On September 29, BMInt Publisher Lee Eiseman interviewed Ben Roe, director of classical services for WGBH about the new Classical New England, and on the major changes to be made public today.
Eiseman: Ben, there’s going to be some big news on Monday. I gather we’re going to be hearing a lot less about WCRB, which will be but one of many stations carrying your content, and a lot more about a new brand.
Roe: As of Monday we become officially “Classical New England.” That is the name of our brand, really triggered by our partnership with the new Providence station [WJMF FM 88.7 in Smithfield, RI], and also because I’ve found that the website of 995allclassical-dot-org is a forgettable mouthful. We’re going to be classicalnewengland.org and Classical New England is going to be the name of our service wherever you find it or hear it. [Hereinafter CLNE]
We’re also going to be doing some major schedule changes.
Laura Carlo is going to be on from 5 am to 10 am every morning. Alan McLellan will take over the midday shift from 10 to 2, and Cathy Fuller will be the new Afternoon Drive host, from 2 pm to 7pm. We’re putting “Performance Today” on Mondays through Fridays; this coming Monday will be the first, from 7 pm to 9 pm, and will contain a lot of concert performances from Boston. In fact, Fred Child, the host of the show, will be at the studio on Friday to host a special taping in our studio with Marc-André Hamelin playing an all Liszt recital, to be aired nationwide [October 22 at 6 PM with a repeat the next day] on the composer’s 200th birthday. James David Jacobs will be on live from 9 pm to 1 am, except on Friday, when our bilingual program Concierto airs. So the American Public Media’s C-24 syndicated programming you hear on our station will now only run from 1 am to 5 am.
We’re adding a bunch of features as well, such as Cathy’s Drive Time Live – a “commuter concert” from Fraser [Recording Studio] every Friday at 4 pm. The first one will be with Sarah Chang. This is our way of leading into the weekend. Brian McCreath will take what he does on the web and become our arts scene “culture vulture.” He’s doing a story right now on NEC’s MahlerFest, which we recorded, by the way. We’re going to have a concert called Café Europa with Allan McLellan every weekday at noon, with live performances from England and Europe not available anywhere else. BSO on Record moves to Saturday nights, which will become “deep-dive BSO night.” From 7 pm to midnight it’s BSO, with the pregame show, the live broadcast and then The BSO on Record. The Sunday BSO rebroadcasts from 1 to 3 will be edited down to two hours. So there’ll be all of the music but less talk. Sunday from 3 to 5 will be our Sunday concert, but with a live Boston and regional focus. That’s where we’ll broadcast the NEC MahlerFest or the Handel and Haydn with Bezuidenhout or the Boston Phil. And we’re adding on Sunday nights at 10 the series from our friends at Chicago’s WFMT, the Thomas Hampson series, America in Song. Pipedreams and New England Summer Festivals, which have been doing very well, will also continue.
The story that originally prompted this interview, even before I also learned of the newsworthy announcement of Classical New England, was that the station would be repeating the Saturday night BSO broadcasts on Sunday afternoon and streaming them on CLNE for 14 days. This is really exciting and may represent a stronger relationship between WGBH and the BSO. Will you also have access to BSO archival content, and so on? Please fill us in.
Our first live broadcast of the BSO this season is going to be on Thursday, October 6. As you know, the BSO doesn’t usually present concerts on Thursday nights, but because of Yom Kippur, they have modified their schedule. So that means that this concert will be the exact 60th anniversary of when WGBH first went on the air — which was with a with a live BSO broadcast!
For me this is symbolic, because we are about to have the biggest, most transformative change in our broadcast of BSO concerts in 60 years — the very fact that we can repeat them. This is the outgrowth of the longest continuous relationship between a broadcaster and an orchestra in the country. It’s really stunning to remember how far back this goes. There’s Tanglewood, Pops, television broadcasts. But in all that time, we have been looking for ways that we can take advantage of our relationship that goes beyond the live event – which is over after it’s done. That was no longer competitive in the marketplace. The new arrangements with the BSO and their players give us much more latitude for re-use.
Three very important things are going to happen, with the potential for a fourth. Every Saturday night concert will be rebroadcast on Sunday afternoon. We also have the potential to offer it on the air one more time. My goal is that not a week should go by in any season in which you won’t hear a BSO concert on the air on both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. This is pretty remarkable. It will start on October 9. Second, on-demand streaming of the BSO concerts will then be available on classicalnewengland.org for a minimum of 14 days. The BSO players will get compensation for these additional media rights, but the details of that are between the BSO and its players. But the real important point is that the BSO and its players and WGBH are looking for ways to attract new audiences.
