Last week we learned that WCRB’s manager of classical services Benjamin Roe is moving to WGBH TV in a role auguring increased commitment to visual presentation of our kind of music. “I look forward to expanding that commitment [to classical music and performance art] with a focus on programs and events that connect more community members with Boston’s classical music traditions,” said Roe. Anthony Rudel, author of “Classical Music Top 40…” will replace him on the dark side.
A day later came the news that KUHA, the 24/7 classical station in Houston Texas, laid off its entire on-air staff and plans a shift to jukebox mode by putting its coin in the slot of Classical 24, a nationally syndicated service from Minnesota Public Radio.
Is that an approach Boston listeners can expect? While WGBH spokesmen declined to comment on the KUFA news, they were very happy to converse with BMInt on the changes they have recently announced via press release here.
Lee Eiseman: It’s exciting that the imaginative and energetic Ben Roe will be bringing his programming genius to WGBH television. Is this a reward or a punishment for his nearly three years at WCRB?
[Phil Redo and Ben Roe both laugh good-naturedly.]
Phil Redo, WGBH General Manager for Radio: [Laughing] Well, what do you think? How’s one to answer that question? [laughs] I can tell you right now I think first of all Ben will probably have to be in the job for awhile to decide if it’s actually a reward or a punishment. I’m not sure he knows yet.
Redo: In terms of the foundation I can tell you this effort is literally—no pun intended— from the top. Jon Abbott has challenged all of us to expand our commitment to the region’s arts and cultural community and has been one of the most vocal supporters of the effort to create this new position.
The cultural expansion that we’re making here with the new role Ben will take on is very significant. I can certainly tell you from the standpoint of content development it’s a great thing, and we’re glad Ben’s leading it.
I think Ben needs a bigger canvas and I’m glad he’s getting it.
Benjamin Roe, Managing Director for Classical Services and incoming Managing Producer of Music and Performance: One of the things that’s unique to WGBH and something Jon and I started discussing when I first came here almost three years ago was that it is really rare in public media, and especially in public television, that you have both a CEO and an organization that are so aligned and so sensitive to cultural awareness.
One thing about Boston is that the arts drive this community. We’re kind of a company town in that respect, you know. Where else in America are there four music conservatories in one town? The idea here is that we have this incredible potential for realizing and making a greater cultural impact.
Look, it’s very rare that you have those opportunities and can talk about growing a music profile on television and in a digital realm in this day and age.
And you’re talking not just about content providers from these institutions, but you’re also talking about audience, are you not?
Roe: Yeah, I’m talking about audience and I’m also talking about ways that we can reflect the incredible cultural ferment that happens here in Boston.
Because there are more people watching WGBH TV on a given night than are listening to WCRB by a factor of 10 probably, you can certainly reach more.
Redo: To me this isn’t about radio, this is about how you can use your resources and how you can create a showcase. Obviously that the type of audience that comes to television is in some ways markedly different in their tastes and viewing habits and proclivities than they are on radio. And in other ways there’s some profound kind of synergies that occur. Finding the delta between those two is an exciting area to explore.
You mean you’re going to provide a sequel to the “Three Tenors?”
Roe: I think you’re going to have to wait and see.
Redo: One of the other things that we’re excited about is how WGBH continues to grow. “Engagement” is a word that often gets discussed but often doesn’t mean much. We mean it. This new commitment is another avenue for us to connect with the community – both listeners and viewers – as well as with the members and donors and organizations that make up this rich fabric of the Boston and New England area. That’s what’s really exciting about this. It’s an opportunity to not just have us go out, but also for us to pull in. And that’s a big part of what we’re trying to develop for all of our platforms, television or radio.
When you say WGBH continues to grow, have you had growth in the last three years?
Redo: For the Foundation, absolutely.
You mean in terms of charitable dollars?
Redo: In terms of everything. I think we are very much in a position of feeling quite good. It’s been alluded to that around the public broadcasting system, around the nation, that there is very little expansion in local commitment — journalistically, artistically, and culturally. We’re one of the few that truly are growing, journalistically, artistically, culturally and we’re very proud of that.
Roe: There’s another metric here too, which I don’t think that I really talked with you about much. It’s not just about charitable giving, it’s not just about who your audience members are, but it’s on the subject of engagement that Phil is talking about. It’s a question of: How many people are, in essence, passing through our building? How many people are we reaching through the Boston Summer Arts Weekend, our Food and Wine Festival, our Classical Cartoon Festival at Symphony Hall? It’s staggering. More than a quarter-million people are interacting in person with WGBH and WCRB at events we’ve produced here in our studios and out in the local community.
That is something perhaps you could support with a chart . You don’t mean to say that viewers and listeners as defined by rating agencies are increasing?
Redo: We’re not going to get into parsing numbers here, Lee. The truth of the matter is one of our local services—89.7 WGBH—is up significantly [doubling from 1 share in October 2011 to a 2.3 share last month, while rival WBUR went from a 3.9 share to a 4.3 share during the same period]. We made a decision to focus our content on news and analysis and that has helped Boston grow its audience share of public news radio to the second-strongest in the country, behind only Washington. We’ve also had the opportunity to step in and preserve classical radio in Boston.
