BMInt welcomed WGBH/WCRB’s Benjamin Roe, new manager of classical services, to Boston in an article from last February here. Now that he has been at the helm long enough to get his bearings and begin to impose his own destination on programming, he’s ready to talk to us about the station’s new weekend programming. One can click here to get the scoop on what’s forthcoming: Concierto, Classics for Kids, Performance Today Weekend, New England Summer Festivals, Baroque in Boston, Aries and Barcarolles, BSO on Record, World of Opera, Spoleto Chamber Music and Pipe Dreams — quite a list of changes!
In the interview that follows he talks enthusiastically about his vision and good naturedly takes a bit of heat as well. BMInt’s executive editor, Bettina A. Norton and publisher, Lee Eiseman, spoke with Ben Roe over lunch on Thursday, May 19.
BMInt: It has been only four months since you became manager of classical services for WCRB and this is your first interview with BMInt. It’s very refreshing that you believe that is your role to interact with the press. The fact that you are breaking bread with us is testimony to our mutual trust. BMInt doesn’t expect miracles in four months, but we would like to hear your self-appraisal. How are you doing? Tell us how things are changing on your guard.
Ben Roe: Well first of all I would like to say that it hasn’t been four months. I’ve been officially on the watch at WGBH and WCRB for about two and a half months. I have to say that coming back to Boston has been something like Terry Francona managing the Red Sox, a lot of people are convinced that they can do the job better than you and they may be right. But seriously, I’m having a great time and there’s a great deal of joy in my work, and there’s also a great deal of work to do. And I’ve been spending a lot of time learning the ropes, discovering a bit of the recent history. You know, I left town twenty-five years ago, so my hard drive was in serious need of an upgrade in terms of what all the institutional roles and stakeholders have been. But to give you a really short answer, I’ve learned a lot and I think we’re beginning to make some strides on the air and I’m thrilled at the possibilities, and I think the programming changes that we’re making over the next couple of weeks are a good indicator of where I think we are going.
So that means more local content, more live content?
Well, to add to that, more local content, more live content and more of what I call creating value. One of the great assets we have at both WCRB and WGBH are our hours of original recordings. We’re working hard to bring them back to life, trying to find a rational, orderly way to digitize our live performance collection, because that constitutes unique value.
Let’s talk about programming. I grew up in Boston, and there used to be many good programs that had a lot of interest, like Piano Personalities, The Art of Song, and the various different orchestras across the country — they were thematic. And I would hope that you could do this sort of thing with some of the programs.
Let me speak to that. We have this incredible relationship with the Boston Symphony, Next year will be sixty years of broadcasts on a weekly basis — what an incredible — our very first broadcast was of the BSO with Aaron Copland as the live intermission guest. I’m a student of history too, and I think this is incredible. But right now, this and a lot of the programs you described are also tied up in copyright and other performance issues that need to be untangled.
The BSO performances can only be broadcast live. WGBH has no rights to broadcast the recordings.
Exactly, so one of the things I’m actively exploring with the BSO and others is what ways can we work together so that we can bring this great material to our listeners. Wouldn’t you like to hear a Leinsdorf recording from the ‘60s or Charles Munch… But without getting into the weeds, many of the programs you mention, Bettina, have got rights issues associated with them. We’re not going to bring back Singers’ World with Wayne Hayes which was done by WHYY and is long out of print, but we’re starting our own program called Arias and Barcarolles with Cathy Fuller, and that program will be leading into our opera program. Here we have NEC pumping out incredible voices and have this incredible art song tradition here — I just did a lengthy interview with Dawn Upshaw — so we’re looking both for a lead-in to our opera program as well as to have a place to showcase a vocal recital. And we have a lot more in the garage which we hope to roll out soon.
Can you tell us how much of the WCRB programming is now supplied through American Public Media’s C24 feed? (That’s Classical 24, a nationally syndicated classical music service offering classical music programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week.)
Those programs are mostly heard after 8:00 pm, but we’re cutting our weekly C24 hours by 22 hours. I’m adding other programs from American Public Media such as Weekend Performance Today which is going to be for two hours after the BSO or Tanglewood broadcasts and also Pipe Dreams.
These aren’t additional hours of local content, but they must add something you think this market wants.
This gets to the heart of my philosophy. Performance Today is a great show. It take you to the Musik Verein, or Disney Hall, or the private studio of Wu Han and David Finckel. I think that’s important for our audience to hear. I think one of the things we haven’t done is shared what’s happening in the outside world with what’s happening in Boston. Michael Barrone does a fantastic job with Pipe Dreams and I am amazed that it has never been on the air here… If NPR does it well, I’m not opposed to bringing in outside productions. NPR’s World of Opera is the best program out there. I’m proud that we’re going to be carrying it.