Point three is that we will able be able to offer the broadcasts to any station within the six New England states as well as to the Capitol region of New York. Our plan right now, since this is all quite new, is that leading up to the Tanglewood season, we will be offering concert broadcasts to all these stations. We’re having active discussions with many in the region about doing just that and hope to announce more on that subject very soon.
Right now, the Boston Symphony broadcasts will be available on demand from both our and the BSO’s website for a limited time period; but part four, and what excites me the most, is that WGBH and the BSO are in the midst of discussions about ways that we might be able to go deeper than that and surface some of the great broadcasts of the past. After all, we have a 60-year broadcast legacy that I submit is unparalleled among American orchestras!
This sounds almost like Mitchell Hasting’s Concert Network of the 1950s — WBCN, WHCN, WNCN, et cetera, brought back.
That’s right, though it’s not quite to that extent. But this is the first time that we will be able to have the BSO available in the six New England States and in upstate New York.
Another exciting possibility: We are actively exploring with the BSO ways that both of us can unlock the 60-year archival content. How can we find a way and a model to pay for making all of this amazing material available to the public and to generate some revenue for the musicians? These are all things I am anxious to do. But WGBH and the BSO are giant institutions, and we’re at this rare moment of comity, going beyond the broadcast relationship to what kind of a business relationship can we enter.
The BSO is apparently going to be making an announcement soon about major improvements to their website with new content, and so forth. Do you have any insight into what functions will be duplicative with CLNE’s offerings?
I don’t know whether you’d call them duplicative. The BSO is a big organization with many moving parts, as is WGBH. We’re taking on a pretty thorough overhaul of our classical website as well as our classical brand. And I’m sure the BSO is having similar conversations. There’s a perfect storm of opportunity between us, but at the same time we each have different mandates.
The BSO is hardly going to give CLNE exclusive use of their content, and they already have the BSO Media Center on their website, which I gather is going to be substantially expanded. But so far, the BSO is not ready to make an announcement.
Well, if you hear something let me know!
Is this new undertaking to bring BSO performances to a larger radio and internet audience something like the rebirth of the Transcription Trust? On the one hand, the BSO hires John Newton [the subject of a related interview here] to archive to the highest possible fi, the concerts which the BSO thinks most worthy, while at the same time, WCRB is recording every Saturday night concert for re-broadcast and on-line streaming.
To put it most simply, we own the broadcast production, we don’t necessarily own the music they perform, so that’s where it has been from the start, a fifty-fifty relationship. And although the Transcription Trust made sense for that time, now we’re in a different time.
Back to Thursday, October 6, are you going to air Aaron Copland’s wonderful intermission speech?
At least a piece of it.
Are you going to suppress the section where he praises WGBH’s plans to broadcast Friday and Saturday concerts to give listeners the chance to hear a new work twice?
We will be giving people a chance to hear the same piece multiple times with our Sunday re-broadcast and our 14-day streaming on demand on our website. So yes, in a modern way we are fulfilling Aaron Copland’s vision.
What about getting WGBH to simulcast the October 6 60th anniversary event, since it’s really WGBH’s anniversary?
We haven’t discussed that, though I have to say that the simulcast that we did on the Jordan Hall Concert of Remembrance on September 11 was our first ever, and I was very pleased with how it turned out.
Well, that may not have been the first simulcast. Weren’t there various experiments, first in the pre-multiplex days with stereo where WCRB broadcast one channel and WGBH the other? And also I recall some four-channel broadcasts, in which one station broadcast the front two channels and the other, the two rear channels.
Well, Lee, if you want to geek out on me, at least the first category may have been a simulcast between WGBH FM and WCRB AM. I remember sitting in my grandparents’ home in Sudbury and hearing that effect.
My last question on the BSO — and I know the answer, but I’m constantly being asked to pose it to you again. Will broadcast of Friday afternoon concerts come back any time soon?
It’s not going to happen. The simple fact of the matter is that we had to pick one, and for any variety of reasons it makes a lot more sense to record and broadcast live on Saturday nights. And it’s also a function of cost. And I am much happier offering twice as much BSO content to when people are actually in a position to hear it. Sunday afternoon is a far better time to hear a Symphony concert [than Friday afternoon].
As the population ages there will be more people at leisure on Friday afternoons.
I’ve noticed that after having experimented with a fair number of Friday night concerts, the BSO has been slowly increasing its Friday afternoon concerts – retired people prefer to go out in the daytime. I suspect Friday night concerts are becoming more problematic
Now to some general questions: CLNE has done many of the things that the Intelligencer suggested — not necessarily because we suggested them — I’m not that crazy. You’re out there recording local concerts in great numbers again, you’re streaming recordings of live concerts on your excellent website, you have a tremendous amount of new production and new content, the Tanglewood broadcast season was a big success, there are some great new shows on the weekends and starting today, on weekdays too — I’m really liking what I hear. I am hearing that from other people, too. Now it’s your chance to congratulate yourself.