We’ve made some adjustments in terms of the classical presentation because classical radio around the country has suffered in the last years. But we’ve always believed Boston is a very rich market for this music and it’s the reason we’re very excited about what we’re seeing.
On television, both of our stations are up in terms of audience, especially so with WGBX 44, which is a channel we’ve been able to program with more attention to arts and culture. Right now that channel showcases a lot of drama, and there will be opportunities for more cultural content, which we all think will drive more audience growth and connect the foundation with more people in this community.
Are we going to get the return of some high-production-cost programs like “Evening at Symphony”?
Roe: Well I don’t know. Check back in six months.
Nobody is doing that kind of broadcasting anymore except maybe the Berlin Philharmonic on the web.
Roe: On the web, right, not on television. Are there opportunities for us to realize other ways of cultural expression on television and on the web? Absolutely. But look at what’s happened to network news, to television in general. It’s a different model than it was. It’s a different time.
Redo: I think that’s the biggest challenge we all face is that the way people are experiencing things is different. It’s fundamentally different and to some extent we do need to move into some of those platforms and experiences, but at the same time we believe very strongly in what broadcast can do. Broadcast advocates and curates. We’re locally owned and locally operated, and we want to take advantage of that.
One thing we feel very strongly about is living in Boston should mean something, and it does as long as people can only live in one place at one time. And we want to be a part of that local community. WGBH wants to be a big part of it.
That’s what we were hearing when you took over CRB and you really gave it a good try and there were lots of locally produced and locally recorded programs, but it didn’t resonate with the population defined by the rating services, unfortunately. So clearly you are going to try something different and you do want more people listening, do you not?
Redo: Of course we do. We feel very strongly that the point of entry for a lot of people is serendipitous recognition. It’s this idea that they hear something and they like it and they stay with it. I’ll be clear: classical on the radio is a challenge. It has always been a challenge. We are leading the challenge now, doing our best to try to meet that challenge. But it doesn’t mean that some of the specialties and the shows and the other things we’ve been talking about for the last three years go away completely. It’s just going to be packaged slightly differently.
But does it does mean something that the author of “Classical Top 40…,” Anthony Rudel will be running the station?
Redo: Come on, man. That’s a book title. [laughs] You know how those things get made.
You put it in your own press release by the way.
Redo: Yeah. We did. It’s a great book, and one of several he’s written on classical music. Have you read it?
Redo: You should read it. It’s a good book. We’ll get you a copy. It’s all about the 40 most important pieces of classical music ever composed.
Look, we believe in looking at platforms to optimize the potential audience: digital, television, local of each, and obviously radio. But one thing I can say about broadcasting is that nothing stays the same. There’s a perpetual format tweak, and adjustment, and changes. What you hear today is not the same thing as what you heard last month or the month before.
Do you feel that management has unlimited patience for CRB to get back up to a 3 share? Does it have another year or two to reach that level?
Redo: There’s not a timeline that’s been placed in front of us. What we’re hoping to do is fill out the mission to meet a need we believe exists in Boston and to do it to the best of our ability. Our measurement is, are we doing a better job today than we were doing yesterday, and are we going to be able to do a better job tomorrow than we are today?
It’s not a number per se. It’s an improvement. And that’s measured in many ways, not all about just the audience size. Loyalty is the number one thing we look at, people who feel strongly enough about the station to both support it and promote it. We track things here that really are important about people who feel good about it; they tell their friends about it; that’s the number one way people learn about anything.
Is that quantifiable in something you can send me?
Redo: Well, I think there are lots of things that are quantifiable. It’s proprietary data, so it’s not something we can pull and send to you.
But you don’t feel any particular pressure to get any particular results with radio in any particular timespan? And the staff doesn’t need to be worried at this point?
Redo: I don’t think the staff should be worried. As managers, when we look at what we do and what we’re charged to do – which is build an audience – we feel pressure every day to do as good a job as we can do.
Roe: That’s the same question that you should ask Anne Hawley [director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum] and Mark Volpe [managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra] and to anybody else. All of us who are in the performing arts industry are pulling on the same oars. And all of us look at audience trends, we look at attendance. Like that recent story about the decline in arts participation in the New York Times – there’s a very real issue that all of us are facing as people’s tastes change and people’s media usage change.
People aren’t buying season tickets to the symphony any more. One thing we know about people under 35 is they don’t commit. They don’t buy season tickets, unless maybe it’s to the Red Sox.
I think the thing the most difficult for you is going to be providing classical music that appeals not only to aficionados but to novices. And how can you reach both groups? You can’t do it simultaneously. Do you identify some of your program as programming appealing to casual listeners and other as serious listeners? Does that mean there’s a tension between an educational and an entertainment value in the programming?
