Choral Music on the Radio

A New Blend

Today's radio programmers are moving past the bad rap of early research and experimenting with a richer mix of choral and vocal music.

If you feel disappointed about a lack of choral music on the radio, Brian Newhouse shares your pain. He’s a choral musician—a former member of the Dale Warland Singers. He’s also a radio host, producer, and manager—currently managing director, classical for Minnesota Public Radio and its national program distribution arm, American Public Media. Classical music radio’s resistance to singing caught him by surprise.

Newhouse recalls a telling moment a little more than 10 years ago while he was on the air for Classical 24, MPR’s nationally distributed 24/7 music service (now carried by nearly 250 public radio stations around the country): “A CD was missing and I ran and grabbed Robert Shaw’s recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers. A colleague heard me cueing it up and he said, ‘You’re gonna play choral music? Oh, that doesn’t test very well.’”

Meaning, focus group testing has shown that classical radio listeners find choral and other vocal music far less appealing than, for example, symphonic or chamber music.

Although few radio professionals would disagree with that observation, not all of them have responded to the research in the same way. Some classical programmers have virtually banned vocal music from their airwaves. Others, especially public radio people, have argued that maximizing audience should not be their primary programming mission. Some, including Newhouse, have sought a balance, viewing research as just one of numerous factors that guide programming.

How Research Played Against Vocal Music

Commercial stations have always depended on ratings. In the wake of easing FCC regulations in the 1980s and increasing ownership consolidation in the '90s, commercial broadcasters became more bottom-line oriented than ever, abandoning the least popular formats. Today only a handful of U.S. commercial classical stations remain, the most prominent being WCLV, Cleveland; WFMT, Chicago; WRR, Dallas; and KMZT, Los Angeles.

Public radio started paying close attention to audience numbers in the 1980s. After NPR launched Morning Edition, introducing a popular format (news and information) to radio prime time (6:00-9:00 a.m.), NPR member stations watched their early morning audiences grow. Liking what they saw, they wondered how they could boost listenership between Morning Edition and NPR’s late afternoon news program, All Things Considered.

"Programmers can’t get too far away from what is really going to give people the sound they’re expecting when they turn on the radio... they used to say, ‘It’s good for them; let’s teach them to like the stuff.’ We’ve learned it’s a good theory, but in practice people just turn the radio off when they hear something they don’t like.” —Arthur Cohen, president, Public Radio Program Directors Association

One of their responses, an initiative that became known as The Denver Project, became the flash point for a movement that turned vocal music into an endangered species on public radio. Led by KCFR, Denver, a small group of stations conducted focus group studies between 1988 and 1992 to find out how NPR news listeners respond to various “modes” of classical music, then the dominant midday format on public radio. Their thinking was, if we concentrate on the characteristics of classical music that are most appealing to these listeners, they are more likely to stay tuned throughout the day. Testing best was the “core classical sound—symphonic, chamber, 18th-century, lush orchestral,” says Arthur Cohen, president of the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD). On the opposite extreme, he says the research found that “other sounds—opera, for example—were not appealing.”

Pretty soon, Cohen recalls, radio programmers around the country “started to get the idea that vocal music had adverse effects.” In fact, according to Cohen, the research findings were not that broad but, as he puts it, “everyone looks for a simple answer.” Compounding the potential for misinterpretation, the research was proprietary; while many program directors talked about The Denver Project, relatively few had access to the data. Their reaction cut two ways. Some expressed outrage, seeing research-based programming as a craven grab for mass audience that threatened public radio’s educational mission. Others believed the research would help classical music by bringing it to more listeners. More than a few on both sides were acting on the basis of received wisdom.