Can you tell us about your plans for Tanglewood this summer?
I can’t tell you about that until our press release comes out in a few weeks, but I can say, “Don’t worry, we’ll be there.”
Is there any hope for the resumption of Friday afternoon BSO broadcasts?
I don’t think so, at least not for the foreseeable future.
Is that a marketing or an economic decision?
From my perspective it’s very much an economic decision, but I would add that at this point in the transition of the Symphony, it bears watching. This is a story we intend to be following and actively covering in as many ways as we can, such as topic pages on our website.
But to get back to the point: there will be no BSO Friday afternoon broadcasts next season?
But why? There are some people who can’t listen on Saturday night and I think the BSO would like it if people could hear the Friday broadcast, and if they liked it, could go to Symphony Hall on Saturday night?
Here’s what I propose… let me give you an analogy: Prairie Home Companion is on live on Saturday night, but their bigger audience is on Sunday afternoons when they re-broadcast. I’d like to play the BSO more than once a week, but I’d like to offer the people who missed it on Saturday night to hear it [the same program] on Sunday afternoon.
Why not broadcast two live performances instead?
Part of this is an economic question. It costs the station a great deal of funds to invest in production, engineering and other resources for one broadcast.
So is the nut just the $20,000 per year in production costs for the twenty-two Friday concerts, which John Voci cited at our BMInt forum in January 2009?
I think it’s significantly more than that. Here’s one of the unfair brushes. You have to remember that WGBH was carrying classical music for six hours per day when it acquired WCRB, and so you suddenly had to have an infrastructure and staff to go from six hours to twenty-four hours a day.
Does that mean that you had to add to staff when you acquired WCRB’s?
Right now I have some plans on the drawing board and I’m looking at how we staff the station. I will say that everything we are doing with our recently announced changes is going to be budget neutral.
So you’re not expecting management to increase your budget.
You know what, Lee, it’s not about increasing my budget. Since I’ve arrived here my job is not to defend or discuss any of the decisions made before my arrival on March 2. My job is to create the best radio station I can, and I think I can make the existing service better with my current budget. Part of this will be proven out by the success we have with audiences and with our on-air fundraisers.
I gather that WCRB has been very happy with the level of listener contributions.
The fund raising has not been bad, but frankly I think we are under-performing with our audience.
Is audience share [as defined by ratings] a metric that you care about? It looked for a while like ratings had been improving for WCRB. In the recent holiday period your share had risen to a 3.
[The April Arbitron numbers for the Boston market came out on May 18, and while WGBH radio can take some comfort, WCRB cannot. Pre-purchase by WGBH, WCRB had a solid 3 % share of the Boston market which had declined to 2 % a year after the takeover. That’s a decline from 129,000 listeners to 90,000. There was an encouraging rebound to 2.9 % in the holiday ratings, but as of April the station is back down to 2 % of a slightly smaller market: 81,000 average daily listeners — a 37% decline.]
But more recently it has dropped back down to 2%; that’s got to be frustrating.
Of course it’s frustrating. Of course I pay attention to our audience ratings.
It seems to me that you have the problem of keeping the old WCRB audience which was a 3 share year after year when it was a classical easy-listening station. So how do you balance the wishes of those people who want classical wallpaper with those who want more esoteric and challenging programming? And do you want to get it back up to 3 % and even higher?
I’ve had this discussion with my staff too, and I think it’s the wrong way to frame the debate. And I believe this very pointedly. How much shelf space are we in the classical music business getting compared to movies, dance, films, theater and everything else? We are all in this together, and what I am frustrated by is this whole thing about whether it’s dumbed-down, too smart, too esoteric. Do you love classical music? Do you care about it at all? Do we have something for you that will give you a satisfying experience? Increasingly people have more choices, so for them to choose me I have to believe that we have enough to satisfy a casual listener as well as somebody who wants a deeper experience.
I want WCRB to be the best classical station in America, bar none. We really want to move the needle about classical music, but it’s not just about whether we have a 2 or 3 share. You know what? We’re going to go around and cover every festival in the New England from now until whenever. And this is not window dressing.
What about the role of the announcer in getting listeners on board for a deeper experience?
The most important thing a classical music announcer is, is a trusted companion. A college president I was recently conversing with told me how he had enjoyed waking up with Laura Carlo for fifteen years. There is a sense of intimacy, reliability, and companionship that the best radio hosts provide. Then there’s a chance for a Cathy Fuller to say, “Walk down this road with me. You’re going to like it.”
Are you going to continue to program according to a schedule where, for instance, drive time has shorter segments, and I will be able to know at what time of day I want to tune in for my kind of music? What times are for wallpaper and what times are for challenges?
