In the past couple of weeks BMInt readers have been trying to fathom the changes they have perceived in the programming at WCRB. I’ve heard about this in questions directed to me personally as well as in comments appended to strings where they were not really germane.
It seems likely to us that the station is backing away somewhat from the programming improvements we applauded after Manager of Classical Services Ben Roe arrived. The focus on live recordings of local performances has not seemingly resonated with listeners. Nor do ratings show that the many other lively and interesting shows produced by Roe have been able to find large, loyal audiences.
Over the years numerous members of the staff have been sacrificed, apparently at the altar of cost savings. This can’t continue unless the station wishes to become a classical jukebox. Because finances at the WGBH Foundation don’t seem to have improved in the last couple of years as those of other large non-profits have, there may be no alternatives to the new approach.
Lee Eiseman spoke with Benjamin K. Roe, Manager of Classical Services for WGBH, and Michael Raia, WGBH Director of Media Relations & Marketing.
Lee Eiseman: Ben, BMInt readers are very interested in hearing your précis of the fall programming from Classical New England, both on the web, which I gather is gaining popularity, and over the air. Many of the questioners are long-time CRB supporters who are yearning for your answers. Tell us about the changes listeners can expect from WCRB.
Benjamin K. Roe: The first change is the most important: really embracing the idea of being more live and more local more of the time. So we’ve actually increased our hours of live local programming. Starting this fall, our regular hosts are now on the air all the way from five AM until midnight on weekdays. So we will basically have local programming all the way from five AM until midnight Monday through Friday with the only exception being Concierto, our bilingual classical program, which runs from ten PM to midnight on Friday nights.
Some of the other changes we’ve instituted during the weekdays include adding repeats of our Boston Symphony Orchestra live broadcasts on Monday nights instead of Sunday. I think that’s a really good timeslot for them—the BSO is traditionally dark that night. And one of the things that people who’ve been to Symphony Hall often ask us is—when can we here that concert again? So it’s a great chance to do it on Monday night. We think it can be the kind of appointment listening the same way that people listen to the live broadcasts on Saturday nights.
But when you say local, then, do you mean locally produced in terms of the hosting and the record spinning or do you mean locally recorded?
BKR: I’m talking about locally produced and hosted. I don’t actually make a distinction between whether or not it’s something that’s pre-recorded or something that we’ve made in the studio, but the fact of the matter is that something like 75% of all the programming you hear is made right here in Guest Street, either in the studio, in the production studio, or on location.
You mean as opposed to commercial CDs, they’re groups that have been recorded locally either by you or by somebody else. . .
BKR: No, I’m talking about a production thing—the source material can be any number of places—it can be something we’ve recorded in Frasier, on location, or with a commercial CD.
OK. So it’s locally produced as opposed to coming from some syndicate.
BKR: Or Chicago, or Minnesota, or Washington, or anywhere else.
But that doesn’t mean more live recordings of local groups.
BKR: Right. But Lee, it is important to note that the on-air talent is live from 5 AM to midnight five days a week. We’ve now expanded that on Sundays where our local talent is now on Saturdays it’s from 6 AM all the way through our BSO productions, and then on Sundays we’re now live with local productions from 6 AM all the way until 6 PM.
Before I do any more pushback, I’d like you to characterize some of the individual shows?
BKR: Sure. James Davids Jacobs has moved out of his producer’s role into being the host for our Sunday morning programing, both for Baroque in Boston, as well as a program we’ve just introduced called the Boston Sunday Brunch. I’m really excited about this show because I think it’s going to be a real destination for people on Sunday mornings—and it’s a way to pair up James and his incredible musical knowledge with a time of day where a lot of people that may not have a chance to listen to us during the week can listen on the weekends. And I think he’s going to put together just a fantastic, interesting, blend of music starting with the Baroque but really moving beyond that. That show will go all the way now until noon on Sundays.