When Frank Dominguez arrived at WDAV, Davidson, North Carolina, in the mid-'90s, there was “an absolute ban on vocal music.” He says the practice was probably driven by prevailing opinions in the public radio system and listener phone calls. In 2007, after becoming the station’s program director, Dominguez worked with PRPD on focus group testing reminiscent of The Denver Project, testing that aimed to identify the sonic qualities that appeal most to midday classical music listeners, both serious and casual. The study did not set out to demonstrate whether one genre is more appealing than another, although results were grouped into categories, some of which were tied to genre.

The highest-ranked categories for both serious and casual listeners were 18th-century symphonic music and “well-known melodies.” The three vocal categories—choral, arias and duets, and small vocal ensemble—were all “low testing” among serious listeners and “negative testing” among casual listeners, with choral music’s aggregate rank being highest of the three. Dominguez is quick to point out that certain vocal selections, especially familiar ones, had high appeal even among casual listeners. “For stations, we didn’t want the takeaway to be, ‘Here’s a list of what to play and what not to play.’”

Rather, says Cohen, the lesson is that programmers “can’t get too far away from what is really going to give people the sound they’re expecting when they turn on the radio.” The finding that serious listeners’ tastes are not markedly different from those of casual listeners supports public radio’s “historic shift away from being an educational institution,” says Cohen. “Programmers used to say, ‘It’s good for them; let’s teach them to like the stuff.’ We’ve learned it’s a good theory, but in practice people just turn the radio off when they hear something they don’t like.”

Today's Richer Mix in Programming

In classical radio today, “the battles about vocal music are pretty much over,” according to Benjamin Roe, managing director, classical services for WGBH, Boston. In 2009, WGBH took over operation of longtime commercial station WCRB. Roe has watched and occasionally waded into those battles for at least 25 years. Before moving to Boston, he was Frank Dominguez’s boss at WDAV and, before that, director of music at NPR. “We all pay attention to research,” he acknowledges, “but I know very few people who say, ‘We tested vocal music and it only works so well, so we’re never going to play "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde again.’”

In other words, classical music broadcasters now tend to accept the broad findings of existing research but, recognizing its limitations, they no longer use it as a rulebook. As a result, Cohen says, he’s noticing a “richer mix” on classical radio stations. “That’s the difference between commercial and non-commercial radio,” he observes. “We use the research to understand how people act and then decide what’s the widest margin we can give it.” Which means programmers must rely more on their own sensibilities—as Newhouse did when his colleague questioned his use of the Rachmaninoff Vespers. Newhouse’s response was simple and emphatic: “This music is gorgeous.”

Both Newhouse and Roe say they want to commission focus group testing that will help them pin down the choral music qualities that appeal to radio listeners. Bill Lueth, president of KDFC, San Francisco, doubts that a distinction is critical. Whether the music is choral or solo, his station will air it “if it has a familiarity and beauty that we think will flow,” Lueth says. Others argue that solo vocal music is likelier to interrupt the program flow, whereas they find a blend of voices usually fits more seamlessly with the instrumental ensembles that dominate classical radio playlists.

“We all pay attention to research, but I know very few people who say, ‘We tested vocal music and it only works so well, so we’re never going to play “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde again.’” —Ben Roe, managing director, classical services, WGBH, Boston

At MPR, Cohen says they used to describe that blend as “the choral wash” when he headed programming there in the 1990s. MPR’s current classical program director Daniel Gilliam has thought a lot about the way singing comes through on the radio: “We have a physiological reaction to certain sounds,” he says. “Heard over speakers, high notes and melismas above G and A get irritating to me. I don’t hear the same thing in the concert hall.” So in his radio programming, he says he shies away from “arias with sopranos that are extremely agile and virtuosic. I could say the same for recorder, piccolo, or flute. It’s not the experience most people want in the car or in their home.”

Today, even the most audience-conscious stations find a place for choral music in their programming. But they differ on the best way to include it in their schedules. WQXR, New York, which claims to be the country’s most-listened-to classical station, has a weekly program devoted to choral music, Sundays at 7:00 a.m., repeated at 11:00 p.m. Consistently near the top in classical station ratings is KDFC, San Francisco, which features choral music in The Sacred Concert, with American Bach Soloists artistic director Jeffrey Thomas, Sundays at 7:00 a.m. WCRB features a five-hour vocal (solo and choral) programming block Sundays starting at 5:00 p.m.

