Tuesday, April 02, 2002

You can't get good pop music on the air these days because of centralized conglomerates with monolithic playlists, chosen by payola. So why can't you hear good classical music? Stephen Budiansky asked his local classical stations why vocal music and keyboard works had vanished from their playlists (except perhaps when arranged for guitar), in favor of tranquil mush by knighted victorians.

The managers of both stations were remarkably forthright when I posed that question to them. Their answer, simply, was that they were not really playing classical pieces at all. They were providing a "sound."

"We don't know for sure how sophisticated our listeners are," Dan DeVany, the general manager of WETA, told me. "But we do know enormous amounts about how our radio station is used?we have tremendous amounts of data on that. And radio is used predominantly as background listening. That's an important fact, because distinguishing that experience from the concert-hall experience informs us as to what kind of music to play."

While insisting that there is no "rigid code" at WETA on what not to play, DeVany acknowledged that he was influenced by the general results of industry surveys in which listeners were played various snippets of music and asked to rate how "positive" or "negative" an "experience" each was. Vocal music was consistently a big negative. So was most chamber music. DeVany believes that's because chamber music "is an extremely intense musical experience." He explained, "In some cases, when you're doing other things, it demands attention, and that may become an irritant?just by the nature of the instrumentation."

The public, in short, wants to use a classical station as a kind of electronic Valium, and the radio stations are giving them what they want. You might expect public radio stations like WETA to be relatively immune from this sort of pressure, but as Congress demands they get more of their funding through corporate sponsorship, they are increasingly forced into the same mold as the commercial stations, doing what it takes to get ratings --- a fact which their doctrinaire critics then use to argue for further cuts in government funding. (Neat, huh?)

The consequence of this in the limited and regulated radio spectrum is a kind of Gresham's law of content, where the bad music drives out the good. (Among other things; to be fair, you also hear fewer twentieth-century twelve-tone concertos for chalk squeak and rusty fence, which aren't as obvious a loss). Part of the cure, then, might be in some form of measured deregulation --- like the low-power microbroadcasting which the FCC was going to authorize and then withdrew under pressure from major broadcasters --- including, to its lasting discredit, NPR.

But it remains the case that for a time, government funding was helping to keep high-quality oddball stuff, like classical vocal pieces, on the air --- and to that extent, at least, it was playing a useful role.


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