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2001

Classical Music ArticleThe metaphor of the safe haven and the desire to be “welcoming” have had powerful effects on programming. The station’s identity must be kept consistent throughout the day, so the desired demilitarized zone will appear no matter when a listener turns on the set. Chat must be kept to a minimum: just a smoothly intoned mention of composer, title, and performers between selections.

And the selections themselves must never rock the boat. Contemporary music—apart from movie music and, for some reason, works of Alan Hovhaness—is almost univer-sally banned from play, though it may survive if it pops up in concerts recorded live. Second-string composers like Telemann, Boccherini, and Glazunov are played as often as the three B’s.

Just as programmers express horror at the thought of educating the fringe audience, they tend to dismiss the idea of reaching out to the young. “We feel that the audience will come to us as they get older,” said Ms. White, of Portland. This strategy may seem complacent, but with baby-boomers swelling the ranks of the elderly and living for decades past the average classical listening age of 50, passive receptivity and a welcoming tone may be all that is needed to double or triple the classical audience.

Mr. Kausch, of Public Radio International in Minneapolis, said that the defensive stance of classical stations is a result of the evaporation of support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the shift by many NPR stations, like WBUR in Boston, to an all-news format. Both KBPS and WNYC, as stand-alone public stations, must pay their own way. In many markets, the desire for an impersonal round-the-clock “haven” and economic pressures have led stations to use programming services offered by PRI (Classical 24) and WFMT in Chicago (Beethoven Service) to fill their schedules without having to staff the station during the night and on weekends.

Although these services usually provide as respectable a mix of less familiar pieces and well-known classics (though little opera or twentieth-century music) as is heard on most in-house shows, their specific musical offerings rarely appear in station program guides or newspaper listings. These services also seem indifferent to performers. They play recent releases or older recordings by familiar or obscure players with no clear reasons given for the choice.

This haphazard approach, though, serves the desire fora continuous flow of classic music on demand. Listeners caught in traffic or fighting insomnia, industry wisdom suggests, just want to be able to hear some classical music: almost any will do. Like the dairy product “soft-serve,” the music flows out in easily digestible form even if you are not quite sure of its ingredients.

On a recent morning, I realized just how much I had come to expect only “smooth” classics on the air. After dropping my daughter off at school, I switched the radio from the local Howard Stern wannabe back to KBPS. A noisy torrent of orchestral colors flooded the car. After a few seconds I realized that it was Sibelius, the suitably stormy music for the “Tempest”: not exactly new music but a nice jolt of musical energy. When it abated, the announcer quickly apologized for playing such music during the “morning rush” and promised a swift reversion to Baroque music. A Bach concerto soon followed: smooth Bach.

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2001