Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The CE Classical Challange - WVTF

For the first Classical Challenge, I looked at our local public radio station, WVTF. As a representative sampling, I used their playlist for Monday, 11/2/09.

Take a peek at the numbers below, and consider what impression someone might have if their only exposure to classical music was WVTF.

Here's what I saw:

Apparently, classical music was mainly written for orchestras. It was composed by European men, mostly between 1820-1920 (although there's a fair chunk of it written between 1750-1820). And they're all dead. So classical music comes to us from times long past -- sort of like what you get on an oldies station.

Something else. The only music heard by living American composers on WVTF were movie soundtracks. So one might assume that Europe is the exclusive source of great classical music (not the Europe of today, mind you, but the Europe of all those dead guys). So the best we can do over here is write a catchy tune or two. Hardly the same.

Now WVTF has a nice on-air sound. And I concede that their goal is primarily to keep their audience happy. But I think there's something of disconnect with that audience.

It is unlikely that the nationally-known artists performing in local chamber music series will be aired on WVTF. It is extremely unlikely any music composed within the last 20 years -- even those played by regional and university orchestras -- will be aired on WVTF (unless it's from a soundtrack). It is almost a certainty that no woman composer will ever get an airing on WVTF (and not the just ones whose works are regularly performed by those regional and university ensembles). It is unlikely that the cantatas, oratorios, or other music performed by community choral groups will be heard on WVTF.

Consider this for a moment: Rene Fleming's album "Verismo" just won a Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance. Beyonce Knowles won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. You can be sure that stations airing some form of popular music (CHR, AC, Urban, etc.) will be playing Beyonce's songs in heavy rotation. And you can be equally sure you will never, ever hear a track from "Verismo" on WVTF.

Types of Ensemble
64% Orchestra (includes soloist with orchestra)
16% Solo instrumental performer (almost exclusively piano)
13% Chamber group
1% Choral ensemble
0% Solo vocalist

Style Period
34% Romantic
27% 20th Century (mainly post-romantic)
20% Classical
15% Baroque
3% Early music (late renaissance only)
1% Soundtracks

Composer Demographics
96% European
3% American
1% Other

80% Dead
10% Living

100% Male
0% Female


  1. Do you plan to survey more than just one day of WVTF programming? One day of programming might not tell you the entire story.

    I think it's fair to ask WVTF which audience they are targetting. People at home...People at work? Others? I love RF's "Verismo" CD, but for a number of reasons, it (like most vocal music) is difficult to listen to and work at the same time.

    Vocal music on the radio is an old discussion, and I suppose it will never be resolved. While sales of vocal music CDs may do well, and opera attendance may be up, different situations determine how and why people listen to radio -- and who listens to radio.

    What serves classical music better? 100 listeners listening and enjoying it regularly, or 1,000 listeners listening and enjoying it regularly? Some of the musical forms you cite as being mia on WVTF have been known and proven to move people away from listening to classical music on the radio.

    n.b. It can be hard to determine or hear the "tone" of an email, or in this case a Blog response. I assure you this is a friendly toned response or thought about what you've written above.

  2. Dave:

    Great questions, all. First off, please don't worry about the tone of your comments! I have a great deal of respect for your insights and I naturally read it as a friendly response to the post.

    As I readily concede in this post, this is more of a snapshot then a look at an overarching trend. Remember in my first post setting this up I said,

    "Ideally, I'd like to look at playlists for an entire month from each station airing classical music, cross reference each work, and do some serious number-crunching.

    The reality is, though, that I'll be doing this survey in my spare time, so the scope will be much more limited. So the results won't be definitive, but I think they'll be representative.

    Each week I'll take a different station's posted classical playlist for the day."

    I try to be fair and pick a day that's not a holiday or may have any kind of special programming that might skew things too much.

    Also, as I've said in the previous posts, I recognize that a radio station's goal (building and keeping an audience) isn't necessarily in line with the goals of other parts of the classical music community. I know that WVTF's goal is to provide work-friendly music.

    But it can be a short step from music to Muzak sometimes. I think the danger here is that we're further marginalizing classical music by keeping it to the old standards -- which, among other things, makes it easier (IMHO) for station managers to decide to ditch the format in favor of something more relevant like news/talk.

    Granted, there's all different flavors of classical music, and not all work on the radio. But I wonder if there's an alternative to blandness that might make more sense and be more engaging to even casual audiences. I'll try to offer some suggestions in future posts.

    As always, thanks for the input, and don't be afraid to call me out when you think its necessary. I'm offering my opinions which may or may not be an accurate reflection on what's really happening.

    I've finished with all the classical stations in Virginia, and am currently looking at North Caroline stations. Not everyone is doing exactly the same thing, and I wonder if its because the audiences are different, or because the stations have trained them to expect different things...