in: News & Features

April 14, 2014

Rudel Brings Discipline to WCRB

by

WCRB's Anthony Rudel

WCRB’s Anthony Rudel

Our latest article on radio in Boston mainly serves to introduce the new WCRB station manager and his aural vision, as it were, for attracting listeners, though our interview touches as well on marketing and licensing for WCRB and WGBH. The news in short is that WCRB has become a pleasant companion through a combination of the agreeable, automated playlists of Tony Rudel and the “live and local” announcers who invite us to enjoy Tony’s choices. Tony told us that oenophiles may not be pleased, but Camry drivers will be comfortable.

Currently in the news is a challenge to WGBH’s license renewal. Though it is very unlikely to prevail, inasmuch as the FCC is loath to delve into content, it does raise the question of whether the station is providing “unique content to an underserved public,” as their license originally stipulated. Jack Bernstein’s Committee for Community Access is determined to restore jazz and folk music that were cut when WGBH went to a mostly talk format in 2009.

From a marketing perspective, though, WGBH’s new approach is a success, having tripled its audience share since 2009 (though most of the gain is since September 2012). WCRB, by contrast, had lost two-thirds of its share since 2009, and that’s why Rudel the spin doctor has been called in. BMInt’s interview follows.

So what we’re doing now is getting a peek at how the creative process works at WCRB. New station manager Tony Rudel has been the classical music biz for many years, having gotten his chops in childhood from hanging around backstage at the New York City Opera with his father, music director Julius Rudel. He’s run other classical station before WCRB, notably WQXR in New York City.

We met in his office in a threesome with WGBH Director of Media Relations & Marketing Michael Raia. When I came in, we were listing to a wonderful Baroque oboe concerto by one Johann Baptist Vanhal 1739-1813, which Tony was encoding for the new WCRB database—currently at 7000 “songs.”

Tell us about the Music Master Programming System and how it saves announcers from spinning CDs and LPs and drives up their ratings. (Readers should pay no attention to the hip-hop dj)

Tony Rudel: That’s a long story, but the process is very simple. We pick the music we want to add to what we play. The database we’re working from is a constantly evolving thing, it doesn’t stay the same ever. There’ll be pieces we play during the winter which I may park during the summer because sonically they don’t fit with what we’re trying to do. A piece like the Vanhal concerto that we were just listening to is one that I decided should be added. It’s got that Mozartian grace to it but it’s not Mozart so it’s a little different, it’s a little new.

The coding allows us to assign a numeric value for everything, so for example that last movement was Allegro, Allegro Vivace: that would be about a 7 on a scale of 1-10. We like to think of solo guitar as a 1 in terms of texture and you think of Mahler’s 8th is a 9.

And clavichord is a minus 5?

[laughter] And harp is…we can’t hear it. We have this nice range, so a piece like Vanhal would be somewhere around a 6 or a 7. Sort of in the middle but it’s a little bigger than the Trout Quintet would be about a 4. So that information goes into the system. The Music Master Programming System allows us to create an architecture and the system fills in all this music using our database to match it up with the architecture we’d like to have. So for example, in mornings when people need energy and they’re getting going or sitting in traffic you don’t want to play the Barber Adagio for Strings. So we make sure that the coding for those hours indicates faster tempi. Now that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t play something that has an Andante in it. But you just want to avoid depression basically.

So these are sorted movement by movement?

Well it depends on the piece. There are some pieces like Beethoven’s 7th which is just one piece of music.

Or “song” as we call it.

Yeah some call it a song, I call it music. The problem basically is—and this goes back 20 years ago when I was doing this for Sony—the software was all written for rock radio.  But since then the software has become more flexible and more appropriate for classical programming.

So is Music Master something you have brought to the station or was it here?

It was here but not being used. And so we activated it and we had to enter in the data for 7000 tracks of music which took us several months. That process began in June of last year when I was consulting. And the reason you do it is there’s no way that you can really see what you’re playing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week unless you have a system in place. There’s just too many pieces of music. We average about 85 pieces of music a day. And we’re still not programming our overnights, that’s the next move.

So is this all top down or do the individual hosts have some say as to what gets played?

The station has to have one view. The problem is if “person X” plays something and “person Y” plays something that’s very similar and they haven’t coordinated, you start losing audience. I’ve done this enough to know what kind of rotation you need. We are very careful about not repeating things. There are separation rules on every piece of music. And I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this because it gets really tedious.

So there’s a little less quirkiness from announcer to announcer and the tradeoff is this consistency. So it’s a little bit back to the old CRB of Nassua days?

No, this is way beyond that. I know that playlist from the old WCRB, and that was a very very tightly controlled, and very narrow. I believe there’s a role for that kind of playlist I just don’t believe it’s what we should be doing. Those kind of playlists traditionally drive the cume up very quickly because people will come to it if they hear Pachelbel’s Canon every three hours or eight hours, whatever it was, but I don’t think that’s what we’re here to do. That far I will never go. I believe if you program the music properly you can broaden the audience and intrigue people. The notion that an on-air host should control the music is a complete classical music thing that just doesn’t exist in any other radio format. And the fact of the matter is we are competing not with classical radio but with every other radio format in this market. And we know there’s crossover between us and Magic FM and ROR and ZLX.

There is?

Oh yeah, tremendous crossover. Because much of their audience is their 40s, 50s, and even 60s age-wise. I mean they have the younger listeners too, but their strongest audience is in that range.

So is that where some of the listeners went when CRB lost its three share and went down to a 1.2?

