Radio Wooing Made Simple: What One Composer Learned from Being a Broadcaster



Rick Sowash

Ponder this: What music celebrates the life of Theodore Roosevelt?

Who cares, you ask? Suppose you are, as I once was, the music programmer at a classical music radio station. And that fat almanac all radio stations possess alerts you that Teddy’s birthday is fast approaching. What music would you choose to air? A Sousa march would surely be a comedown for the Rough Rider, but what other music is “his?” Copland portrayed Lincoln, Randall Thompson commemorated Jefferson, and Ives wrote Washington’s Birthday. Teddy, though hardly less worthy and certainly no less Mount-Rushmore-ian, has not been so honored.

Strangely, the same applies to many of our best American writers and painters. What music for Mark Twain or Grant Wood? Where are great tone poems, “Scarlet Letter” or “Flowers of Georgia O’Keefe?” What music for America’s national parks or rivers? What composer does for the Ohio, Missouri, or Mississippi what has been done for the Danube and the Moldau?

Incredibly, the Great Lakes contain a fifth of the world’s fresh water. American composers have not as yet thirsted after the inspiration those five lakes provide. Imagine: the fearsome grandeur of the opening Superior movement gives way to the mysterious solemnity of fog-bound Huron, followed by the pastoral beauty of Michigan and a touristy scherzo for Erie. The final movement, Ontario, ends with an aural image of Niagara Falls, a climactic cascade of chords and cadenzas. With what enthusiasm would such a work, if well written, be welcomed by listeners in Duluth, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. The classical music radio programmers would love it so!

Pondering these questions prompted me to perceive many as-yet-empty niches in American musical life. Being a composer, I took matters in hand … in my own small way. I thought, “If I compose and record works that meet the needs of broadcasters, then surely such works will be broadcast.” For two-and-a-half decades I’ve pursued that end, not with all my compositions, but with many.

I’m happy to report that it’s working. I haven’t yet written a piece to honor Teddy Roosevelt, but my Homage to Willa Cather gets a lot of airplay, especially in Nebraska. New Jersey loves my Cape May Suite. Cincinnati often hears my View from Carew (the city’s tallest building). When art museums open an exhibit of Impressionist painters, programmers turn to my two Impressionist Suites to commemorate specific artists, including Monet, Cassatt, and Renoir. Being an Ohioan, I’ve written music about my lush and various native state. Street Suite describes ten streets in Mansfield, my hometown. Daweswood celebrates a beloved Ohio arboretum.

I’ve also written works to meet radio’s more generic needs. Classical music radio programmers know that there isn’t a lot of music acknowledging the delights of specific seasons or months, at least not such as would hit the mark for American listeners. Vivaldi, Haydn, and Glazounov all spoke up for the seasons as did Tchaikovsky for the months. But these composers lived long ago and far away; they passed their lives in distant, non-American settings. The music they wrote may be heartfelt and beautiful, but no American listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a car radio would look out the window and say, “Yes! This music precisely expresses this season in this place.” Vivaldi’s Autumn movements are charming but fall short of the majestic, magnificent, almost unbelievable sunset glory of autumn in the mountains of New England or on the rolling hills of the upper Midwest.

True, we have Appalachian Spring. But the title was an afterthought, as Copland readily admitted. The piece isn’t really “about” springtime at all, not in the Blue Ridge or anywhere else. According to Copland, it’s a portrait of his friend, the choreographer Martha Graham. Yet the freshness and folk-based vitality of the music does sound like springtime, specifically in the Appalachians. Copland’s clarification notwithstanding, programmers will forever broadcast that piece when daffodils first appear.

The same is proving true for some of my pieces. I subtitled my first piano trio Four Seasons in Bellville after the Ohio village I once inhabited. Predictably, radio programmers air the four movements, respectively, on the 21st day of March, June, September, and December.

During which months would you guess radio programmers most often schedule my clarinet-cello-piano trios subtitled Enchantment of April and November Shadows? At what time of day do you suppose they air my suite, A Little Breakfast Music? At what hour of the night do they program my Sanctuary at 3 am? This approach also applies to holidays. My third piano trio is subtitled “A Christmas Divertimento.” Naturally, it gets plenty of airplay every December. Trust me, if I had subtitled that piece “Divertimento in C,” it would never be broadcast. It’s the word “Christmas” that grabs programmers’ attention.

Conversely, my chamber works Anecdotes & Reflections and Voyage of the Spirit get almost no airplay—not because the music is unworthy, I trust, but because there’s simply no obvious slot in the calendar for works thus titled. (This, by the way, ought to serve as sufficient proof, if proof is needed, that not every piece I write is subtitled with an eye to the possibility of a radio broadcast.)

Point made. Now to the practicalities of production and distribution.

Once the music is written, I set about hiring and rehearsing musicians, I rent a recording studio, I hire a piano tuner, a technician to edit and mix, a graphic artist to design the cover and a CD factory to press the final product. I fund all this with my home equity credit line. To recover my investment, I market the CDs via my website and direct mail to friends and fans.

Complimentary copies of each new CD are sent to 200+ American classical music radio stations. Some are tossed, I suppose—radio stations are deluged with free CDs—but many are listened to by programmers who then schedule the CDs for broadcast. I know this from “ego-surfing” classical playlists on the net and from listeners who get in touch, a phenomenon almost as satisfying as actually selling a CD.

Lest all of this seem too easy and pleasant to be believed, allow me to offset the sweetness by sharing the inherent frustrations and disappointments of the process. It is expensive, but I’m at peace with that. What irks me is the slow pace. In the past quarter century I’ve produced only five all-Sowash CDs, plus three featuring one or two of my works along with those of other composers.

But has it been fun? Certainly. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Are radio stations taking notice? Yes, more and more. And for that I thank, with all my heart, the open-minded programmers who welcome my work. But isn’t all this just pandering? Listen to the music and judge its sincerity for yourself. Would I advise other composers to do as I have done and am doing? Hey, that’s why I wrote this article.

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Rick Sowash, 55, lives by his wits. He writes classical music and books about Ohio, which he publishes and markets himself.

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