Everything I have done with the classical service right now has been blindingly obvious. It has not been particularly difficult to implement what I thought were some very straightforward changes. This is not to knock anything that happened before my arrival. The new WCRB combining the two staffs was a work in progress. This is true both of financial performance and of ratings. The older WCRB’s commercial practices were wholly different from operating a non-commercial classical station. This had not happened in Boston in decades. Figuring out how to do that has taken us a while. I’m pleased with how it’s been going, but now it really will get interesting.
WCRB is certainly livelier since you’ve arrived.
Well, it’s not about what one person can do. It’s more about trying to create an atmosphere and an ethos both for what the staff does and how we spend our time. I don’t have a bigger budget; I don’t have more personnel.
You’re apparently making your entire staff work harder and many report being scared. Maybe that’s a way to get more out of people.
You can say some are slightly scared, but I think you could also say that we’re all pulling on the same oars.
But everyone realizes that if this doesn’t work that there aren’t going to be any jobs. So they are putting in longer hours — excited and exhausted at the same time.
One of the challenges I always have as a manager is to make what I believe are the right changes in a scalable and human way. It’s easy for us all to come up with one great show, but how do you do it again and again? This is something I learned first-hand producing a daily show for NPR for more than a decade. I’ve found that it’s psychologically difficult for some people in this business to hit a home run day after day. How do I create something that is sustainable? But, yes, I probably do call on people to use more of their time than they had in the past.
I can see how this might be scary, since you entered the scene after a relatively sustained period of relationship between talent and management. You’re the new guy and you were hired to shake things up. You have to evaluate everyone’s performance. You would not be a good manager if you didn’t.
There’s shared mission and there’s shared risk. I’ve been following the Boston scene long enough to know that there are some aspects of the place that are checkered. At the same time, I’m also here to tell you that one of the miracles is that the bureaucracy of WGBH actually encourages me to achieve things. I have found tremendous support across the board to implement the changes that I have wanted to make.
The rating numbers for WCRB have not looked good since you arrived. For August the Arbitron share for WCRB should at 1.2. That’s a third of what it was before WGBH took over and half of what it was last summer. Is this a disappointment?
I wouldn’t use the word “disappointment.” And I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-esque about this either, but there is a national trend that we were all discussing at a convention last week. Throughout the country, classical broadcasters have experienced significant ratings drops. I saw a rather alarming slide that showed a bar graph, but I can’t really believe that three million people across the country have stopped listening to classical music in a year. But the ratings drop is belied by the membership support WCRB has been enjoying. The May and August campaigns, the first two on my watch, have exceeded their goals. The last day of our August campaign produced one the largest pledge totals in WGBH history.
But I don’t want to just blame Arbitron as the messenger. In some ways, the changes I made on the weekends might have made things a bit worse before it makes them better. And we’ve been hampered by the fact that I have not had a regular afternoon announcer since the end of January. It’s a function of radio in general and classical radio in particular that audiences grow very attached to the familiar voice that their used to hearing. It was very difficult for us to lose Ray Brown in January, and I’m thrilled that he’s back for some fill in.
My final thought on the ratings is that September looks very encouraging.
I don’t have easy access to the hour-by-hour Arbitron ratings, so could you tell me if some of your new shows are gaining traction and what market share have some of the most successful achieved?
Well our highest share now is on weekends, where during certain times periods we’ve had close to a 3 share. But you have to be careful looking at rating snapshots, because there is volatility week by week or hour by hour. Longer term, my ratings trendline is not something I have been pleased with, but I fully expect that’s going to change.
Either ratings will change or you will be changed in the next year!
That’s right, and if I don’t fix that they’ll find somebody else to do it. It’s that simple — it’s the business of radio.
By the way, were still waiting to hear your plans for the improvement of reception in Boston.
All I can say is that we’re aware of the problem.
According to last year’s form 990 there was a $45-million operating deficit for the WGBH Foundation, of which WCRB is a small component. And I gather from what I heard during fundraising that there will be another deficit this year.
I can’t speak to the form 990 and our books for this fiscal year yet, but I can say that there’s no extra money. No one’s giving me a bigger budget.
That’s why when you do a new hire it must be a replacement for someone who left or was fired….
Let me stop you right there. I didn’t fire anybody. I have changed jobs and changed positions.
Well, I have to ask you, since many people have asked me about it. What happened to Alice Abrahams? Is there anything you can say about her departure?