On Saturdays, I’m thrilled that we have Dennis Boyer back on the air with us. You may remember him from his days on WBUR. One of the great voices in Boston classical radio, and he’s now our regular Saturday afternoon host. I’ve mentioned we’re doing the BSO repeats now on Monday nights. WGBH Arts Editor Jared Bowen is now with us on Thursday mornings doing his arts previews with Laura Carlo. And we’ve refocused our “Keith’s Classical Corner” segments as well. I’m really proud of the seven-year association WCRB has had with Keith Lockhart. But it was really getting to be a little difficult for Keith and his schedule to be on the air with us five days a week. So he’s now on Wednesday mornings, so we’ve reframed the discussions to be, I think, a little more personal and insightful from Keith’s perspective from behind the podium. And so far we’ve been really gratified by the response. One thing that we’ve introduced, if you’ve noticed on our website, there’s now a pretty extensive build out on the website for people to submit their questions and comments to Keith and that has really gotten a bit of traction.
Some of the other changes on the weekends: I mentioned that Dennis Boyer is now on Saturday afternoons, and Larry King is on the air now on Sunday afternoons. And From the Top is now in the more family- friendly hour of 7:00 pm in the evenings after the choral program.
Now I’m going to take a minute to talk about the choral program. Last spring we inaugurated a program with Anthony Trecek-King of the Boston Children’s Chorus called Together in Song. We’ve forged a program partnership with WQXR in New York where we’re doing six months of a choral show, and now they’re doing six months of a choral show. So as of this beginning of this month we’re running their program called The Choral Mix hosted by Kent Tritle, the head of Musica Sacra and music director at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. So we’ll be airing Kent’s program for six months while we create some new episodes of Together in Song for when it returns in April
Can you tell us what familiar shows are being cancelled to make room for this new programming?
BKR: There are some programs that we’ve moved, some that we’re putting on hiatus, and some programs that are going to be only on the web. Our New England Summer Festivals program is on hiatus right now while we kind of reexamine it and frankly think about to make it more effective. For me, it’s not just a question of the concept of the show, but also for if you’re just randomly finding it on your dial, you have to ask yourself, “What’s the quality of the production, what’s the quality of the music, and just what is the music?” In its current context, the program has run its course, and we’re going to step back and reexamine how effective it is. We’ve also moved Performance Today as you know, from five days a week to one day a week. This is a show that means a great deal to me and I think it’s important to have a national connection to what happens in the world of music. But I was disappointed in what we were hearing in terms of the production and the quality of the show, and frankly from the audience response.
Well, what about locally recorded material overall this year compared with last year, say? I do gather there is going to be less of it, whether that will be something that people lament or not, I don’t know.
BKR: We have been very deliberately stepping back and doing a lot of behind the scenes infrastructure changes over the last few months. We’re about to ramp back up with our studio performances. They’re going to take on a different kind of size and dimension: They’re not going to be as long, but they’re going to be more frequent. The idea being that, like it is with everything in radio, a great five minutes, five days a week is better than a mediocre hour once a week. And that really is what we’re leaning towards. So our Fraser studio performances will be back, I think they’re going to be better than ever. But we had some important reexamining to do. We’ve been spending a lot of time in discussion with our members really trying to figure out the best way we can provide a great showcase and be engaged in the arts.
The whole thing we’re trying to do here is that we need to be able to reach a broader cross-section of the audience to make more of an impact, to be a more significant force in the community and help all of the arts groups here survive and thrive, as well as to fulfill our primary obligation to create a great listening experience for our audience.
I kind of buried the lead here, Lee, but by virtue of the fact of how we’ve been taking a hard look at not only our music strategy and programming, but also ALL of the components of a broadcast hour, that we’re now probably playing approximately 20% more music each given hour of the day. This is one reason why we want to be more live and local because we can actually provide more music programming.
