in: News & Features

June 20, 2013

Tanglewood on the Air Again

by

As it has for many years, 99.5 WCRB Classical New England will broadcast some of the BSO’s summer season from Tanglewood. Hosts Cathy Fuller and Ron Della Chiesa will host broadcasts of 25 BSO concerts from the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The opening night concert is scheduled for July 5th at 8pm. According to Benjamin K. Roe, managing director of WCRB Classical New England, “The BSO’s Tanglewood performances are the embodiment of what we are always looking to present: great music in a relaxing and welcoming setting.” A link to the Tanglewood Festival season is here. But according to sources, there will be changes.

For one thing, rather than doing its own engineering, WCRB will rely on the same technicians who provide the audio to lawn patrons, because James Donahue, who was in the Tanglewood control room for 21 seasons, will be gone — the victim of budget cuts.

The continuing departures of staff at WCRB (among them longtime producer Brian Bell), can likely be attributed in part to loss of underwriting revenues as the WCRB audience share dwindles. Just before WGBH bought WCRB, in November 2009, the then commercial classical radio station had a market share of 3. Now it’s a 1.5 share. In other words, despite following BMInt’s and its readers’ advice to broadcast a lively and sophisticated mix of live concerts, many of them local, and despite the ministrations of lively hosts, WCRB has lost half its listeners since WGBH took over. The energetic manager Ben Roe has been unable to reverse the decline.

And upper management is apparently concerned enough to have engaged a consultant, Anthony Rudel, the son of the famous conductor, Julius Rudel. WGBH’s media relations director, Michael Raia, told BMInt that Rudel’s mission is to “help WCRB and Classical New England engage their audiences. When one of our hosts plays an 18th-century piece, we have to do a better job of connecting that with today’s Boston.” We may not all be thrilled with the chirpier format changes this augurs.

21 Comments

  1. The question is why what they’ve been doing since WGBH took over has lost half the audience. Not chirpy enough? Too chirpy? There seems to be an assumption on Michael Raia’s part that the audience needs help to connect with 18th century music. Is that really the problem?

    Can they get more specific about audience share hour by hour or program by program? What “works,” if anything?

    Do they need two stations: one to pull in the audience and the dollars, and the other to play the stuff the BMInt wants? Before “the change” was WCRB financially viable? What would happen if it went back to being the WCRB of the good old days (before the extremely narrow, top 40 playlist) and the old ‘GBH got resurrected on the HD2 channel?

    The main thing for me is that the BSO live broadcasts continue undiminished. Here’s hoping that they can figure it out and keep going.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 21, 2013 at 11:49 pm

  2. The poor quality of the WCRB signal in Boston (even in mono) may also contribute to the dwindling number of WCRB listeners (and the collateral contributor/financial attrition), whereas the stereo signals from both WGBH and WHRB continue to be received in stereo and in excellent sound.

    Comment by David RJ — June 22, 2013 at 10:24 am

  3. And another thing: doubtless some of the lost 1.5 have taken to listening over the web. Is there any way of figuring out how many? That’s kind of important.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

  4. My immediate reaction to hearing that ratings have fallen after tweaking the station to do more of what classical-music lovers want is, “Well, of course.” People who already like classical music — i.e., want it for more than aural wallpaper — are a small part of the population. Of course ratings will be low if you cater to a small part of the population.

    The Smithsonian magazine’s food issue just published an article about why we like what we like. The data turn out to be amazingly similar for music and for food, and the answer, in large part, is we don’t know; but we do know that people don’t like what they don’t know. It takes, on average, nine (9) exposures to a new thing before people start to like it.

    Classical music is not part of the general culture even to the extent it was when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Film music, sure; I had a coworker say that the Mahler I was listening to sounded like film music to him. So classical music is unknown, and therefore not (yet?) liked, by most of the population.

    The real question is not, “Why are the ratings low?”, but, “What are the finances?” Is the sum of (a) donations and (b) sponsorship (presumably from companies that want this specific audience) sufficient to cover costs? How much of that total is siphoned off to pay the mortgage on 1 Guest St? or to cover costs for television?

    As a “member” since 1975, I’d like to be treated as a partner in financial decisions about the future of the station. I don’t expect that WGBH management thinks of the members that way, or they’d open the books and tell us their plans before asking for money.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — June 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm

  5. I listen to CRB almost exclusively more than half the livelong day, probably, almost all of it online; I sure hope that’s reflected in numbers, but now I fear not. Also a supporter, almost nonstop, for >40y. In some ways it seems better than ever, all the live performances.

    Comment by David Moran — June 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm

  6. Since I managed to get a decent antenna at work, I listen to WCRB almost all day, too, over the air (analog FM). I’m pretty certain that isn’t reflected in the ratings, either. I don’t think it matters whether you listen over the air or over the Internet. Ratings seem to be done by small samples. If they’re anything like political polling, there’s a margin of error between 3 and 8 percentage points (depending on sample size and response rate). If the value you’re trying to measure comes out smaller than the error bars, I think the measurement is simply untrustworthy.