Roe: Everything that we do on the radio, particularly music radio, is to some degree or another entertainment. It has to be, right? We’re there for somebody’s pleasure.
It’s less about novice versus aficionado. It’s about what are people in the mood for at what time of day. Even the deepest aficionado is not particularly interested in hearing a Mahler symphony at 8 in the morning with their Cheerios.
As far as I’m concerned, the ideal thing you could do is have three or four streams of different, clearly identifiable moods with virtually no talking, and we could select them at will.
Redo: I think we’ll get there; that’s what it’s all about. The problem is broadcasting isn’t all about that. Broadcasting is about broadcasting. It’s also making content accessible in the best possible sense.
Serendipitous discovery is thing that is going away the most quickly in our culture. And I think that one of the things radio still does is allow people to bump into things they otherwise would not and to have a very intimate relationship with a sense of place. That is to say where they live, what’s going on, a connection to the community, surrounded by things that they mostly love. That’s what a radio station – especially a music radio station – should do. And that’s different than a stream, which is specific to an interest group and has no geographical boundaries necessarily. Frankly, we’re seeing that developing. It’s one of the challenges that broadcasting faces today. So I understand your point, and I don’t think we disagree. It’s why we look at streams as a big opportunity.
Roe: It’s why we already have right now five different flavors of stream all available online.
You’ve done great things with that, and I hope if for some reason the live symphony broadcasts go away on the radio, then GBH can produce a high-definition-video web version like the Berlin Philharmonic’s. That would be a very pleasing solution.
Roe: We were the first station in the country to have a concert channel devoted exclusively to broadcasts by one symphony orchestra. Look that up.
That was the reason for the founding of GBH, in part.
Redo: I think that the most important thing we try to keep in mind is that the mission hasn’t changed, but the way in which we meet the mission has. If we are not a dynamic institution, then we will fail.
We are trying really very hard to make that part of the culture of our building, of our thought processes. The way we try to reach out to the communities that we support is that we are not a fixed point. We are in fact a guiding point. We’re moving constantly, we’re trying to stay in touch with the needs and with what we feel are services that otherwise wouldn’t be provided. And we’re trying to do it at the highest level that we possibly can do.
Of course not everything is going to work, not everything should work, but we’ll learn and adjust. As Ben mentioned earlier, we will constantly reevaluate and make adjustments and changes. That’s part of the fun of it. That’s part of the reason we chose this as a business.
You guys sound like you’re having fun—this doesn’t sound like a major shakeup.
Redo: It is fun.
You’re right, it’s not a shakeup. It’s really not. What we’ve tried to do is grow.
Ben has a tremendous expertise that is perfectly aligned with what we’re hoping to do, which is provide more cultural opportunities for our audiences on multiple platforms. There’s a lot to be excited about. Tony [Rudel] will come in to completely focus on the experience people get listening on that little radio, wherever that is: on their iPhone, or the kitchen radio, or a nice stereo, or in the car – which is really an important area for us.
Well it would be nice if you could bring Symphony back to the longer stick once a week, if you’re shaking things up, if you’re looking at audiences differently and not trying to ghettoize classical music anymore, if you’re expanding it to TV. I think you should consider bringing it back to GBH radio [with its stronger signal] because there are a lot of people who would enjoy it and I think since you’re in a “try anything” mode now, that’s something you could consider. But I don’t know the demographics are of your Saturday nights and if you are getting good ratings on whatever is on then.
Redo: WGBH Radio has grown dramatically in the last several years. One of the things we did when we streamlined the station to news and information was to put our jazz programming on the weekend. That does very well for us on Saturday nights.
You know that we want you to succeed, and pleasing everyone is going to be hard, but will the changes we will see on the CRB side be gradual? Is there anything major coming up when Rudel takes over?
Redo: No. What we hope is it’s a continuum. We began it, we started it, we’ve been at it for a while, and the whole idea here is incremental change. Tomorrow will be better than today, and the next day better than tomorrow.
There’s sure a lot less talk at night now, and I guess there certainly is 20% more music than a year ago.
Redo: And more live announcers. We’re more live than any other station, I think, in the country. That’s significant. That’s really important. Live people in the chair talking to people at the same time that they’re listening.
Although some people don’t object to having live announcers taped months ahead, as HRB does in the summer.
Redo: We like the idea that we’re actually live. We think it actually matters. There’s an energy level that occurs in a live environment that’s different from a voice track.
So when are you going to let Tony Rudel out in public?
Michael Raia: Just as soon as he’s up here in January. You, Tony and I are all going to get lunch.
Redo: He’s teaching right now at Manhattanville College. He spends summers in Rockport, but he lives in Stamford Connecticut right now. He’s moving here, but has not moved yet. He’d very much like to meet you, and I’m sure you’d like to meet him. Maybe he’ll bring you a signed copy of his book.
By the way, is there a thesis in that book?
Redo: It’s a book about the 40 most important pieces of classical music ever composed—not the 40 most popular. It’s not about broadcast.