Does that mean, though, that we’re going to need to shorten our attention spans? That there might be five minutes of live music, then one movement of a larger piece, and then something else? Will the audience will hear more of a mix so we don’t have to sit through long tedious interviews, some of which are brilliant, some of which are not? You said we’d have five minute sections of live performances. Does that mean we’re going to have five minute sections of longer pieces also?
BKR: I would hope, Lee, that you never hear a long tedious interview on my radio station! Seriously, we spend a lot of time and brainpower on our interview segments. Whether it’s The Bach Hour with Brian McCreath, Cathy Fuller’s excellent Arias and Barcarolles program, or the interviews you hear on our BSO broadcasts, you may hear a choice nugget on the air, and usually you’ll hear the much deeper contextualized interview online, or on a podcast, or on one of our mobile apps.
The whole goal for radio listening is really, what’s the listening experience? What is a great listening experience? If you’ve got the choice, if you’re in your car, you’ve got a choice among Magic, or maybe sports talk, or maybe news, or classical. When you hit “classical,” what are you going to get? What can I do to help you stay there and stay with me a little bit longer?
And what I’m hearing is that you plan to keep me interested by not overdoing any one aspect of what you’re offering.
BKR: I think that’s correct. I agree with that.
So there will be more single movements? What I’m trying to get at is are you going to sound more like Nassau (the former owner of WCRB) although with strong local hosts providing the glue that holds it all together?
BKR: Well, asking if “we’re going to sound like Nassau” is really an apples and oranges comparison. We’re not Nassau and we’re not the old WGBH. How many movements do you think we’re playing right now?
Well, I sometimes hear pieces played all the way through but I also have the sense segments are shorter than they used to be. That depends on the time of day, obviously.
BKR: Obviously it depends on the time of day. It’s why for example we’ve introduced the “Symphony at Eight,” which seems to be getting a very nice response. People have different listening expectations at different times of the day. One thing that I’m very interested in doing is connecting with people and not giving them a programming that you might have heard of sometimes that’s called “eat your spinach.” Obviously we have a mission to serve, to educate, and to inform, and we’re always going to honor that. Last Saturday night, we had the live Boston Symphony broadcast of a new work by Thomas Adès next to a piece by Charles Ives. That is not done for ratings, but it’s important and vital that we offer that on the radio. As we do with offering live opera productions on Sunday night, or Pipedreams for aficionados of organ music. But it’s equally important for folks that may tune us in on Sunday morning, or the middle of the day, that the music is suited to that time of day and to what their expectations are.
People want to have the jukebox play what they want to hear when they put their nickels in, and that’s going to be lighter stuff when they’re driving.
BKR: The jukebox is one of those terms that’s negatively loaded. The whole point of great music programming is how you create the blend: There are the pieces that you recognize, those “tentpoles” you can grab onto. But at the same time discovering the unexpected, being surprised, hearing something quirky, hearing something that is delightful. I will tell you that I think everything we play on the air should sound, in one way or another, great. We don’t have room and time to play bad music.
That’s WHRB’s secret—that David Elliott hadm made sure that nobody can play any bad performances because there aren’t any in their library. So weeding out your record library to make sure nobody can accidentally play bad music would be a wonderful solution.
BKR: Well, yes it would.
Let me ask you a couple of the other things that people are asking me about. Clearly there have been financial strains and people have had to be let go, and you’re on the radio yourself often running a board, or talking, or hosting. What we can’t find out looking at form 990s and publicly available data, is how much of this is the problem of the radio station itself, and how much is the problem of the foundation as a whole? I have the sense that contributions are great and underwriting is great at CRB and to some extent the classical radio is paying for the errors made in judgments at a higher level, and yet there’s no way of getting a grip at that. The available reports are silent on these issues.
BKR: On the subject of having to cover air shifts, I’ve got to cover Cathy Fuller’s air shift in about two minutes. So I’m going to hand it at this point over to Michael Raia who’s going to be happy to take on that question.
