Friday, March 12, 2010

The CE Classical Challange - WMRA

For the fourth Classical Challenge, I looked at WMRA/WEMC in Harrisonburg, VA. For a representative sampling, I used their playlist for Monday, 11/02/09. (If this is your first Classical Challenge post, I strongly encourage you to read CE Classical Challange Revisited to fully understand the nature of my somewhat unscientific survey).

WMRA and WEMC used to be separately run stations, each serving the same population. When WMRA took over WEMC, most of the classical programming was shifted to the smaller station, and WMRA moved to a news/talk-heavy format, which has proven to attract more listeners and bigger fund-raising returns for most stations.

There weren't many surprises in the type of classical music WEMC offered. All the composers were safely dead, and all safely male. The repertoire was almost exclusively European, save for a little Gershwin (American, but dead).

Over two-thirds of the music was orchestral, with most of it coming from the Romantic and late Classical periods (and some post-romantic 20th Century works thrown in). No choral works were aired, nor any tracks by solo vocalists.

Now there's been some misunderstanding about why I think this is a bad thing. I'm not saying that we need to establish quotas for types of music, or composer gender or anything like that. But what I do want us to think about is this:

Muzak played familiar tunes in soothing orchestral arrangements, designed to provide a pleasant, ambient background and nothing more. When we only air familiar orchestral classics by tried-and-true composers, are we not doing basically the same thing?

Understand, I'm not advocating a lunchtime Xenakis retrospective. But within the realm of accessible music that would be radio-friendly, there are plenty of works that would add freshness to stations playlists' and perhaps more active engage (but not distract) the listener.

That's why I look at women composers. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel's piano works are similar to those of her brother Felix, but they have a slight difference that I think makes them interesting. Clara Schumann also wrote works that are both note-worthy and radio-friendly.

It's why I look for American composers. These are our countrymen expressing themselves through music. If there's any audience that should connect with their music, it would be an American one. Germany celebrates Beethoven, Austria celebrates Mozart, the Czech Republic celebrates Dvorak. And we celebrate -- ?

It's also why I look for choral and vocal music. The bulk of amateur musicians can be found in choirs. It seems to me a healthy selection of choral works injected into the mix would only help bring this under served part of the potential audience into the fold.

So is WEMC's programming good or bad? Well, like every other public radio station, they're programming the best they can with the resources they have to get the results they want.

All I'm challenging are the results. Is classical music really only about the orchestral works of Europeans who've been dead for a hundred years or more? If it is, then why should I care whether it stays or goes away?

Types of Ensemble
69% Orchestra (includes soloist with orchestra)
18% Chamber group
13% Solo instrumental performer (mainly piano, and some classical guitar)
0% Choral ensemble
0% Solo vocalist

Style Period
36% Romantic
28% Classical
21% Baroque
15% 20th Century
15% Early music (renaissance only)
0% Soundtracks

Composer Demographics
3% American
0% Other

100% Dead
0% Living

100% Male
0% Female

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