We don’t know for certain where they all went but I would bet you some of them are listening to that and listening to CDs or iPods. And the Beatles thing is a perfect example of it. Somebody in their 60s grew up on rock n roll. I mean, it was part of the culture. I grew up in a classical music household and I grew up on rock n roll. I mean I can still remember going out and buying Cat Stevens LPs and The Who LPs and my Emerson Lake and Palmer LPs, and believe me it wasn’t easy to play that in my house, but I did. So you can’t say that the audience we need to attract is listening to other music, there’s no question that some of them are. We share it in ratings with these other stations. But some what you’re talking about, that dip, really have gone to other stations. So we’re competing not with the classical music world, but we’re competing with the radio world.

OK, so this is entertainment, this is not education.

Well, I’ll give you my theory on that. You can’t educate if they’re not listening. Every piece of research I have ever read, and this goes back 30 years, says absolutely clearly that when you talk down to the listeners they will leave. And by the way classic rock has just come out with the same discovery. Friends of mine in that part of the radio business, and I don’t know the exact numbers, but in the first two minutes of an interview with a rock star, and I’m talking big name stars, in the first two minutes they lose 18% of the audience. That’s staggering.

OK so we’re going to be back to a high class jukebox with a lot of songs.

I wouldn’t call it a jukebox…

No, but it’s going to be more continuous music.

Yes. And that’s a good thing. No station in all of Boston plays as much music as we do.

And are you going to pre-record a lot of the continuity, or the announcing?

No, we are live and local. That’s a big thing I’m pushing really hard, constantly that we’re live as many hours a day as possible.

But people aren’t going to tune in, aside from things like the symphony broadcasts, for a specific piece.

No, people don’t use radio that way.

Except maybe WHRB when it’s in an orgy period and you know what you want to listen to.

No that’s a different kind of thing. There is appointment radio it’s just not in music formats. People will tune into 89.7 WGBH for certain things. We don’t have that, we play music; we are a music station. Our on air staff is there to provide connection to the market, information, the occasional musical note. I think if I were playing that Vanhal I’d say, “You probably never heard of this guy, but he lived from 1739-1816. He lived with Mozart and Haydn and Schubert and Beethoven. He overlapped them all, and Bach too, he pre-dates Bach’s death, 1750.” So that I would put in because I think that’s informative, educational if you will. But a difference between being informed and being obsessed about the music. Research says that once you start going off into things like, “this is in g minor and he wrote it in g minor because he was in a dark place…” no one listens.

What about a symphony? Are you still going to have some analysis and discussion at the BSO broadcasts?

Well the BSO is a different thing. That’s a broadcast. That’s on Saturday nights at 8 and Monday nights at 8. We’ve reduced the amount of talk there as well and I can tell you that because when you hit the intermission and you have 22 minutes of talk the audience just vanishes. This is the same battle that I fought 30 years ago at QXR. QXR ran 4, sometimes 5 Symphony Orchestra broadcasts every week. With New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia every week. And I remember looking at the numbers and thinking, what am I doing this for? Because every time one of them came on the audience dropped off.

So CRB is market driven now, you’re trying to build an audience. Do you care who’s listening, are you looking for a specific kind of individual because you’re happy to get them from classic rock stations, you’re happy to get them any way you can get them. So, do you care who they are?

To be blunt the more people listening to this music the better it is for the classical music business. You can’t cater to this little group over here at the expense of this group over here. Now, can you keep both groups happy? That’s the challenge I face. I don’t know that the hardcore, longtime GBH/CRB “I want the information” listeners are going to be happy with what we’re doing. I got a call the other day—and I take a lot of calls from listeners—and she was upset because we’re not playing challenging music. Well, the problem with challenging music is it’s too easy to push that button and disappear.

And I question what is challenging music? I think that’s a nice phrase that means very little. You know it’s very different when you put on a concert in a concert hall and you say, I’m gonna play this new work whatever it might be. The audience has an option of leaving, but they’re there to see a concert, they might not depart before the “tough piece,” but they might come away thinking that wasn’t a great experience.

But if that piece of music comes on the radio they have the option to push that button then they’re gone. And I believe there’s so much wonderful music that won’t drive people away. I had a listener tell me the other day we are playing too much Mozart. I know exactly how much Mozart we’re playing every day because I can run a calculation and look at it. I said “why do you feel that way” she said, “to me, Mozart is a little better than elevator music.” Well I got news for you, if someone thinks Mozart is a little better than elevator music, then we’re not going to make that person happy. And they’re probably going to go listen to some Karlheinz Stockhausen and I hope they’re happy with that.

***

So do you have an option to take things commercial?

Not that I’m aware of, no.

Because it seems like your mission is somewhat like the old CRB in that you would like a bigger share. So that translates into better underwriting revenue.

Well, better underwriting revenue and better contributions. I think they’ll convert to contributors. If people aren’t listening, they can’t contribute. We are, after all BROADcasters.

You’re asking less too aren’t you?

We’re asking for listeners to become sustaining members and help us. The big story, frankly is that this organization bought the radio station and obviously we’re investing in it otherwise I wouldn’t be here; I think that’s a fair statement. We’re going live and local all the time except for overnight and that is a commitment to Boston that is on par with any of the other music stations.

Well I can’t believe the budget’s going to be higher than it was in the Ben Roe days. He had a lot of initiatives and he had a lot of energy.

I think we’re going to spend the money a little differently. You know, I walk in a very strange place because I know the classical music industry kind of intimately. I watched one of the great opera companies go from zero to top of the world and then disappear. And when I say I watched it, I was backstage. I also come from the world of commercial broadcasting where if you don’t have share, you’re in trouble. But if you combine those two things you end up with an interesting formula. And that’s what’s going on here. We are an interesting radio station that is a great listening experience. We try to make every hour fascinating. Musically every hour we change textures, we change instrumentation, it’s carefully constructed.

But mood changes with time of day fairly consistently.