MR: On the subject of the funding picture for non-profits, with WGBH among them, we see things fluctuate month to month, we see things fluctuate from year to year. You can take a look at our public records that we make available, including our IRS Form 990. Or you can go on our website and take a look at our annual report, which can give you an understanding of what our funding environment looks like. But I cannot go into the specifics of what WCRB or WGBH or others are bringing in.
Right, that seems to be unknowable from the published material. But we know that radio, and classical radio in particular, is a very small percentage of the overall revenue and expenditures. But that’s all we know and we don’t see a breakdown.
MR: That information is available in the materials that we to make available to the public.
I’ve looked, and it doesn’t answer any of those questions. To what extent do you care about audience share and ratings?
MR: We’re committed to growing classical music and celebrating classical music in Boston and making it available for people to use in their cars, at their homes, in their offices. And that means reaching more people and reaching more people who want to listen to it more loyally and stay with it for longer periods of time. So I think it’s fair to say ratings and audience growth are important for any radio station.
Do you have any sense why listenership has dropped so much? And it’s not just at CRB—WETA in DC (another classical music station) has declined from a 3.9 share to a 1.8 in two months, which is disastrous. And CRB has fallen from almost a 3 share just before WGBH bought it in late 2009, to a 1.2 share this July. WCRB has bounced back to the still regrettable 1.5 share in September, but what’s going on? Is this a general or local problem?
MR: I’m not going to comment on what other stations have seen or what other regions and formats are doing. Our commitment is to have and grow support for a robust arts community in Boston. Classical music is such a big part of not only the culture but of the economy in this region. There is no reason that Boston can’t be an exemplary model of what a classical radio audience can look like. And that’s what we’re trying to do—we’re trying to make WCRB connect with the music in today’s Boston.
That’s what you said when I asked you about the Anthony Rudel consultation in the spring. To what extent is Rudel responsible for changing CRB programming?
MR: Tony’s a consultant who’s working closely with Ben and working closely with our on-air hosts to ensure that the sound that our on-air personalities and the music they are playing is excellent and the best that’s out there. He’s a consultant who’s helping with that evolution because this is a growing, living station that will evolve and continue to be responsive to this region.
We want to reach the largest, most loyal audience that we can—like every radio station. We have important institutions here like the BSO, Berklee and the New England and Boston Conservatories. This is a prime market for us to connect more people with this great music and develop a loyal audience for the genre. And we’re doing it by playing more music. As Ben said earlier: we’re playing 20% more music an hour right now and we’re reaching people where they are and playing music that fits the time of day.
I really do hope it works because we want you guys to thrive and we’d like you to be back at a 3 share and we’d like you to have more employees and more options to do more live recording, but we understand that you have to also have an audience.
MR: And we’re optimistic that it’s working.
I say this as somebody who’s more of a casual classical listener. I appreciate and enjoy the way our air talent navigates from piece to piece, and they’re staying more out of the way of the music. Which is what we’re trying to do: really put the focus on the great music that they’re playing. We’re optimistic that we are going to grow that audience. And we certainly need your help and your support to stand up and say classical music is important for this region.
We certainly agree and support that and I hope you can have more underwriters who brag less and talk less about their product but that they’re there giving you money nevertheless. That there have been articles that say attendance at all the arts – ballet, symphony, and whatnot – have been declining as well as radio audiences, especially classical. And TV audiences too because there’s so much available – I mean Netflix has taken a lot of viewers away from cable and I just don’t know what the future of GBH TV is either, but it’s taken some hits.
MR: When you look at public media’s role, across the country and Boston, we are it for classical music. Public media has preserved the arts and stood by the arts and classical music. We’ve been able to provide an increased variety of music for our listeners on WCRB, but you can extend public media’s responsibility beyond just what we’re doing for classical music. Public media is telling the stories that no one else can.
