Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

EXTRA! see David Srebnik’s “Matrix” of Music for Radio

David Srebnik, program director at public radio station WWNO in New Orleans, takes a rather laid-back approach to new music programming. Don’t expect to catch this on the first glance, however. Srebnik is quick to emphasize that he is not out to educate his audience, and that the mission of his station is, in fact, to entertain. Like both commercial stations I profiled (WCRB and KDFC), as well as public radio stations WPKT and KCFR, WWNO courts the elusive mass audience. Srebnik claims he is trying to reach “Mr and Mrs Average Listener,” who aren’t musicians, and aren’t opera lovers, but who will give money to the station.

WWNO employs the mixed-news-and-classical format, and currently draws an audience of 80,000 listeners a week. Srebnik claims that his kind of programming – i.e. aiming for Mr. and Mrs. Average – has increased the size of the station’s audience. However, and this is a key point, WWNO does not employ rigorous research to determine the tastes of the target audience. Srebnik himself makes the decision as to what Mr. and Mrs. Listener want to hear. Certainly he pays some attention to the Arbitron ratings, but he also considers it a good sign if he gets calls from offended listeners after a program!

The concessions to the Averages seem to be largely wrapped up in the kind of “day-parting” that WPKT employs, with programming during the afternoon, in particular, reserved for “less challenging” works. The idea is that Mr. and Mrs. Average can turn the radio on at work, and the music will not intrude upon their concentration.

At other times of day and on the weekends, however, Srebnik claims he will program contemporary music if he finds it compelling, beautiful, and entertaining. In other words, he tries to hold new music to the same standards that he holds “old” music. Fortunately, Srebnik seems to be open-minded as to what pieces meet these standards. So while you are probably not going to hear the Carter Second Quartet on WWNO any time soon, you certainly might hear a Piston Symphony, Michael Torke‘s “Bright Blue Music,” or John AdamsViolin Concerto.

Believe it or not, you might even hear George Crumb‘s Black Angels on WWNO. Srebnik explained to me the precautions he would take when presenting this major (and rather disturbing!) work for electric string quartet at this station purportedly devoted to entertainment. First, he would be sure to “cushion” the broadcast with works from the “canon.” Then, the announcer who introduced the Crumb would be someone who has the trust of his listeners, probably someone who has been with the station for many years. And last, he would give listeners plenty of “warning,” announcing the broadcast regularly, hours ahead of time.

WWNO is also involved with new music within the New Orleans community. If there is a premiere in the area, someone at the station will record a short-to-medium length interview with the composer, which will be aired either as part of the regular 9 to 4 classical programming, or at 4:50, during “All Things Considered.” The local band in New Orleans, the Louisiana Philharmonic, has a composer-in-residence, and since WWNO broadcasts their concerts, this means that at least a few brand-new works are heard on the air each season. WWNO also broadcasts two local chamber music series, which last season included performances of new pieces by Jennifer Higdon and Richard Danielpour.

I got the impression that Srebnik has at least a tenuous commitment to broadcasting new music, and I hope that, with time (he has been at the station for less than a year), he will become even more bold about what he plays and when he plays it. In the meantime, if you are a new music fan in New Orleans, it appears that you’ll just have to sit in silence from noon to six each day, or learn to love “The Poet and the Peasant.”

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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