Yes. I believe if at 11 at night we were playing the Candide Overture a lot of our listeners would say, “Oof, what are they doing that for?” Just the way I wouldn’t play The Adagio for Strings at 7 in the morning.

And you’re not going to have 10 minutes of bird calls either?

No, we are a radio station, not a private club. Every moment of air time, every moment of our listeners’ time has value; we need to respect that.

So for twenty or thirty years the old WGBH didn’t care if they had a one share. They were looking for a certain quality straudience. They were according to their mission and FCC statement were interested in providing unique content to an underserved public. And at some point they decided to expand that to a larger public and it has taken them awhile to achieve it. But one of the things they did and maybe this is not something you are an expert in. But they were, for the first two years after changes in formats they hadn’t made much progress in market share. In 2013 they got a couple of top radio hosts who seem to have transformed the share considerably. And now WGBH has doubled its share in what 6 or 8 months?

WGBH Director of Media Relations & Marketing Michael Raia

WGBH Director of Media Relations & Marketing Michael Raia

Michael Raia: Let me touch on this a little bit. When you look at the foundation’s investment in radio altogether with 89.7 and 99.5, a serious process was considered about changing the format of a hundred thousand watt signal on 89.7 that was being under utilized. There was a very real sense that the Boston market was under-performing for public radio compared to other markets. We were by any standard middle of the pack in terms of market share.

This is the new GBH?

MR: This is the Boston region three, four years ago. Public news radio was pulling the neighborhood of a low 4 share. When you look at other similar markets—Seattle, Washington, San Francisco,—Boston was three, four market share points behind compared to those cities.

Boston is comparable in education, income, population size to those cities. There was an opportunity for more people to participate in public radio. When 99.5 came up for sale, the decision was made that this was an opportunity to double down and invest in smart public radio and maintain and even increase a commitment to classical radio. So the process on 89.7 was the conversion to the talk format. The newsroom is now 50 people plus – it’s arguably the fastest growing local newsroom in New England.

Yeah I understand all that but that happened two years ago and the market share didn’t really budge until 2012.

MR: No, the growth has been consistent, I can get you those numbers this afternoon. [NOTE: Average market share data follows. Data is standard audience share among Metro listeners, 6+.

Well I’ve been tracking them, and I disagree with your suggestions that the growth has been continuous. It’s really been episodic.

MR: Ever since 2010 the growth has moved each and every year, it hasn’t been just the last 6 months. The mid day program and Boston Public Radio is a phenomenal cornerstone of success. The growth on 89.7 has been consistent year to year since 2010. Yes, 2013 was a big year, but our share has been trending up since 2010.

According to the numbers I harvested and can present graphically [here], not much happened for the first two years after the takeover and it’s really been more recently that it’s been approaching WBUR share and WBUR did have a 4 share for much of this time.

MR: Yeah they had a 4 share. Public news radio had a 4 share in a market that should have been a 7 or 8.

And that’s where it is now when you combine WGBH and WBUR, which is a great national affiliate. WGBH offers something different and unique for local listeners and has helped increase Boston’s market share for public radio to number two in the country.

Hiring the talk show hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan was very helpful to ratings.

MR: Their show is great. They get some of the best local guests on their show.

Hasn’t that been a driver for the whole station?

It’s been an important part in the growth in the last year but it’s just one part.

Well it’s really accelerated.

MR: Of course it has.

The last year has been a great year but that’s a product of the time and investment that went into the changes. It wasn’t an overnight change. We didn’t go to a newsroom of a half a dozen to 50 in one year.

We have a 100,000 watt signal for 89.7 that we’re taking full advantage of and providing unique, thoughtful content that reaches all six New England states.

Although people would argue that if you had a hundred-thousand-watt signal for classical music you could get up to a 4 share the way WETA does in Washington.

MR: I’d argue classical radio wouldn’t exist in Boston if not for WGBH’s investment in 99.5, which was made possible because of the new focus on local news and analysis on 89.7. Not having a classical radio station in Boston: that would be a travesty.

You bring up WETA. Consider also that WAMU – Washington’s NPR station – pulls an 8 or 9 share in public talk radio. WETA is on many, many pre-set dials. I know both stations very well. I grew up there listening to both stations in the back of my parents’ minivan. I think there’s potential in Boston for a strong classical presence on 99.5 and a ratings share for public talk radio that rivals Washington.***

OK there are two questions I should ask: The license has been up for renewal for GBH and of course it will be renewed but in the past you’ve been granted the hundred-thousand-watt power which is greater than any other FM station in the region because you were licensed to broadcast unique content to an underserved public. Can you still make that argument?

MR: We weren’t given a license for a 100,000 watts on the simple basis of being unique. On this matter, you saw our statement to the Globe [here]. We’ve had many conversations with Mr. Bernstein about his personal programming preferences and it’s not a surprise that he’s shared those preferences with the FCC. We’ve responded to his complaint.

I’m just talking about 89.7 at the moment. I mean in the 1950s when they were originally licensed there really wasn’t anything else of the type going on. And I’m not sure when you’re talking about talk radio that you are currently presenting unique content to an underserved public.

MR: If you turned the radio on and listened to 89.7, I think you’d hear something unique. We have reporting and analysis no one else in Boston provides. Governor Patrick and Mayor Walsh are on 89.7 every month talking directly with constituents. No other station provides that kind of direct civic engagement. That’s not only unique, it’s good civics.

Maybe I should ask the manager of WCRB what you are doing for the Lowell community.

Rudel: Laura Carlo hosts a new show called “The Lowell Connector and Beyond.”

Do you think many people are listening in Lowell?

I can’t answer that question, I can’t look at the numbers that closely. But everything we do connects with the home market; we talk about what is going on in Boston and the surrounding areas. That’s the beauty of local radio.

