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Classical Music ArticleStation executives base their formats as much on the evolving function of radio as on musical concerns. Many people, they claim, listen only when in cars, and others leave a radio on as background music in the office. Choosing a specific program and listening to it from beginning to end— “foreground listening,” as those in the business call it—is rare, and near-universal wisdom in the field holds that to demand concentrated attention is to risk alienating listeners.

Oddly, though, these same people who are said to listen without intention seem to care a great deal about their classical stations. Any change in format provokes angry protests and letters to the editor. Such outbursts, station executives argue, say more about demographics than about musical taste.

The loyalty classical-music lovers show to their stations, executives suggest, may be little different from that displayed by followers of political talk-show hosts or on-the-air psychologists. The station becomes an emblem of the listener’s identity, and the identity of classical-radio listeners is distinctive. They are well educated, wealthy, and, above all, older than other listening groups. The audience for Performance Today, for example, averages about 50: not ancient but a decade older than the one that tunes in to All Things Considered, also on NPR. No wonder station managers often describe their approaches to programming with words suited to a retirement community.

In recent conversations with station director and music programmers, two buzzwords kept recurring: “shelter” and “gateway.” Suzanne White, the general manager of KBPS here in Portland, said that her listeners, 52 years old on average, were seeking a “haven of sanity”; Mark Kausch, the manager of music programming for Public Radio International, the main syndicator of classical programming in the country, said that listeners wanted a “warm blanket.” When the radio blares with the political bile of Rush Limbaugh, the adolescent stunts of Don Imus and Howard Stern, and the quick psycho-logical fixes of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, let alone pop music aimed at 12-year-olds and golden-oldies from the ’80s for aging Gen-X-ers, a peaceful harbor of classical music certainly has its attractions for people over, say, 45, and the more peaceful the better.

But first you have to get listeners into the safety zone. The term “gateway” stems from the notion that as people get older, there is less radio programming addressed to them, so they may drift toward a classical station. This is the fringe audience. These listeners will stay, it is said, only if they are made to feel welcome.

“You can’t be snooty” several station directors insisted, as if repeating a mantra. Mr. Child, of WNYC, formerly the municipal station in New York but now run by a foundation, demands that announcers be “smart and sassy and know their stuff,” and not to be didactic, he said. “You don’t have to announce the key and opus number when you play Beethoven’s Fifth.” Mr. Child proudly noted that WNYC’s 900,000 listeners were, on average, eight years younger than the audience for its lone remaining commercial rival, WQXR, which is owned by the New York Times.

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