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

At commercial station WCRB in Boston, music director Mario Mazza is blunt about the realities of attracting five hundred thousand listeners every week. His listeners want to relax, so he gives them nothing but relaxing music. And they keep tuning in.

Mazza speaks frankly about the pressure that has come to bear on classical stations in the past thirty years. Increasingly, these stations have been forced to focus only on the need to make money as quickly as possible. “You need to be careful,” he admits, “or you will lose your classical format.” Mazza feels that the downfall of many public radio stations has been their method of programming, based on guessing at what the listeners want to hear, rather than asking them. He calls this method of programming “PEAS,” or Personal Experience as Satisfactory. This kind of programming has turned off many listeners, he claims, leading to poor performance in the ratings, and leaving stations vulnerable to lucrative buy-out offers.

Since he joined the staff at WCRB, Mazza has instituted a series of changes based on extensive research into audience preferences. These changes have resulted in a substantial increase in the size of their listening audience: a share and half, or a hundred fifty thousand people. The station uses three standard lines of inquiry: focus groups, telephone surveys, and auditorium testing. In these kinds of research, Mazza emphasizes, the date of a particular composition hardly matters, since listeners are polled only for their reaction to “sonic qualities” in the music. He claims, for instance, that some listeners may object to an excerpt simply because it is too loud, and it makes no difference if that excerpt was written by Berlioz or Brian Ferneyhough.

However, I think it is safe to say that a piece of recent music is more likely to contain offensive “sonic qualities” than, say the “New World” Symphony. As a result, it seems that WCRB hardly ever plays new music. Their playlist is quite small for a classical station – Mazza estimates it at twelve hundred titles. Of these twelve hundred titles, a few are by Copland and Gershwin, but none by even the friendliest of truly contemporary composers, people like John Adams or Michael Torke. The only new music you will hear on WCRB will be during the Boston Symphony concerts, which, surprisingly, the station continues to broadcast in the spirit of “tradition.” If you live in Boston and you like new music, clearly your better bet is the public radio station in town, WGBH.

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