You would prefer to have a taller stick and more power?

Sure I would prefer a frequency that covers the whole country. But this is what we have and the fact is that classical radio station in this market should be able to pull something in the three shares without any problem. And a year ago we weren’t. We’re still not.

Well you bounced back up from the 1.1, there was one month where you were tied with WERS.

Yeah there was one month where I think we almost hit a one but we hit a 1.1. But I think the last three months we’ve been in the 1.8 to 1.9 range pretty consistently.

So you think that within a certain period of time you can be back up at least to a 3 with CRB.

It’s going to be a climb back. You don’t gain back people’s trust that quickly. We will. . I do know that playing the right music, having the right sensibility about what we do, connecting with the market (and I stress to the air staff every day that we are here to connect with Boston), connecting with them and making us a vibrant part of not only the arts community or the music community but of the whole community. I analogize listening to classical music with drinking a bottle of wine. A lot of people when they’re younger like beer and are afraid to move to wine and then they taste it and think, “That’s pretty good.” To enjoy the bottle of wine you don’t need to know the vintage and the Apellation and…

No but some of the people that CRB lost are already oenophiles and you would like them to come back.

Everyone who ever listened: I would like them to come back and then thousands more.

Well I asked Ben Roe how many years he gave to increase the share and he said, “I’ll be out of here in two years if I haven’t gotten it to 2 or 3. And so you’ll probably have two years too and we wish you well and we hope there are large audiences.

I don’t even think in those terms. I’ve been in this business long enough to know it’s all about execution. We are working on some marketing things to bring people to it which I’m excited about.

For instance, we’re doing an event with the Boston Lyric Opera next week. Part of the knowledge I bring as much as I love opera and, mind you, if you look at my iPod, 70% of it is opera. I do know that if you broadcast vocal music, except for the odd aria here and there, you’re going to lose audience. But I do believe that opera is a vibrant art form and it hurts me to see New York lose an opera company. I’ve gotten to know Esther Nelson a little bit here, the director of the Lyric Opera.  They are doing Bellini’s I Puritani. Not a work that’s in the top ten, let’s be honest, it’s probably not in the top hundred I mean I did grow up listening to it and I saw Beverly Sills do it and my father [Julius Rudel, director of the New York city Opera] recorded it so I know it well and I said “You know what? Let’s use our performance space and let’s do something interesting.” Instead of just having a concert or recital, let’s show people how an opera gets put together. Let’s take a couple of numbers, invite the stage director, the soprano, the tenor, the conductor, and a rehearsal pianist and let’s look at how you stage a number. Why is it that the soprano can’t finish that gorgeous aria facing upstage? Well because if she does you’re never going to hear that last note. And so we started marketing this last week and we’re almost sold out already. I believe what we can do so effectively here.

Look, we have three basic platforms: The radio station is for broadcasting and it’s job is to pull people in and get them listening to this great music. The second platform is the internet and we’ll use that to dig a little deeper. And then we have the performance space where we can do things like what I just described with the BLO.

I don’t like to separate fun from education. I was a college professor for 11 years. I was tough but I like to think that people took my courses because they learned something and because I tried to make it fun. When I wrote, Hello Everybody the book on the first 12 years of the history of radio, I wrote it as a narrative not as a history. So if you want deeper engagement, if you want a place to learn more about Vanhal for example. I want a place on our website where you can go and say, “Tell me about this guy”.

So that’s the second level of engagement and that’s not yet where I want it to be. I got a team here, we’re working on it, having discussions. What can we do to have that be the deeper level of experience?

You could get Brian Bell back. He’s pretty good at providing interesting content.

There’s not a shortage of content, it’s how you present it. And then the third platform is our concert space where I want to give people a look at things that are different.

And not just concerts to be broadcast but stand-alone live event.

Exactly. This Boston Lyric Opera event will not be broadcast. It’s for the hall audience only. I’m a firm believe that the experience of attending a concert is very different than listening to the radio—hugely different. I had a caller the other day complaining about the movements because we do play individual movements from pieces. Like that third movement we listened to earlier would be a great morning piece. The 2nd movement is an Adagio. Can’t play it in the morning.

Well of course this is a 19th-century practice, concerts haven’t always played multi-movement pieces all the way through.

Yeah and unfortunately composers are really inconsiderate about radio. Because they didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about it. What’s that great Billy Joel lyric? “If you wanna have a hit / you gotta make it fit / so they cut it down to 3:05.” Well. I’m not cutting anything down to 3:05, but Mozart presented movements from things all over the place. Bach would use stuff.

And you can have a concert that has one movement of this, another movement of that. Even a Beethoven piano concerto sometimes were premiered that way.

And here’s a little piece of music history about Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito which was his last opera. He died in 1791.  In 1795 they put on a benefit performance of Clemenza di Tito to raise money for Mozart’s widow and her children. For lunch someday, what was the intermission feature that day?

Probably something completely different, but I don’t know.

It was a Mozart Piano Concerto, with a dude named Beethoven playing the solo. That was the intermission while people were walking around. This notion that this formalized thing that we have to… It’s just crazy it didn’t exist. There is a place for the concert and the complete work. And we play complete works 80% of the time.

***

Can you tell us about your plans for Tanglewood next summer?

For this summer we are doing 22 broadcasts from there.

And are you going to have a network of other stations?

We are talking to them right now.

Are you going to be having interviews and features on those broadcasts?

Fewer. We’ll have features to fill the intermission. Absolutely.

And are you going to have any staff staying out there?

Brian McCreath will produce and Ron Della Chiesa will host Saturday nights and Sundays and Brian will voice Friday nights.

But there’s not going to be any reduction except maybe fewer features?

