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Classical Radio: It’s Not Dead…Yet

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At age eight, I received my first cassette tape of classical music. It was music for twirling around the living room, and nothing more. At age 11, I got my first classical music CD. It had Handel’s “Hornpipe” on it, which I had just played at summer music camp, but the rest of the music was Impressionist stuff that, quite frankly, weirded me out a little bit.

Speed ahead a few years to age 14. I’m now living in a major metropolitan area with countless quality radio stations, most of them playing Top 40 hits or soccer mom mixes of music from the past three decades. And in spite of all this variety, what station am I hooked on? Classical.

My peers chose Britney; I chose Beethoven. They stayed up late to hear electronic mixes of Justin Timberlake; I got up at six in the morning just to catch Johan Sebastian Bach on the classical hit countdown. Not only that, but I also carried an FM-equipped CD player to school just so that on my study break I could still enjoy the graceful guitar music of Rodrigo.

If a 14-year-old could be this gung-ho about instrumental music, then the devotion must increase with adulthood, right? Classical radio must surely be thriving, right? It’s just the opposite. FM radio is entering its final, desperate stages of life, and classical music is almost always the first to be booted off the boat.

According to Mike Janssen of Current.org, “Listeners were tuning away to other commercial and noncommercial news outlets when classical music hit the air weekday mornings. Over two years, classical music listener-hours fell by 25 percent.”

This is the way of the iPod generation, otherwise known as the “now” generation. We want to be informed around the clock of what’s happening in the world, and if our iPhone doesn’t have a news app open, then we turn on the radio to get some voice snippets. There is a constant hunger to get what you want when you want it.

Consider the popularity of Pandora and Grooveshark. You can easily find the exact genre of music you want to hear, and if the song gets dull, you can forever delete it from the playlist with little time wasted. Additionally, you can stream these sites from your computer — no FM signal required — and carry them along on your portable music player.

But as these sites pick up fans, classical radio dies. All around the country, FM stations are being forced to consolidate, reformat, or overhaul their programming.

“To stay on the air, a number of classical radio stations are finding innovative ways to continue, whether it is by selling themselves to a not-for-profit or creating new incarnations on the Internet,” says Frank Saxe of Allbusiness.com. One such station, Seattle’s Classical KING-FM 98.1, has scheduled June of 2011 for switching over to a listener-supported format. It’s a risky, compelling move.

The Seattle Times writes that, “The new (monitoring) system showed KING-FM’s share of the local audience was smaller and older than it had been before, with the average age of listeners about 60, Ridewood said. All of that made it harder to sell ads.” Even if KING-FM does collect enough donations to stay afloat, the challenge remains attracting new listeners.

It’s easy enough for a Top 40 station to get airtime in the car while the family is driving to school. A look around the country shows that the top-rated stations are consistently those that play pop hits or offer news commentary. It’s harder for a Mendelssohn symphony to muscle its way into the day.

Why, then, should we care about classical radio? After all, isn’t it old music that has already enjoyed its time? The reasons are manifold. For one, radio as a whole needs as much support as it can get. Radio is a way of unifying the American people and represents a rich cultural history, including a tradition of being involved in community events and affairs.

If too many local stations lose their audiences, then media companies will be tempted to conglomerate and standardize their programming. This lack of variety will undoubtedly isolate part of the market and, in a way, take the art out of music. Art is ultimately about people, how they connect, and how they interpret life; prerecorded programming streamed to the entire U.S. is just a way to drive people further into their individualistic shells.

It cannot be too important today to emphasize being engaged in the world and understanding its history. Local radio, specifically the classical station, does this. In classical music we find great works that express entire generations of thought, such as Richard Strauss’ monumental “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a meditation on writings by Nietzsche.

Classical music not only encapsulates complex worldviews and ideas, but it also inspires the imagination, which is necessary for training today’s thinkers. Radio again serves best in delivering what compact disc anthologies just can’t capture. It’s difficult to get more than a passing pleasant mood from the first movement of Vivaldi’s spring, but taken as a whole, the work is colorful, evocative, and thoughtful.

And as a personal example, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” performed at the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt, has brought me close to tears on several occasions, as has Johannes Brahms’ “Third Symphony.” While talking about the catharsis of the Adagio, Rob Kapilow says, “The slowness is at the core of the piece. Because acceptance is not a rapid process.”

No, it’s not. In today’s over-stimulating world, young minds need to know about how the important things in life take time and concentration. The effect of classical music, or instrumental music in general, has been widely shown to improve test scores in school and produce lasting character development, as teenagers develop longer attention spans and greater persistence.

If classical radio is so great, then how can we ensure that it thrives and doesn’t get “dumbed down,” as former KING-FM announcer Tom Olsen wistfully observes? The first way is simple. Just listen to your local station. Drive to Dvorak; shower to Schumann. To get the full benefits of classical music, you have to start training your ear.

The second thing to do is donate money to the station. Commercially supported stations are becoming scarcer, and a switch to a listener-supported format will make your contribution even more important. An aging listener demographic (a 2000 survey said that 85% of listeners were over age 35) means that younger generations, particularly teenagers, will need to step up and get involved.

You can also talk to your station’s programming managers and let them know how much you appreciate variety in their playlists. A steady diet of Mozart, or abbreviated works in general, is like eating dessert all the time. You’re going to get sick of it eventually. Make sure that your station keeps the editing to a minimum.

Finally, push for arts education in schools. Classical music may never replace Kanye West in teen “cool” factor, but it can at least lose its social stigma and affect positive thinking in young minds. So the next time you’re near an FM radio, put down the iPod playlist and find your classical station. Turn it on — and don’t tune out.

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About Laurel Savannah