I’m going to challenge you every time you say the word wallpaper. I’m not going to buy it. I can tell you that you won’t hear Xenakis at 11:00 in the morning.
How many times a month will I hear a single movement from the Vivaldi Seasons?
How many times have you hear them now? I invite you to calculate.
Okay, let me ask how many works will be in regular rotation at drive time?
That’s not knowable.
What about some more specific questions about programming again. How about movie music?
Let’s talk about movie music for a second. I’m not interested in a movie music program per se. I’d rather ask, for instance, “Are there great movie scores by Tan Dun, or Bright Sheng, or John Williams that should be part of our rotation as well?” Should you hear these on Cathy Fuller’s shift or with Brian McCreath? We just had in our studio a world premiere recording of a piano reduction of the John William’s Oboe Concerto which is set to premiere this weekend. We will be airing our reduced version after the Pops broadcast.
Too bad I can’t hear your station on Beacon Hill. What are you doing to increase the signal strength in Boston and points south? Do you hope to buy any additional stations?
We will continue actively to pursue opportunities for increasing our broadcast strength. Certainly I’m not, nor do I know anyone at WGBH who is satisfied with our signal strength.
We all understand that because of FCC rules you can’t just turn up the power. You have to buy other stations to enhance coverage.
Right, nothing further can be gained from 99.5.
Isn’t it important to have a station that is reachable by people where your high-income market is?
Of course it is! We have a translator in Beacon Hill on 96.3. Tune it in, you can listen to it all the way to Logan Airport! I can also tell you that one of the problems we have even in maximizing the coverage of 99.5 is interference from a pirate station at 99.7 in Mattapan [note: Datz Hits Radio operates quite flagrantly broadcasting locally themed gospel, hip-hop, and Caribbean music from 99.7. Their website is here]. The way the interference works is not just that you can’t hear us in Mattapan, but in other areas like Cambridge and Brookline our signal is degraded. The coverage that 99.5 should have legally is not maximized.
If Datz Hits Radio were eliminated could I then receive 99.5 in my car within Rt. 128?
Oh, yeah, …I get it in my car pretty well now.
Where does the FCC stand on this?
The FCC, like a lot of Federal agencies, is over-taxed and under-resourced. But this is something we are pursuing very aggressively with our attorneys. But I should also add that there are other ways to receive WCRB. For instance our HD-2 is one of the most listened-to signals in the entire country.
But that signal doesn’t even come close to a .1 share- it’s still vanishingly small compared to a regular broadcast signal.
That’s true, but we also see enormous potential for growth in our internet stream. I suspect that it already exceeds WHRB. Also, we find it very interesting that most of our online listeners are outside the footprint of our transmitter.
The problem with the internet is, for example, how can one listen when working in the garden?
[Whipping out his smart phone, Ben Roe demonstrates as he responds] So the idea is, it’s that simple. We have a WGBH app and when you go to the WGBH app, the top button is classical music and you can choose all the different streams that we have.
We know, and Richard Buell can remind us, that there is a tremendous universe of internet streaming of classical music, but there is a rather large monthly cost associated with listening to this from a cell phone, web book, or tablet. Eventually, when data plans become cheap enough, I believe streaming will become the preferred way to receive classical music, and 50,000 watt transmitters will become obsolete.
That is also correct, which is one reason why we’re devoting more time into having… We’re going to have, for instance, a Boston Early Music Channel. We’re going to be the first folks in the country to have a dedicated one.
Have you got Joel Cohen on board?
I’ve talked with Joel about this. And Tom Kelly is going to be doing things for us …
Yes, early music is big in Boston. But so is contemporary music. Can you do the same thing for it?
That’s one of the things on the drawing board. I look at what WQXR is doing with Q-2. Very impressive service. It makes me want to do something similar here. I think there is as much energy around contemporary music here as there is in New York.
Why do you think Concierto, a classical music program presented in Spanish and English, is important?
This show was an idea of mine. I feel very firmly about it. When I surveyed this country and learned that there are 46,000,000 people of Latino extraction, and then I see that there are 838 Spanish language radio stations and not a single one plays classical music. The population of greater Boston is now 15% Hispanic. And are we saying, as I have heard some listeners say, that there is no need to play classical music in Spanish for those people?
But how are you going to get that audience?