    No ratings agency has asked me what I listen to for at least the past 15 years. So it doesn’t matter how much I listen, or to what. Also, you’d think that if they were trying to measure a change in listening behavior that they would ask the same people each time, to see if their behavior had changed; do they?

    Does anyone (outside the ratings companies) know exactly how the ratings data are collected?

    Comment by Mark Fishman — June 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  7. Arbitron may or may not be able to survey the online listeners to Classical New England, but the station can tell very precisely how many people are attached to their streams at any given moment. If those numbers made a significant difference in the overall listener numbers, I expect that WGBH management would take them into account; my guess is that they’re pretty small compared with radio listeners.

    I conducted a careful listening comparison of the BSO broadcasts, published here at https://classical-scene.com/2013/02/08/12-ways/. And as a full-season Saturday-night subscriber and a charter member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I’ve heard the BSO in situ regularly for many years. The sound that WCRB/WGBH has been getting from Symphony Hall, with the engineering of Jim Donahue, has been very good, especially via the on-demand stream and BSO Concert Channel (both of which avoid the dynamic compression of the radio broadcasts and live stream). But I fear that the latest round of cost-cutting threatens what has been achieved in this area.

    Frankly, I hope that the BSO takes on the production of its own concert broadcasts and recordings, so that the highest quality standards can be maintained and improved. (Most orchestras now source whatever CDs they’re able to release from concert recordings, so the BSO’s interest in these recordings extends beyond WGBH’s needs.)

    As for the general state of things at WCRB/WGBH, it may well be the case that a dumbed-down “top 40 classics” format will produce better listenership numbers than the current interesting programming–with its wealth of concert broadcasts, in-studio performances, and informative commentary. If so, that’s a sad state of affairs. And I wonder whether the contribution levels of listeners like me, who are dedicated to quality in classical-music programming, will be negatively affected in a way that impacts WGBH.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — June 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

  8. A number of commenters on this site have expressed concern about attracting new people to classical music (usually in reference to the supposed graying of the audience at Symphony Hall — which has been happening since 1956 at the latest); a number are upset at having chirpy announcers and a top 40 playlist on the radio. I hope it’s not the same people.

    My hope is that somehow a balance can be achieved. My impression is that the folks at WCRB are doing their durndest to develop an audience for something more than top 40, and I think they deserve our gratitude and support.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 24, 2013 at 5:24 pm

  9. Interesting idea from Joe: that the folks who want more people to listen to classical music shouldn’t be the same people who think a “top-40 (or 100) pieces” format would be bad. Why not?

    I’m glad you asked. A top-howevermany format might attract people who do not wish to be challenged by something they haven’t heard before. It might attract people who don’t want to have their attention drawn to the radio instead of whatever else they are doing while the radio plays in the background. That might raise ratings; but would it add to the number of people who like the music?

    I have no objection to playing warhorses. Popular pieces become popular for many reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Limiting the playlist to warhorses, though, is a real problem for me. It doesn’t grow the audience, and it doesn’t help those already in the audience stay alive.

    BBC Music magazine has been running an interesting feature for several years, and I think it would be workable on radio also. Paraphrasing, if you like [familiar piece], you might like [eight less familiar pieces] that each have something in common with the piece you already like. Use the top 40 as jumping off points, in other words, to explore far more of the treasure that has accumulated in the last millenium.

    The thing about classical music, that people who don’t love it find hard to grasp, is that it’s not all the same, and not everyone will like the same things, but somewhere in the vast body of work there is going to be something that a given individual will like. Cab drivers who like Berg, college professors who like Monteverdi, hippies who like both Mahler and Gregorian chant: if you don’t play some of everything, you write off large chunks of the population and reinforce the stereotype that classical music is elitist and irrelevant for most people.

    Because classical music isn’t part of the atmosphere anymore, as I said earlier, a radio station has to work harder to expose people to more of it. Especially for a station whose mission is both education and also serving parts of the public who aren’t well-served by commercial stations, giving up and playing only familiar pieces means accepting the idea that classical music isn’t worth selling. It’s lazy and irresponsible, and it means letting lazy and irresponsible people win.

    Art makes us better people. Becoming better people takes work. If no one (including you) prods you to become a better person, you probably won’t. And there will be people who refuse anyway. But don’t take away the chance for some to become listeners, and lovers, by restricting classical radio to a short playlist.

    As to “chirpy”, that’s not the same as enthusiastic. I don’t like “chirpy”. I’m not a chirpy person (anyone who’se ever met me is probably nodding ethusiastically right now). But enthusiasm is great. Share it. Don’t tell me what I should feel, tell me what you feel, and why. The very best teachers let us know how much and why they love their subjects. So enthusiastic annoucners make the best salespeople for classical music.

    Just don’t chirp. That’s for the birds, and Robert J. already recorded those.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — June 25, 2013 at 7:11 am

  10. Well put, Mark.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 25, 2013 at 1:11 pm

  11. Too chirpy, too enthusiastic?The BSO co-hosting is too much. I turn them off and listen to the podcast with the yack on mute. As bad as the TV sports announcers.