If it’s live you have to do something in the intermission. But it will be more music intensive than interview intensive.

Well GBH used to play dead air.

Well there’s a practice we’re not going to resume.

I have a real problem, Mike can tell you, I’ll be sitting in a meeting and I’ll hear it in the distance, if I hear more than three seconds of silence…

So you believe in tight cueing?

Actually it’s very funny you ask that. I was working with the on-air staff and I found the recap coming in a hair too soon. I have a real sensitivity about that. There needs to be a clean beat of silence before you say something. You can’t bang right up against it, it just doesn’t work for me.

I believe the format itself has to be casually elegant. This is an elegant lifestyle choice, this is that slightly better bottle of wine, this is that thicker towel if you will. This is not a Kia but we’re not a Bentley, but we could be a Toyota Camry. We have to be a comfortable good experience for people.

Well there are good mixes out there. Our mall in Charlestown has a very good mix from DMX Music. Virtually everything they play is something I want to hear— good performances of slightly obscure pieces—they don’t attract a lot of attention to themselves but they’re there and it’s pleasant. I think a lot of people want that. And if you want to learn what you’ve heard, you can go to their website and plan when to go to the mall.

Pleasant, but engaging is what people want; they don’t want the music to interfere that I can tell you. That’s why some of the music we talked about earlier, the challenging music is great, you challenge them to turn the radio off. It’s really tough to grow a station when the slogan is, “we play the music no one wants to hear.” And that’s the reality. My theory is as long as we are playing great music we are serving that underserved audience. Because you’re not getting this music anywhere else. But we’re also competing this day and age with the Spotifys and the Pandoras and the Sirius. I do know that when you play the right music and you present it in an accessible manner where you don’t make it some hard educational thing you can succeed

People’s lives are very busy. This has to be somewhat of an escape and I want it to be that way.

But it’s for multi-tasking.

All radio is for multi-tasking.

But do I really have to hear a morning host telling me what coat to put on?

Well that’s radio. Every station in Boston does that and I think we do it to more elegantly.

So it’s beyond time, news, and temperature.

It’s connectivity. I want our hosts to come up with interesting things that are part of lifestyle.

That’s your live and local?

That’s part of live and local. On the day when the Community Boating starts and people are back on the Charles River, I want to mention that.

As long as it’s not cutesy.

Cutesy has no place here. Elegant, casual, friendly, welcoming, warm. Those are the words I use when I work with our staff. The music will help grow the audience. The presentation is the next part and we’re working on it.

***

BSO next year will be basically the same formula as this year with live broadcast of Saturday nights?

We’re going on the assumption that everything will continue as is.

And will the streaming continue? Because that’s apparently a union issue. The two-year contract that allowed free streaming is running out in August according to Boston Musicians’ Association president Peter Hollenbeck, and the players might want to see some advance on the $8.65 they receive each week for the right to have their performances streamed. That can’t be much compensation for the added anxiety attendant to having live mikes.

I haven’t looked into all of that. I’m working on improving the radio station.

***

You said that you’re not going to be recording as many concerts—in part this seemed to exist for promotion of local events. That was nice for the local groups and the visiting artists. That’s a thing of the past?

Not completely, we are being more judicious let’s put it that way. On April 20th we are going to broadcast a performance of the Cantata Singers doing Mendelssohn’s Elijah that was recorded about a month ago about a month ago.

Then we’re going to record the Handel and Haydn Society Samson that they’re doing on May 2 and May 4 and we’ll broadcast that in September as part of the launch of the fall season.

Is most of the “Live at Five” already in the can?

Well we have the archives to pull from. I’ll give you a perfect example. Avi Avital the mandolinist is coming to Boston tonight. And he’ll stop in here at 3 o’clock this afternoon and we’re going to record a couple of numbers. We’re going to shoot some video of him for the web and we’ll play the track at 5 o’clock this evening for Live at Five.

So is this Live from Fraser still going to happen once a week? Twice a month?

We have to be judicious. One of the things that troubled me when we first looked at this was that we had sort of become a publicity arm for all the arts groups. That’s wonderful I want to be partnered with the arts groups but we have to protect the radio station first we have to be sure that what we’re doing is great radio.

So it will continue on in a little more focused way so it won’t just be about promotional but clearly Avi Avital is…

Oh he’s promoting something, but he’s also hip, he’s cool, he’s cool, he’s friendly. He wants to be interviewed.

So the location recording will be two or three major groups each year.

It depends. Part of what I’m learning is what our capacity is. I am not a believer in recording just for the sake of recording.

Well you seem to be focused; you seem to be aware of your limitations and what you can do well.

Everything we do we should do extraordinarily well. I actually do believe that the only way to win is to get everything right.

18 Comments

  1. I’ve been a listener of wcrb for 40 years. At no other time have I been more distance from the station then now. The fact that wcrb does not announce the pieces of music they are playing is horrible. On my HD Radio they do not show me what is being played yet I can see that they are Boston classical music. I will never give them another dime unless they change their ways. Unless I know exactly what I’m hearing it might as well be top 40 and that’s not what I tune in to hear.

    Comment by Dave Gordon — April 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm

  2. Thanks for giving Tony Rudel this chance to present his rationale for what is going on with WCRB. It makes sense to me.

    As for “underserved,” it seems to me that unless one thinks WHRB’s 9 hours per day of classical music (to which I am now listening for the St. Matthew Passion) is all we need, clearly the audience would be underserved without WCRB.

