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

Commercial stations in the 1930s programmed new American music because it made them look good in the eyes of a small but influential audience. The more accessible the music, the better the chances that it would also attract a mainstream audience. Today, many classical stations, commercial and public, treat contemporary music the same way. This is because these stations, now minus much of their NEA support, have defined their own “mass audience.” I keep tuning in to concerti grossi and Strauss waltzes because my local station has decided that the group of listeners who love this kind music provide the largest reliable source of member dollars. I suspect that the new music that is occasionally programmed is intended to pacify those of us who feel that radio, particularly public radio, has an obligation to air the works of our present-day composers.

Adding to the problem is the fact that audiences have fragmented exponentially in the past seventy years. Certainly many of us, had we been alive in the 1930s, would have been unhappy that the works of composers like Ruggles and Cowell were being shelved for pieces like Station WGZBX. When we say we want to hear new music on the air, we mean that we want to hear experimental music. At the same time, listeners who prefer a more traditional kind of new music also deserve airtime. This fragmentation within a tiny niche audience creates an impossible situation for even the most new-music-friendly public radio station.

Classical stations today are all, in one way or another, “fighting for their lives.” In the case of the public radio stations, the government funding that marked the “good old days” has all but dried up. More significantly, however, a spot on the radio dial has become a prized commodity. Securing a sizeable “mainstream audience” – the kind of people sponsors and underwriters want to reach – is the key to survival. If these stations lose their listeners, they will have to stave off the inevitable buy-out offers, or in the case of commercial stations, endure a format change dictated by the parent company. For most classical stations, new music is simply too much of a financial risk.

Naturally, each station deals with economic realities differently. On one end of the continuum, there are commercial stations like WCRB in Boston and KDFC n San Francisco, where programming decisions are motivated almost entirely by copious research into the audience’s likes and dislikes. These stations broadcast a very limited number of pieces, which seems to suit their hundreds of thousands of listeners just fine. Then there are public radio stations like WPKT in Connecticut and KCFR in Denver, where both the programming and the weekly CUME ratings eerily resemble those of the two commercial powerhouses. A more middle-of-the-road approach is taken at public radio stations such as WWNO in New Orleans and at WXXI in my own town of Rochester. Here, the personal preferences of the programming director still matter, within certain limits, which means that at least some new music makes it onto the air. The best new music programming today, however, is no doubt represented by a station like WHRO in Norfolk VA. At WHRO, announcers are free to program what they like, when they like, and the resulting variety has meant that hours of new music have been broadcast regularly for many years.

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