    Comment by Stephen Marcus — June 25, 2013 at 2:38 pm

  12. To clarify my previous: In general I thought Mark expressed pretty well what I Hope CRB can manage to do. As I said, I think it may not be easy to get the perfect balance.

    But when it comes to “chirpy” announcers, I suppose most people mean Laura Carlo. For the record, I don’t have any problem with Laura Carlo. In fact I like her cheerful demeanor and enthusiasm for the music.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 25, 2013 at 5:59 pm

  13. The WCRB signal is really poor in my Brookline location, but the WHRB signal is good.
    I am lucky enough to have a vacation house in the Berkshires. WFCR plays much more interesting music than WCRB and has more informative commentary. Why can’t we have someone like Robert J. Lurtsema or JD Jacobs AND a good signal?

    Comment by Philip Sandler — June 25, 2013 at 11:29 pm

  14. I have to agree. I don’t have a problem with Ms. Carlo during her morning programs (M-F and Sunday). I am a bit confused by the ping-pong approach to co-hosting the BSO and Pops broadcasts, though, as the two hosts seem to alternate sentences. It doesn’t seem to make a difference which pair of hosts are involved; there’s no clear delineation of function, like there is in a sports announcing team (one play-by-play, one color commentary) — although trying that would remind me of PDQ Bach On the Air doing play-by-play for Beethoven’s 5th.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — June 26, 2013 at 7:51 am

  15. Encouraged by Stephen Owades’s research, I’ve begun listening to the BSO “On Demand” rebroadcasts.
    First, I note that the selections are not searchable, neither by artist, nor composer, nor date(s).
    I concur that there is not the drastic compression of the live feeds, FM and on-line. But the sound varies widely, from a bright Stravinsky Nightingale (soloists over-miked), to a wooly Beethoven 4th, to a dead-acoustic Bruckner 4th. Listening levels also vary. I wonder, aside from highlighting soloists, does Mr. Donahue change the miking with the performance?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — June 26, 2013 at 7:55 am

  16. I see: Switch the classical station to a low-powered frequency, get rid of some of the smartest people around, and then complain that no one listens anymore. Oh well, as they urge in the fast food industry, when in doubt, and bacon and cheese. However, the loss of Jim Donahue not major — he’s the one responsible for the extreme, close multimiking of concerts. Maybe we’ll now get someone who believes in science?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — June 26, 2013 at 6:17 pm

  17. I wrote: “I see: Switch the classical station to a low-powered frequency, get rid of some of the smartest people around, and then complain that no one listens anymore.”

    I should have added: Make sure you play 15 to 20 mins/hour of baroque music.

    Add bacon and cheese, by the way.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — June 27, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  18. Philip writes: “I am lucky enough to have a vacation house in the Berkshires. WFCR plays much more interesting music than WCRB and has more informative commentary. Why can’t we have someone like Robert J. Lurtsema or JD Jacobs AND a good signal?”

    Because the fashion in public radio today is to listen to what so-called consultants say will keep listeners tuned in. And then they try it for years and years and years and they _still_ lose listeners. Now, they suggest that you switch classical over to LP transmitters, play 20 mins/hour of baroque music, fail to identify conductors, play isolated movements and have Chatty Kathys announce.

    Guess what? They’re still tanking. It’s happened to WMHT-FM/Schenectady-Troy for 10 years and they still keep the mastermind of that disaster at the helm. The stoopids are in charge and they’re not gonna let go, ever.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — June 28, 2013 at 2:28 pm

  19. Don Drewecki writes of the decision to “switch the classical station to a low-powered frequency.” But if memory serves that’s not exactly what happened here.

    As I recall it WGBH bought 99.5 at a point where 102.5 was going or had already gone to another broadcaster, and WCRB on 99.5 also would have been sold to purchasers who would have made it a sports talk station if WGBH hadn’t bought it, thus claiming that they were saving classical music radio for Boston.

    Of course, they had a choice of frequencies over which to broadcast the classical music and they decided that it was more important to duplicate much of WBUR’s syndicated news and current events talk radio rather than to transmit the music over 89.7, which hadn’t been just a classical station. So it may be more precise to say they decided not to switch the classical station to a high-powered frequency.

    And we’re left with the threat that if we don’t support WCRB, even it will go away. So I support WCRB, and I hope everybody else will do so, despite the many poor decisions by the management over the years. To me it still seems that they are trying to find the balance of programming that will attract and hold audiences (and if the shift from 102.5 to 99.5 occurred just before the purchase by WGBH, maybe it’s the frequency, not the content, that’s the problem) and at least they’re giving us the BSO, which is enough reason to want them to survive.

    P.S. There were people who found Saint Robert J. intolerable. (I wasn’t one of them.)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 29, 2013 at 2:36 pm

  20. WCRB had moved from Waltham (102.5) to Lawrence (99.5) in December, 2006, three years before the WGBH purchase. The statistics I cited showed the decline after the WGBH acquisition.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 30, 2013 at 10:06 am

  21. So signal strength apparently wasn’t the problem, which suggests that it was playlists. That’s scary.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 30, 2013 at 10:34 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.