    I agree with Dave Gordon that it’s annoying not to be told what we just heard or are about to hear, but if I tune in while a piece is in progress and I don’t recognize it, I don’t turn the radio off. Frankly I don’t understand why not knowing “exactly” what one is hearing is no better than top 40 (with which one probably would always know “exactly” what one is hearing). IMO top 7000 is way better than top 40.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 14, 2014 at 9:17 pm

  3. “One of the things that troubled me when we first looked at this {live performances at Fraser Stuido] was that we had sort of become a publicity arm for all the arts groups. That’s wonderful I want to be partnered with the arts groups but we have to protect the radio station first ”

    Wow – the hostility this guy feels towards “all the arts groups” is simply appalling – what the hell is the role of a public-radio station focusing on art amd music other than to be a partner of such groups? I predict that in two years WGBH will once again decide that ratings are the only concern and will bring in yet another radio-industry hack to try again to get them up – probably by doing even more of this kind of computerized musical wallpaper formatting.

    WGBH has largely abandoned the local music community – no more broadcasts from Rockport, BEMF, Fraser etc – mostly gone in favor of a computerized jukebox format.

    No more of those grasping local arts groups mooching free publicity from the only remaining publicly-funded media outlet available to them – yeah, that’s the ticket.

    WCRB has become a droning background noise – not a station one tunes in to with eager anticipation of hearing something wonderful presented in a thoughful manner.

    The previous discussion here [the interview with Ben Roe] last October covered a lot of concerns – reading this interview I feel that the situation at WCRB is even worse than I feared.

    https://www.classical-scene.com/2013/10/19/wcrb-more-music/#comments

    Comment by Elom — April 17, 2014 at 7:55 am

  4. I this is overstatement and not very fair, and don’t really see how you get from his sensible comment to ‘hostility’. As for droning, I just got done hearing an Amy Beach symphony. Some of it all seems more dilute, sure; Granados piano followed Beach. In any case, what would you suggest a station with declining listenership do? How would you plan to ‘protect’ it? Stay pure by some definition, and more local, and eventually go under?

    Comment by David Moran — April 17, 2014 at 1:53 pm

  5. How do you go from a Schubert overture to Siegfried’s Forest Murmurs to an overture by a little-known Spanish composer to a movement from the middle of a Mahler symphony with no explanation? How do you take a knowledgeable musician with a distinct personality and tell her (or him) to shut up and just play what the machine (or the boss) chooses?

    That, friends, is what Rudel is doing. With all due respect to his father as a musician, this Rudel seems to have turned out to have a very peculiar idea of what is really valuable in life.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — April 17, 2014 at 7:34 pm

  6. So what would the explanation(s) be? Assuming this seemed like a good idea, good meaning attractive of (some types of) listeners? Not defending that sequence per se, just trying to continue discussion of how it *should be done in order to survive*. Ideally we want it curated, sure, quite as in the past or better (not a fan of Lurtsema, e.g.). Some, not me, might find that particular bundle pleasantly various, again not defending it. And ‘valuable’ in whose life? Rudel’s ideas are supposed to be the opposite of peculiar — that’s the whole point, innit? Evidently some of us will listen elsewhere more, and less here. Other listeners the opposite, hopefully. Like restaurants, one supposes.

    CRB’s March ratings as of today show that Rudel’s confidence might be tempered a bit. March came in at 1.5, down from 1.9 and 1.8 in January and February. GBH took a similar hit, down to 2.4. BUR is up to 4.7.

    Comment by David Moran — April 17, 2014 at 8:07 pm

  7. During my hour interview with Tony Rudel I never detected any “hostility.” He came across as a genial and practical man who wants to be useful.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 17, 2014 at 9:15 pm

  8. Dealing with my belief in the need for explanations first:
    I hope no one thinks I picked those compositions at random: they were the four things that were played on WCRB immediately prior to my writing my comment. If it makes any sense at all to put them together, in that sequence, that’s the exlpanation I think a listener needs to hear. ESPECIALLY for a newcomer to classical music, WHY does the second piece follow the first, and come before the third? Do they have any connection at all? Because they don’t have the same tempo, style, emotional tone, expressive message, structure, historical period, or (seemingly) anything at all in common — except for being played on traditional acoustic instruments according to a composed score.

    It’s pretty clear to me *I* don’t think those pieces should be slammed next to each other with only the spoken equivalent of “thanks for listening” between them. I’m not a musician; Cathy Fuller is, James David Jacobs is, Brian McCreath is. Laura Carlo is married to a singer. Any of those people could give us a transition and a program flow that would demonstrate — without “too many” words, or the kind of technical musicology that Rudel seems to be scared of — how these pieces are related to each other, and put them in a context, e.g., musical history, world history, today’s weather, the announcer’s mood of the evening, etc..

    OK, I’m the kind of person who, having heard David and Igor Oistrakh’s recording of the Bach double violin concerto (on WCRB) on my ride home, immediately wanted to hear Heifetz and Friedman play the same thing, and then follow up with Lara and Scott St.John. A really good demonstration of how performers (and stylistic trends) affect interpretation, and it would let the listener figure out if they like the *piece*, even if they don’t always like how it’s *played*. That’s a major difference between classical music and the 4-minute rock-song-form that’s only ever played by its creators.

    I AM NOT ASKING FOR THAT from a radio station (except possibly under very tightly constrained circumstances, in a specially set-off program devoted to that kind of exploration). For most listeners it would be death. I accept that.

    But when your programming manager is (a) deathly afraid of any amount or kind of “talking”, and (b) insists on using criteria for selecting and sequencing music that result in turning intelligent hosts into dumb button pushers, and leaves listeners no better off (and sometimes more bewildered) than before, he isn’t showing people why this music MATTERS in their lives.

    So we come to the question of value:
    What is value? or, as the ancient Greeks put it, what is “good”? (Those of you interested only in ratings may turn away now.) Aristotle pointed out that there are intermediate “good”s, things that we want in order to obtain something else (preferably more important or “better”), and inherent “good”s, things that we want for themselves. We want money, for example, because of the things it lets us obtain: food, shelter, protection from various uncomfortable conditions.

