Houston, and a resulting change in the station’s management team shifted the station’s emphasis away from public service and focused all of the unit’s resources into a desperate attempt to salvage the University’s financially-troubled public television station. The bottom line of the now-merged radio-and-television operations became the unit’s Prime Directive. And in one precipitous action, most of the classical FM station’s staff were laid off … all but four hours a week of the channel’s local programming was eliminated (“The Front Row” was cancelled) … and the station became nothing more than a pass-through conduit for nationally-syndicated programming, including the “Classical 24” music service. In that critical moment, twenty-five years’ worth of partnership-building with the local arts community was cast aside, and the regional arts organizations’ primary public voice was silenced. While a number of cities have been deprived of their locally-originated classical-music presence on the airwaves, our experience in Houston was significantly worse, because “The Front Row” was unique. No other station in the country was (or is) presenting a daily, live, locally-produced, all-inclusive arts magazine that included performances of classical (as well as jazz, musical theater/cabaret, traditional and contemporary folk and world) music.

  • Bob Stevenson says:

    Many thanks to “Fiddleman” for his kind words about “The Front Row,” the daily, hour-long arts magazine that ran for 9-1/2 years, January, 2004, to November, 2013, on Houston’s public radio stations, KUHF and KUHA. I was the show’s producer for its entire duration, and I can truthfully and proudly say that it was the most mission-driven, most listened-to and most talked-about local production in the radio station’s 63-year history. The program’s sole mission was to make listeners aware of what was going on in the Houston’s diverse, lively, innovative, but often under-appreciated arts scene, through our presentation of interviews, produced features, audio portraits, and live and recorded concert and studio performances. Classical music was the area to which we devoted the largest portion of our air-time, and we were privileged to welcome artists, conductors and composers of Fiddleman’s caliber as frequent guests on the show, talking about and often performing great music, right there in our studio. In the process, KUHF/KUHA gained the reputation of being a full-fledged, collaborating partner with all of the other professional arts and performance groups and organizations in the region, and for many of them, “The Front Row” became their chief means of communicating with their potential and existing audiences and patrons. Unfortunately, a change in priorities by our licensee, the University of Houston, and a resulting re-shuffling of the station’s management team shifted the department’s emphasis away from public service and instead funneled all of the now-merged radio-and-television operation’s resources into an attempt to salvage the University’s financially-troubled public TV station. The bottom line became the unit’s new Prime Directive. In one precipitous action, almost the entire staff of the classical FM radio station was laid off … all but four hours a week of its locally-produced programming was eliminated (“The Front Row” was cancelled)… and the station became nothing more than a pass-through conduit for nationally-syndicated programming, including APM’s “Classical 24” music service. In that critical moment, twenty-five years of partnership-building between the radio station and the region’s arts community was summarily cast aside, and the regional arts organizations’ primary public voice was silenced. While a number of cities have been deprived of their locally-originated classical-music presence on the airwaves, our experience in Houston was worse, because “The Front Row” was unique. No other station in the country was (or is) presenting a live, daily, locally-produced, all-inclusive arts magazine that includes performances of classical (as well as jazz, musical theater/cabaret, traditional and contemporary folk and world) music. Many had come to depend on this service, and the shock-waves created by “The Front Row’s” cancellation are still reverberating in our community.

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