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

The situation of KCFR in Denver does not differ much from that of WPKT. It is hard to tell, however, because at KCFR, they took the time to package a “smoother” response to my muckraking inquiry. While I had no trouble reaching John Berky at WPKT, at KCFR, I was unable to reach the Vice-President for Programming, Ed Trudeau. Instead, I corresponded with Sean Carpenter, the station’s Vice President for Communications and Marketing. Mr. Carpenter was very helpful, not only sending me a long e-mail, but also taking a good portion of his afternoon to answer my questions.

However, Mr. Carpenter is in marketing, not programming, and while he made the station look very open-minded, I still have my doubts. First of all, like WPKT, the station is mixed news and classical, which already represents a concession to the current radio economy. Perhaps due to the mixed format, the size of the listening audience is suspiciously big – three hundred thousand a week, of which an estimated sixty-five to seventy percent listen to classical music at least some of the time.

The switch from all-classical to mixed-news-and-classical was prompted by a now-famous research initiative, the “Denver Project,” undertaken by the station in 1988. The “Denver Project” led to adjustments in how music is presented: less theory, more “context.” Mind you, “theory” includes keys and opus numbers, and “context” may be nothing more than anecdotal history.

Carpenter describes the mission of the station as “public service.” “At KCFR, we see ourselves as advocates of music,” he states. “While our advocacy does not mean overt on-air opinion, it does mean examining how music exists in our world today…new music, new performers and new performers are examples.” The rub is, of course, that they are also trying to reach as many listeners as possible. This is the same conflict of interest that John Berky faces at WPKT. On the one hand, there are the old public radio ideals, and on the other, there are the realities of staying in business (for that matter, the concept of a marketing director at public radio station embodies this conflict rather well).

Carpenter describes new music as a “key component” in KCFR’s “ability to be advocates for classical music.” In addition, recent repertoire adds “depth and variety” to their programming, a quality he claims is “highly valued” by listeners. Apparently a full twenty-five to thirty percent of the music played at KCFR was written in the twentieth century. Carpenter provided me with a representative list of composers, which I found just as enigmatic as the rest of the information he gave me. KCFR admits to playing Elliott Carter, for instance, but is it Pocohontas or is it the Fourth Quartet? I was glad to see that the station programs works by John Adams, Philip Glass, John Tavener, and Tobias Picker. However, it still appears that many, if not most, of the “twentieth century” composers broadcast by KCFR are perhaps better identified with the nineteenth: Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Sir Arnold Bax, among others.

The station also broadcasts concerts from around the state, some of which feature new music. KCFR has recently begun producing the Colorado Symphony broadcasts, for instance, which have included works by Libby Larsen and John Corigliano. They also broadcast a program called “Colorado Spotlight” which focuses on various ensembles from around the state. Composer interviews form a part of both series. KCFR has been developing programs for the “Classical Programming Network” they are co-producing with KUSC in Los Angeles, and some of these include new music, as well. Their fourteen-week series “A Closer Look at the Symphony,” for example, included some twentieth-century literature and an interview with David Diamond.

Particularly given their commitment to local music activity, it appears that KCFR comes a little closer than WPKT to the ideal of the open-minded public radio station. However, I have to believe that, given their goal to maintain an enormous audience, KCFR copes with the same dilemma as not only WPKT, but also commercial classical stations like WCRB. The perception of music is an individual matter (thank goodness), and it seems almost impossible to “advocate music” to two or three hundred thousand people, all at the same time. Call me cynical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that John Adams isn’t getting a huge amount of airtime.

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