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

When I interviewed John Berky, general manager of WPKT in Hartford CT, he was quick to defend the “morals” of his station. “As industries mature, commercial reality takes hold,” he confessed, “and this is even true with not-for-profits.” Berky explained that during the brief period of adequate government support, public radio stations encouraged experimental programming. When government support for public broadcasting began to dry up, WPKT turned for its revenue to members and corporations. Unfortunately, these corporations give money “not out of a sense of altruism,” Berky emphasized, but for the marketing advantages. Naturally, the more listeners the station draws in, the happier corporations become about donating money. It appears that the economic machinery is not much different at WPKT than it is at a commercial station, and their programming is correspondingly conservative.

Berky admits that WPKT is not programming for the educated musician; in fact, they are not even programming for the regular classical concertgoer. WPKT is a mixed news and classical station, and one of their missions is to get their NPR news listeners to buy tickets to the Hartford Symphony. The way Berky sees it, once he has coaxed a listener into buying a ticket, he or she will be hooked, and his work is done. Just like a commercial station, WPKT researches the preferences of its target audience, NPR news listeners. However, Berky claims that, in addition to the research findings, he relies on his own instincts and passions in choosing what music is broadcast.

WPKT, along with the other Connecticut Public Radio stations, has adjusted its programming so that during the day, they play mostly “lite” fare. At night, they present more “serious” programs, which include broadcasts of the San Francisco, Chicago, and Hartford Symphonies. Since WPKT instituted this clear “day-parting,” their audience has doubled, and now resembles that of a respectable commercial station: two hundred thousand listeners a week. (More information on the philosophy behind these “adjustments” can be found at www.cpbi.org/radio/mission/htm.)

Unlike WCRB or KDFC, WPKT still keeps several thousand titles in their library. John Berky claims that at least ten percent of their playlist is twentieth-century music. This ten percent naturally includes Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Bernstein, but Berky also admitted to programming Torke from time to time. In addition, contemporary works appear as part of the symphony broadcasts mentioned above, and if the Hartford Symphony premieres a new work, the station will sometimes interview the composer.

In spite of WPKT’s commercial-esque programming agenda, it seems that they nonetheless program a bit more new music than either KDFC or WCRB. Disappointing, of course, if you happen to remember public radio from the 1970s. The Torke, at least, is a step in the right direction.

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