Take the example of the FRONTLINE’s League of Denial that aired last week which looked at the concussions in the NFL. No one else is able to do what public media is able to do because we are willing to make an investment in things that don’t necessarily have a commercial return. We – public media – engage audiences and bring people into a conversation they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
That’s what we’re trying to do on WCRB: Introduce and invite a broader audience to appreciate this great music that’s been produced and recorded and composed over the course of the last three, four, five centuries and really allow people to appreciate it so that they can then go out and understand and appreciate what the BSO brings to this economy and culture of Boston.
I’m a transplant to the Boston area but I’ve quickly seen how unique this city is: The arts make up more of the economy than sports do.
But it sounds like reading between the lines of what you’re saying is you want a younger audience and not just the cognoscenti who have known and loved classical music all their lives, but people who can be introduced to it for the first time.
MR: For classical music to survive it needs to reach a broader and younger audience. If you look at the traditional audience of what people assume a classical radio audience to look like, they’re in their 60s or 70s. That generation grew up with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and The Who. They can and do appreciate classical music, but they have other music that they enjoy. There’s such a broad audience that can be reached and introduced to this great variety of music. And it’s vital in Boston that we also have a robust and strong classical radio station. That’s beneficial for everyone in this arts economy and arts community.
Ben told me the other day there will be more to say in a couple of weeks. Do you know what he’s talking about?
MR: That’s exactly what we’re talking about today. As I said earlier, 89.7 WGBH and 99.5 WCRB are both living, evolving radio stations, and they’re going to continue to adjust. For example, we actually have a number of program changes that are coming to 89.7 this week: Callie Crossley’s Under the Radar program is going a little bit longer, from 30 to 60 minutes. We’re extending The Takeaway on our air.
There are going to be changes and we’re going to be a responsive radio station to what our audience and our members are looking for. And I think what you will see, and what Ben was alluding to, is that we haven’t been really out in front or marketing the changes that we’ve made on WCRB as of yet because that process is ongoing. In the coming weeks or months as the evolution and other things continue to develop, you will certainly see some things coming out of our press office.
In other words you don’t want to really talk about it until you’re sure it’s going to work.
MR: That’s not accurate. We’re confident that the station will be more responsive and inviting for more listeners. But the station is still evolving. We’ll do outreach around a strong holiday programming schedule which will certainly be coming –
Christmas starts before Thanksgiving, right?
MR: No. Let me be very clear: We have some special programming planned for the Thanksgiving holiday, and we’ll have more on this in the coming weeks as we get a little closer. Also, we are planning a lot of great programming for Hanukkah and the Christmas season.
The following summary of programming changes at WCRB was circulated to staff last week:
This week, our classical station 99.5 WCRB Classical New England enhanced its schedule to create a more companionable environment for our listeners with a lot of great music, timely information, and our signature original productions better aligned to their listening habits. Among the enhancements:
· THE SYMPHONY AT 8 on Monday nights is the new home and time slot for our Boston Symphony Orchestra encore broadcasts.
· A “newly retooled” KEITH’S CLASSICAL CORNER now will air Wednesdays at 8:30am. Keith Lockhart’s weekly conversations with morning host Laura Carlo are designed to be a more personal journey from the Boston Pops maestro into his musical world and mind.
· WGBH Exec Arts Editor and Host Jared Bowen joins the WCRB morning lineup every Thursday. Jared and Laura Carlo will discuss what’s happening in arts and culture in and around Greater Boston.
· This Sunday at 8am, WCRB will introduce BOSTON SUNDAY BRUNCH, offering a broader musical menu to accompany listeners’ Sunday morning activities. Then at 6pm, THE CHORAL MIX debuts from WQXR/New York. Hosted by Kent Tritle, the conductor The New York Times has hailed as “the brightest star in New York’s choral music world,” the program explores the vibrant and transformative world of choral music, focusing on a different aspect of the choral scene in New York and beyond. (Together in Song will return in April.)
· From the Top moves to the family-friendly hour of 7pm on Sundays, followed by World of Opera at a new time at 8:30pm.