    Similarly for radio station ratings: presumably we want a larger audience because it helps us get more underwriting, and possibly more contributers — after 40 years, I no longer call myself a “member” because that implies a degree of sharing and cooperation that WGBH clearly doesn’t want — so the radio station will survive; but we want the station to survive IN ORDER TO DO WHAT?

    I would offer that we want this particular radio station to show people, through their experience and understanding of the wide range of composed music, that their lives are BETTER — emotionally, socially, and intellectually; in short, they are HAPPIER — when they pay attention to, and respond to, at least some kinds of music that evoke more than reactions in the reptilian brain (technical term, from neuroscience: the part of the brain responsible for “instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays” [wikipedia]). I would claim that just playing seemingly random, unrelated compositions isn’t sufficient, even when a listener is sufficiently knowledgeable to supply relationships on his or her own.

    My beef with Rudel is that he doesn’t seem to want anything beyond the survival of the radio station as a corporate entity. He doesn’t say he wants it to be able to employ more people — which would be good; he doesn’t say he wants it to be available to more performers and groups that are part of our larger community — which would be good; he doesn’t say he wants to help listeners respond to music in the way that he came to integrate it into his life as a child of a conductor — which would be good. He doesn’t say ANYTHING. He just wants a larger audience, and (in my opinion) seems to be willing to sacrifice the purpose of a radio station in order to prolong its life.

    As to whether that’s “peculiar”:
    I don’t grade on a curve. It is possible for a whole society to be, simply, wrong about some things. When you give most (there are rare exceptions) people “what they want”, and only that, their taste never improves, their knowledge of and desire for personal improvement never develops, and they will end their lives wondering why they are dissatisfied and unhappy. It’s very easy to drift through life that way.

    After 3000 years of western philosophy and cultural progression, I think I can say that refusing to offer people help in transcending their baser instincts is, indeed, peculiar — even if it’s popular.

    Is that the job of a radio station? IT IS EVERYONE’S JOB. Unless you live in a cave, it’s an unenforceable piece of your role in society.

    Rudel gives no indication that he understands that. He’s living off a residue of classical music’s availability in the general culture of 50+ years ago, and all he cares about is numbers.

    Well, you asked.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — April 18, 2014 at 7:38 am

  9. “I never detected any “hostility.” He came across as a genial and practical man who wants to be useful.” –

    “genial and practical” – OK, I agree.

    But….

    “One of the things that troubled me when we first looked at this {live performances at Fraser Studio etc] was that we had sort of become a publicity arm for all the arts groups.”

    I took that remark as revealing a defensive attitude based on hostility towards the “arts groups” he apparently feels want to take some kind of undue advantage of WCRB’s services such as using the Fraser Studio or being recorded for broadcast – it does NOT say “I REALLY REALLY SUPPORT local arts groups” – it says the opposite.

    It says that Mr. Rudel feels that such groups and such projects as the former eliminated live music programs are interferring in his effort to reshape the format to a tightly-controlled streamlined music playback machine – a type of hyper-analyzed classical Muzak tailored by algorithms similar to those used by Muzak to program the background music at shopping malls.

    BUT, so I don’t just post complaints, here’s MY plan for improving the format at WCRB:

    – FIRST: keep the present format Monday throuugh Friday but with one change:
    replace the “Symphony at 8” with one hour of “Live at Fraser” – either a live performance or one of the many many archived in-studio performances going back decades that WGBH has in their archives.

    – Make MUCH MORE use of the Fraser Studio – I would tell all of those local arts groups that the Fraser Studio is there for them to use, so come on down! I would do a LOT more live broadcasts from Fraser, both pre-scheduled [such as at the 8PM live at Fraser program] and last-minute – if a performer is only available at 3 pm for half an hour, let him come in and play at that time. i.e., the opposite of what’s being done now with those facilities.

    On weekends:

    – Bring back the eliminated local live music programs:
    Sunday Concert broadcasts
    New England Summer Festivals broadcasts

    Resume live and pre-recorded broacasts of
    BEMF
    Rockport Festival

    – MORE flexibility in playlists – with all of the musical knowlege and experience posessed by WCRB’s on-air talent I think an occaisional deviation from the playlist, a personal choice by the announcer, won’t hurt a thing.

    – Finally, a new program on weekends, perhaps both Saturday and Sundays: ask local musical luminaries to program an hour or two each week- let someone like John Harbison, Ben Zander, David Hoose, Robert Levin, Yo=Yo Ma, Andris Nelsons etc etc choose a playlist or even come in and play live – it’s their choice and they can choose to announce their selections and be interviewed – whatever. Send out invitations and see what happens.

    In conclusion: let WCRB operate MORE like a CREATIVE college station and LESS like a consultant-programmed commercial Top 40 classic rock robo-station.

    I have no personal animus toward Mr. Rudel, I just think that the kind of thinking he reveals is very similar to that of the consultant-driven ratings-obsessed downgrading of most of American radio of all genres – away from creativity and toward homogenization and narrow programming choices.

    It’s why most radio in America SUCKS.

    It’s why public radio should be DIFFERENT.

    Regarding attitudes toward performers..

    I’m reminded of a rock-club owner who was unhappy with a band I worked with back in the 1970s – after their first set the owner came into the dressing room and said: “You kids aren’t here to practice your art – you’re here to help me sell beer, and if they ain’t dancing they ain’t buying beer. If I don’t see some people dancing in the next set it’ll be the last time you guys play here.” In response, my friends started out their last set with a Rolling Stones song [“Satisfaction”] and then played a nearly 30-minute jam on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Needless to say, the owner wasn’t pleased, of course, but my friends were happy with the [non-dancing] response from the audience. [and yes, they never played at that club again.]