This is for me a tremendous opportunity. Look at what someone like Alondra de la Parra, Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, have done. The time has come for looking South of the Border. When I was talking with people at NEC recently, they told me about their Latin American Orchestra, something I hadn’t known about. This isn’t just about creating a gateway into classical music for those people who might be working on construction sites, it is about promoting and servicing an entire culture and showing that you are being truly representative of your community. I discovered when I worked in Charlotte was that this opened bridges for an entire middle class of educated people of Hispanic origin who never had anybody make the effort to talk to them before. Will this be an instant ratings success? I don’t think so. But I promise you the programming mix you will find on Concierto will be very interesting. You’ll hear more Ernesto Lecuona and perhaps Ernesto Nazareth or Montoya or perhaps Barrios [Mangoré] and that’s a different narrative, but that’s not to say that the programming is exclusively Hispanic. You’ll also hear Nigel Kennedy, and the programming will feature de la Parra or de Burgos. We did this whole series, “Mexico at 200” last year with music from the conquistadors to Chavez and Mexican musicians of their golden age.
Are you getting enough funding from management to get the talent to do all the things you want to do?
I’m going to make a gentle suggestion with you to share with your readers: I think we’re doing a lot of amazing, great stuff on the air right now. I expect that a lot of your readers are not actually listening to the station. I’ll give you another example: We’ve been doing this great series on the last four Saturdays on the Sendai Philharmonic with James David Jacobs. We’re the only station in the country to have these recordings from this topical area of Japan. Our getting these was enterprise work on the part of my staff, so then we get calls from all these national producers asking about it. This is back to my topic of creating value.
You’re doing more with as much … you need better PR.
You’re right. Well, give me a chance. I’m only now beginning to put my stamp on the programming into what you hear and what we do. It’s like when you appoint a new music director of an orchestra — you have to live with the programming of his predecessor for a while. But I’m also really excited by our upcoming coverage of the Boston Early Music Festival. Some of it, like our recorded coverage of Niobe dovetails very well with NPR World of Opera, that, or Madame White Snake which won the Pulitzer prize, we now have a vehicle…
I have only one programming suggestion: It’s your spots. You don’t need to tell the people who are already listening how great classical music is over and over again. We already know that or we wouldn’t be tuned in. Those geeky spots about “Why I love classical music” were really annoying.
Actually one of the problems we have is that we don’t spend much time talking about what we do. We spend more times talking about what our television station is doing. But if you had been listening lately, you would not have heard any of the spots you refer to.
And I intend to have more spots for some of the things we are doing like our Kids show. And then we got no credit for doing (as participants in a network including WQXR and American Public Media) four live concerts from Carnegie Hall. I’m a firm believer that if you play the game you have to suit up.
Has this interview been comfortable for you?
Quite seriously, if there has been any take away, I welcome the discussion and the debate. One of the reasons I’m in Boston is it matters so much to people.
My last question for you then is, “Do you think the Intelligencer has been a positive force in this discussion?”
I have been a journalist. You know, my mom is a journalist, my grandparents were journalists. They taught me something very important: The editor always has the last word. There’s one thing about getting into a battle with any publication. they’re always going to have the last word.
That’s not entirely fair. BMInt gave WGBH’s communication honcho, Jeanne Hopkins the last word in our last article on the union negotiations. …
Do you think we have an agenda that’s gets in the way of our reporting?
Is there there’s something about reporting of the WGBH/WCRB story in general that really aggravates you or your colleagues?
If some philanthropic angel had swooped in at the last minute and donated $14 million and saved a full time classical music service on the air, they would be hailed, they would be front page news. I think that’s been totally lost in the WGBH-WBUR news battle is that WGBH reached into its own pocket and spent $14 million.
I have to say that to a certain extent WGBH was exercising self interest, because if you had simply dropped classical music like WBUR did twenty years ago, and left Boston with nothing, I think there would have been a massive exodus of listeners and contributors from WGBH. I think that would have been a PR nightmare.
Quite possibly, but in a terrible economic situation it was a huge sacrifice.
But the irony is, if I can believe my sources, WCRB is producing more listener contributions than WGBH radio, and it was expected to be the other way around. WCRB is not the weak link.
Oh, no, it’s not the weak link, but at the same time, as I said on the record, my job is to see that we perform better. I think we are under-performing.
So you would like to be back to a 3 market share if that’s an appropriate metric.
Sure it is an acceptable metric. But I don’t think you have to get there by playing wallpaper either.
But you can get there by increasing signal coverage and employing more announcers that people are loyal to, so that they automatically tune into week after week.
And to your earlier remark, I think we need better marketing and PR. Let me give you an anecdote: I was at a fundraising gala seated at a table with two long-time WGBH and WCRB listeners. One gives to From the Top and Back Bay Chorale among other things. And he asks, “How does your fundraising thing work?” Well, guess what? he was a WCRB listener and the “listener supporter” part he’s not heard. Another guy said, “I’m an old friend of Jon Abbot [WGBH President and CEO]. I wish you’d play more music during the day.” And I said, well, we’re actually now doing 24 hours of music. Brand new information. We may be in a bubble talking about these things, but how I get from a two to a three share? I think there’s a real need for us to re-introduce ourselves.