Just as we have talked about the change between the Transcription Trust and where we are in the 21st century, one of my jobs is to balance resources with activity. Alice had a part-time position that we eliminated because it wasn’t consistent with the urgent priorities of what we need to do now. It’s really that simple.
Is Cheryl Willoughby in some ways Alice’s replacement?
Cheryl’s is an entirely new job with new responsibilities. She is the first music director we have ever had.
Why does CLNE need a music director for a production staff of six to eight people who all know a great deal about classical music programming?
Because one of the challenges that we have is that I really inherited three different stations. There were different sounds in the morning, a certain sound in the afternoon, and another sound from C24 [automated feed from American Public Media] in the evenings. So you say you are listening to 99.5 all-classical, but which one of the three do you hear?
The role of the music director is to help me create consistent programming across the board. For instance, if we do a great performance in Fraser, why can’t it air on Laura Carlo’s show? Then we might have a New England Festivals program on Saturday night excerpted on Monday morning. The station needs someone who can step back and see the whole week. It’s not that we want to program what every classical host plays on a daily basis. Cheryl’s job is to help me figure out an overall programming scheme, and that really comes down to how we think about the music that we play and what people are doing at the time we play it. There are lots of listeners with very different tastes, and I’ve got to find what we call “the secret sauce.” Every programmer has got the hubris to think his or hers is the best. But ultimately it’s the market that decides.
Are there rivalries among the announcers and producers based on whose shows have the best ratings?
People have a general idea about their ratings, but it’s as if you were to look at hit rates for your various writers, would you decide never to use someone again because of that?
A number of people, including a head of another radio station, have asked why you program your Sunday night opera program directly opposite WHRB’s.
I find this fascinating. I’m thrilled that WHRB has had its longstanding tradition of playing opera on Sunday night. I don’t program my station — which now reaches an audience of five New England states — based on what WHRB is doing. I program based on what I think satisfies my audience in five states. Particularly where I bristle a little is that in our opera programming we are producing and presenting from Glyndebourne, Vienna State Opera, Washington National Opera… you know we just had Domingo! We’re not spinning discs! There’s great care and craft in our production. This is the best live music program in America around opera. And it’s also a forum for us to do Madame White Snake and many other local operas, and we hope to do more. It’s also my goal to record and air the local productions, and so we’re in negotiations with the opera companies. Look at what we did with the Opera Bash. For eleven years WGBH television has done it and it’s been virtually ignored on the radio, and this year we embraced it. We had Lisa Simeone, host of World of Opera, doing all of the continuity on television, and we broadcast two full-length operas on ‘CRB. We did Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and Lully’s Atys. And we did a whole weekend of “Opera Without Words,” we called it. This is not about a competition with WHRB. I think it’s terrific you have classical music choices in Boston. How many places do you have that?
It would be nice if one or both of the stations would stream the choices to offer determined individuals to hear both offerings.
Ours are already available on demand. Commercially recorded operas you can’t offer on demand because of copyright regulations. The other thing about this too, Lee, is, step back a moment. There’s a reason why we do opera on Sunday night, and probably a similar reason why WHRB does. On Saturday nights we have this thing called the Boston Symphony Orchestra. What do we do on Sunday afternoon? Well, now there’s the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it’s also our time period to showcase Boston Philharmonic or Handel and Haydn. Who knows, perhaps Rhode Island Philharmonic, now that we have a partnership with Bryant College and a transmitter there? If I look at the weekend schedule, where is the logical place for me to put the opera show? If I put it on Saturday afternoon to compete with WHRB’s Met Opera broadcasts you’d have every right to scream.
Do you have any intention of trying to grab the Met Broadcasts?
I don’t think that’s an option, precisely because of what you say about on-demand and streaming rights. I think the Met needs to catch up in this area.
Might there be another area of streaming intended to offer something simpler — classical background music of the sort that WCRB once sent out as a sub carrier? Some excellent examples of this are out there now, such as DMX’s Sonic Tab, with endless streams of nicely programmed music in various categories and no talk. Jessica is a great programmer there. That stream is very effective at banishing teenagers from shopping malls. Will CLNE’s excellent website ever offer such channels?
You’ve noticed that we’ve recently added three online streams: The Boston Early Music Channel, a BSO Channel, a Kids Classical channel. I’d like to have three more by the end of the year. We certainly believe that online we offer a great resource, and we have great potential for reaching people across the world. We have significant numbers in Germany, the UK, and Japan already. So will it be free of talk? Possibly at some point…
Frankly I’m much more worried about the competition from Pandora and Spotify, not WBUR or WHRB. Seeing their share numbers rise, that’s what keeps me up at night. Although I think listeners will benefit from this competition, how do we compete with them in a public space where we’re not selling you anything? At the same time how do I remain relevant and in business?