    Let commercial stations worry about ratings and their ratings-driven ad-buy price book.

    Public classical radio should be about the MUSIC – not about the ratings. Focus on the music and the audience will be there.

    Comment by Elom — April 18, 2014 at 9:05 am

  10. “Bro, this is the end of civilization as we know it.” — Moses, just down from Mt Sinai, to Aaron, as they both watch the Israelites dance around the Golden Calf.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — April 18, 2014 at 11:34 am

  11. also:
    “Bye bye love. Bye bye happiness. Hello emptiness.” — The Everly Brothers, circa 1952

    Comment by Joel Cohen — April 18, 2014 at 11:36 am

  12. For 45 years I have been hoping to hear Camerata do early C&W crossover :) .

    Comment by David Moran — April 18, 2014 at 7:37 pm

  13. Oh, one more thing: “10 minutes of bird calls”??

    There were NEVER 10 minutes of bird calls, unless you total up a whole week of “Morning Pro Musica”. Recently, James David Jacobs was playing at most 1-1/2 minutes of bird calls, at 6 a.m., when I most certainly don’t want to hear a march, a waltz, or the ‘Candide’ overture, and the last half minute of that had music over it.

    40% of the population aren’t morning people. There’s a reason the sun doesn’t rise abruptly, and a morning radio show shouldn’t be like a shot of adrenaline, either.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — April 19, 2014 at 6:18 am

  14. “For 45 years I have been hoping to hear Camerata do early C&W crossover :) .”

    8:00 P.M. April 25 at Old West Church, dude!
    “Lovely Vine: Jeremiah Ingalls and the American Folk Hymn.”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — April 19, 2014 at 2:39 pm

  15. Not only is the “crazy-quilt” approach jarring, but it deprives listeners of the ability to track down and own pieces whose samples they enjoy. For example, last Monday, 21 April, L.C. played a single (first) movement from a Beethoven symphony. The playlist names the last movement of the 7th, which it certainly was not. If Ms. Carlo had announced what it was, I’m sure she would have gotten it correct.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 23, 2014 at 8:26 am

  16. “But people aren’t going to tune in, aside from things like the symphony broadcasts, for a specific piece.”
    (Rudel says:) “No, people don’t use radio that way.”
    (later he says:) “All radio is for multi-tasking.”

    Now that I’ve recovered from gagging, I’ll point out that all psych studies and workplace observations have shown that, when people say they are multitasking, what they are really doing is performing poorly at multiple things. In other words, thay don’t do anything well when they try to switch their attention among tasks rapidly and repeatedly.

    Rudel seems to want the kind of audience that is, mostly, not listening. That’s why he can say, “People don’t use radio that way”, i.e., they don’t tune in for specific pieces (or, presumably, for a specific event or program).

    I’ve realized that my anger at being told how I do or don’t “use radio” was mistaken. Rudel isn’t talking about me, or anyone like me. He isn’t interested in anyone who actually listens. He is providing aural wallpaper for people who aren’t paying attention, and who don’t want to be distracted from some other activity.

    That explains why the announcers announce as little as possible, and why they are as loud as the (hevily peak-limited) loudest parts of the music.

    Judging by actions rather than words, I’d say Rudel doesn’t like music very much. Mustn’t let it draw attention to itself, or else people might start listening.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — April 25, 2014 at 11:08 am

  17. What is striking in WCRB regular programming is absence of any vocal music – choral, songs, opera, etc. There must be a good reason for it, or is just tradition because old ‘CRB never had vocal music either? Vocal music would certainly make for more variety and enliven the programming.
    The announcement of pieces, composers and performers/conductor is very cursory and sometimes not articulated clearly by the announcer. This is as opposed to advertising of the sponsors which is definitely very clear. I think it would enhance programming if the announcer made some comments about the composer, the piece, performers, etc.
    Otherwise, Mr. Rudel has good ideas and we wish him success.

    Comment by Joseph Spector — April 26, 2014 at 9:08 am

  18. Mr. Rudel says:
    “And the fact of the matter is we are competing not with classical radio but with every other radio format in this market.”
    No.
    The station is competing with serious listeners’ private music collections, which they are listening to rather than his radio content.

    Mr. Rudel says:
    “The notion that an on-air host should control the music is a complete classical music thing that just doesn’t exist in any other radio format.”
    Which gives a great explanation of why most radio is so drab, despite it’s “edgy” sonic aggression.
    And a good reason to offer personalized content from a curator.

    Mr Rudel says:
    “And the fact of the matter is we are competing not with classical radio but with every other radio format in this market. And we know there’s crossover between us and Magic FM and ROR and ZLX.”

    If he’s looking to the rock world’s listeners for the patronage that built public radio and the arts it (used to) actively promote, he’s in the wrong part of the country. If he’s planning to convert WGBH into a background rock station with news, he’s on the right track. Are the station’s trustees really supporting this?

    Mr. Rudel says:
    “Well, the problem with challenging music is it’s too easy to push that button and disappear.”

    A potential problem it shares with every other business structure in this country.
    And he’s solving(?) that problem by implementing a system with content that he personally selects, a system that minimizes contributions by interested, professional radio hosts, a system based on rated sound density (as opposed to musical narrative), a system aimed at an audience that listens to radio as sound environment, rather than a unique temporal event that rewards close attention from the listener, a system that proudly stands alone, alienating local musicians in a city that has one of the richest pools of musical talent in the world.
    A system that produces a staggeringly impersonal, mediocre product.

    And he’s not even making serious money from it – for the station or for himself.

    Why is he here?

    Comment by Michael Shea — April 27, 2014 at 1:16 pm

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