Just a decade ago, options for hearing chamber music, jazz, and world music on the radio were straightforward and rather limited: a local NPR or Pacifica station spinning Beethoven string quartets or Wynton Marsalis on a dial filled with infinite varieties of commercial pop, country, and talk. But as with many art forms, the Internet has revolutionized how niche music reaches fans. With recording, podcasting and webcasting becoming cheaper every day, traditional radio broadcasts have morphed into dozens of new forms on the web, and ? perhaps most importantly ? the line between being a performer and a broadcaster has blurred. This new environment offers new possibilities for reaching new audiences, but it requires a new way of thinking about radio.
“If broadcast radio won’t provide the eclectic mix that so many young listeners create on their own iPods, then arts organizations will just have to do it themselves.” — Marc Fisher, Washington Post 1/21/07
Just a decade ago, options for hearing chamber music, jazz, and world music on the radio were straightforward and rather limited: a local NPR or Pacifica station spinning Beethoven string quartets or Wynton Marsalis on a dial filled with infinite varieties of commercial pop, country, and talk.
But as with many art forms, the Internet has revolutionized how niche music reaches fans. With recording, podcasting and webcasting becoming cheaper every day, traditional radio broadcasts have morphed into dozens of new forms on the web, and — perhaps most importantly — the line between being a performer and a broadcaster has blurred. This new environment offers new possibilities for reaching new audiences, but it requires a new way of thinking about radio.
What is the sound of classical and jazz on the radio today? It’s Internet radio devoted to touring artists, contemporary composers, and oboe soloists (among other eclectic topics) reaching their slices of 72 million American web radio listeners last month; it’s partnerships with satellite radio forged by leadership organizations such as the Metropolitan Opera and Jazz at Lincoln Center; it’s podcasting made more powerful through syndication on traditional public radio networks.
More than a quarter of all Americans tuned into web radio last month. Of that, 25% were tuning into simulcasts of their favorite broadcast stations. But what were the rest listening to? At least 6,000 of them were listening to Wolf Trap Radio, checking out live recordings of classical, cabaret and soft rock from the Filene Center, interviews with performing artists and Wolf Trap staff, and special programming such as music and commentary from jazz pianist John Eaton. Wolf Trap Radio broadcasts 24 hours a day and is accessible via their website, Live365.com, and — perhaps most importantly — the iTunes web radio station directory, filed under “Eclectic”.
Or perhaps they were listening to the unique offerings of the American Music Center’s newly launched web radio station, Counterstream, which showcases new music by United States composers. Drawing from the AMC’s substantial recordings library, the station streams programming remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The playlist for a recent half-hour included Steven Stucky’s “Ad Parnassum” performed by Ensemble X, Earle Brown’s “Tracking Pierrot” for Ensemble Avantegarde conducted by the composer, and Ibis Camerata playing Peter Fraser MacDonald’s Vocalise — hardly mainstream radio fare. Clicking on each piece provides information on the recording and a link to Amazon.com to buy it immediately. Let’s see your terrestrial radio station do that.
If you prefer listening to digital audio in a more portable form, you’re not alone. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Strathmore Hall, Wolf Trap Opera Company, Naxos, and Bret Primack, who produced a series profiling tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, are just a few presenters and musicians creating high-quality downloadable audio pieces, also known as podcasts. These podcasters are reaching new audiences as they take the time to introduce, explain and contextualize their work. And business-to-business networks such as the Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace where podcast producers can syndicate their radio pieces to public radio stations across the country, these pieces can even become a modest income stream.
Radio offers many opportunities for classical music, but the key to finding them is understanding the medium in the Internet age. It requires new partnerships, new thinking, and – in some cases – becoming a DJ.
Part II: Taking Control of those Old Fashioned Airwaves
Though interest in podcasts and Internet radio is growing exponentially, these formats have a long way to go before they supplant old-fashioned terrestrial radio. Traditional radios are ubiquitous, everyone knows how to use them, and we all grew up listening to them.
More than 275 million Americans listen to radio, and, according to a recent report by the Knight Foundation, radio is the most popular way for classical music consumers to hear the music. Until now, getting on the radio required building a strong relationship with your local station or being a major symphony orchestra or opera company with an NPR deal. But this year, it could also involve owning and programming a radio station in your hometown.
This October, for the first time in more than a decade (and probably for the last time ever), the FCC is giving nonprofits licenses to create and operate new radio stations. In a few years, we’ll hear niche music on the radio again, on stations built by a handful of nonprofit organizations. Will yours be one of them?
Owning a radio station can give you the opportunity to bring your programming to an even broader audience, furthering your mission and bringing about many new fundraising opportunities. In Albany, one presenter is already creating synergy between live performances and radio. The WAMC Performing Arts Studio (PAS) brings a variety of music, dance, theater, and film to live audiences in and around Albany, New York, and is operated by WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, which promotes and broadcasts these performances. Recent performers to live audiences in Albany and listeners in the greater Hudson Valley region include jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, reedman David “Fathead” Newman, and gothic cello quartet Rasputina. The PAS also serves as a community hub, with locals attending daytime events such as town meetings, lectures, children’s programs, and Sunday matinees. The PAS hosts a youth media project for high-needs urban and rural high schools in the New York Capital District Area and arts-in-education projects with neighborhood elementary schools.
Interested in learning more? Any nonprofit can apply for a radio station. Though the opportunity is limited to smaller metropolitan and rural areas, there are some great opportunities in places like Buffalo NY, Phoenix AZ, Minneapolis MN, Milwaukee WI, Las Vegas NV, Albuquerque NM, Baton Rouge LA, Richmond VA, Huntsville AL, Flint MI, and Canton OH. To find out if you’re in one of the 2,500+ qualifying zip codes, visit www.getradio.org.
Jean Cook and Justin Jouvenal wrote “The Changing Sound of Arts and Culture on the Radio” for chicagoclassicalmusic.org.