AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio

How is Public Radio Different from Commercial Radio?


AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #8


FRANK J. OTERI: Why would somebody choose a public station over a commercial station, and how is a public classical music station different from a commercial classical station? Because I’ve been going to these conferences now, I guess this is year 6 for me, and there has been a movement that we seem to have gotten away from, and I’m a little glad to see that we’re moving away from it, but there was a movement for a while to try and make public stations exactly like commercial stations…

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Boston is a prime example of that. We have two stations in Boston. When I started there was something like a dozen or more full-time classical music stations. Now there are 2 broadcasting classical music. One is WCRB, which is commercial, the other is WGBH, which is a mixed format, about half of which is classical. CRB has been decried by many because it has eliminated opera, it has eliminated any vocal music, choruses, et cetera, and plays only those pieces, they have a Mozart block every morning from 9 to 10, for example. And they have a format that allows for, maybe 4 or 5 minute pieces, sometimes, they’ll actually play a full Haydn symphony or something. They started with movements for a while, and then they dropped that when the audience got pissed off.

CHRIS KOHTZ: The movement experimentation happened in public and commercial radio, and most have gone away from it for the same reasons. That’s one of the rare times that’s happened.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: The first thing they say after a piece of music ends is “WCRB, 102.5, Boston classical music station.” The last thing they say before a piece begins is “WCRB…” It’s the same thing. Always the station ID. The last thing I say before I play piece is the name of the composer. Almost always. And it’ll be generally somewhere close to the first thing I’ll say after the name of the piece, the composer, something like that. The big difference is they stick to a specific time schedule, they have breaks on the hour. I don’t. For the full 5 hours, my breaks come when the music ends. I’m allowed the luxury of that format, fortunately. But the major difference is they have to be concerned with cume and share, and cost per thousand. Public radio doesn’t have to be. What’s destroying public radio is the need to find more and more subscribers to make more and more money, so they can fill the coffers, and that, unfortunately, is often at the expense of the music and the format.

CHRIS KOHTZ: Your point is right, that we are not beholden to audience numbers as a commercial station is. I have friends who are program directors at commercial stations, the ax that hangs over their heads is that if somebody comes along, 5000 miles away, who owns the station and just doesn’t see the income and numbers he wants, it doesn’t matter what format it is, it gets axed, it gets changed. We don’t have that issue. But as far as, like specific tight hour clocks, and all that, none of that, there are commercial radio stations in this country that sound just like public radio stations, that are just as loose. And likewise, there are public radio stations that are just as tight as some of the tightest commercial stations. I don’t think that’s as much of an issue as it used to be.

BOYCE LANCASTER: I think there are elements of commercial radio that we can incorporate that make us sound good. Elements of breaks and the way we handle ourselves and report ourselves in terms of professionalism. But on the other hand, when I was in commercial radio, the problem was when I had managers walking in to me, and saying, “I don’t want you to play that particular piece of music there.” And I said, “Why not?” “Because the client called and doesn’t want to hear that next to his commercial.” And I said, “Who’s programming the radio station here?” Which he took exception to, and I said, “I will play that piece of music there again, because if the client doesn’t like it, the client shouldn’t have bought time on this radio station. It’s part of our format.” And that, and I’ve had managers walk in and pull music out of the studio that I had put in there because clients complained. And that is not the way to run a radio station. When listeners say something to me, and listeners who are willing to back their listening with dollars, call me up and say “I didn’t like this, and this is why,” and they’re willing to talk to me, we can usually come to a common ground, or they may change my mind.

LOIS REITZES: But Boyce, this touches on something that is unique to public stations, I think, and it is that impassioned ownership.

BEVERLEY ERVINE: Exactly.

LOIS REITZES: You know, I don’t watch much commercial television. When Seinfeld was on, I watched that. I would never dream of calling NBC and saying, “How dare you program all that dreck? There’s only one half-hour a week on your station I can endure.” And yet, they have no problem if we play a thorny four-minute classical piece… They have no problem calling us up, because they do feel that intense sense of belonging because they are contributing. And so long as we need their contributions, we have to consider that somewhat. But never to the point, thank God, that commercial stations do.

BOYCE LANCASTER: And if they’re willing to talk to you, and you can have a conversation about it with them, 90 percent of the time you can come to an understanding and they’re fine. Because then they know why.

CHRIS KOHTZ: It’s longtime dedication to the format. The few commercial stations that have stayed in the classical format for a long time are witnessing the same things we are, except that they choose not to really listen to the audience, I mean, that’s a burden to them…

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