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

After I drafted this article, I felt I should be at least slightly responsible, so I called the classical station in my hometown of Rochester NY, to confirm my suspicions. Julia Figueras is the Music Director at WXXI, and she was very kind to answer my many “pointed” questions.

The potential source of my frustrations with WXXI is well-illustrated by a remark Ms Figueras made during a pledge drive a couple of years back. She felt that classical radio was worth supporting because it provides such great “background music.” Perhaps that comment was a little extreme to be representative, but Figueras did explain to me that she finds it necessary to take into serious consideration where the radio is being played: in day care centers, in offices, in cars. Figueras is a great fan of “day-parting.” As a result, “challenging” music is not broadcast on WXXI before 7 PM.

One of my unsupported conjectures was that the reason the programming at WXXI is frequently so “lite” is because it pleases underwriters. Figueras agreed that with government support down, corporate money is key to the health of the station. And the corporations, while they may not have specific preferences as to what music gets broadcast, do want to know that the programs they underwrite are reaching as many listeners as possible.

The two-pronged mission of the station is not unusual: to educate and to entertain. (I would like to know: when did education acquire such a reputation for being dull??) According to Figueras, however, it is necessary to entertain in order to educate, simply because you can’t educate listeners once they have tuned in to another station.

Apparently the kind of programming that Figueras advocates is working, because WXXI’s audience, which registers at around eighty thousand listeners a week, recently grew an impressive ten to fifteen percent. On the one hand, I found this surprising, given the large number of musicians who live in Rochester, some of whom have admitted to me that they no longer listen to the station because of the nature of the programming. On the other hand, the situation for new music at WXXI is not quite as bleak as Figueras makes it seem.

For instance, though Figueras is a strict believer in “day-parting,” this is apparently not the credo of every announcer on the staff. Within the past few weeks, for instance, I caught veteran announcer Gil French broadcasting the Martinu Fantasia for oboe, string quartet and theremin during the noon hour (!), and Dan Welcher‘s Oboe Concerto in the middle of the afternoon. Composer David Diamond, who has retired to Rochester, claims he has talked the same Mr. French into airing one American symphony a week. In addition, WXXI still maintains the old public radio tradition of broadcasting a concert almost every night. Concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony, among others, feature a certain number of new works.

Most importantly, the station does not employ research. Furthermore, Figueras’ reason for not doing so is excellent. A national consultant, she feels, would not be sensitive to the unique likes and dislikes of the Rochester community. She cited the local interest in vocal music as an example of the kind of preference a consultant would be likely to overlook. For Julia, the absence of a consultant seems to leave her the freedom to occasionally break her own rules and play BrahmsGerman Requiem in the middle of the day.

In addition to mentioning the local penchant for vocal music, Figueras insightfully acknowledged the Rochester early music community. Why is our new music community invisible? Three of the nation’s top composers are in residence at Eastman: Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwanter, and Augusta Read Thomas. I am involved in two of Eastman’s three new music ensembles, and I saw an audience of around two hundred turn out last weekend to experience a forty-minute work for bowed piano by Stephen Scott. Here are at least two hundred and three people who would be very happy if Julia let loose a little more often and played a “difficult” modern work during the middle of the day.

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