No such program exists on Minnesota Public Radio, which at first blush seems odd in an area considered a choral music mecca. That’s what Newhouse’s predecessor, Gayle Ober, thought when she joined MPR in 2006. Previously, Ober had been executive director of the Dale Warland Singers and now she’s chairman of Chorus America. As she considered creating a dedicated time slot for choral music, she realized a disadvantage. Because most people don’t sit down to listen to the radio at appointed times, “that kind of programming is easy to miss,” she says. On the other hand, adds Newhouse, “If we put choral music across the run of schedule, we do more to benefit the art form.”

“I’d guess you hear a choral piece every other hour. We love to play it. We feel it’s the music our audience likes to hear. The choral sound is part of what defines Classical MPR’s overall sound. We don’t want to ghettoize it to one hour on Sunday nights.” —Daniel Gilliam, program director, Classical MPR

At KDFC, Lueth says they program four or five short vocal selections a week during prime time. According to Roe, WCRB’s weekday listeners might hear a familiar aria at midday or in late afternoon but no vocal music at all during “morning drive.” For obvious reasons, these and many other radio programmers suspend the choral/vocal quota at Christmastime. In Minnesota, it sounds a lot like Christmas all year long. “I’d guess you hear a choral piece every other hour,” says Gilliam. “We love to play it. We feel it’s the music our audience likes to hear. The choral sound is part of what defines Classical MPR’s overall sound. We don’t want to ghettoize it to one hour on Sunday nights.”

New Models for Choral Programming

For stations that do set aside time for specialized music programming, as his does, Lueth has a word of caution: Be careful about choosing a host. Too often, he says, the host turns out to be “a kind of music professor or expert who loves covering the entire gamut of the repertoire, rather than appealing to the listener who turns on the radio and wants to hear a nice mix of music. Radio is in trouble when it targets only the aficionado.”

There can be little doubt of Kent Tritle’s choral expertise; he is music director of Musica Sacra and the Oratorio Society of New York, director of cathedral music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. WQXR invited him to begin hosting The Choral Mix in December 2010 as part of its strategy to “develop a depth of connection to key components of the New York classical music community,” Tritle says. To plan for the program, the station initiated talks with the 45 choruses in the New York Choral Consortium about recording for broadcast and collaborating in other ways. The station wanted a “curated” choral music format, Tritle says, not a D.J. “I’m trying to be creative with the show so that it’s interesting to a broad band of listeners—cognoscenti and people without a choral music background. It’s been an interesting journey.”

From Boston, Roe is watching Tritle’s progress. The advantage of a dedicated time slot, Roe says, “is that it creates a forum. I’m seeing the show mentioned on social media. It seems to have some stickiness.” He’s also keeping his eye on Together in Song, a “rather ambitious” television program that debuted in 2011 on WGBY, Springfield, Massachusetts. School, church, and community choruses from western New England compete in a series of studio performances, culminating in a festival. Roe says it was the highest-ranked show in the station’s Nielsen ratings “because it’s so much about the community they serve. They’re really tapped into something.” Roe sees it as a potential model for a radio choral music program.

The choice to set aside a weekend block of time has its cynical side, admits Dominguez. It’s “real estate where there won’t be a lot of harm done” if listeners tune out, he says. That’s because relatively few people listen to any radio at those times. During WDAV’s Choral Showcase, which Dominguez hosts Sundays from 6:00-7:00 p.m., about 700 listeners are tuned in at any given moment, according to figures supplied by Dominguez. That’s a 0.4 percent share of all radio listening during that time in the Davidson/Charlotte area. Averaging listening across the week, the research shows 2,000 people tuned into the station at any given moment, a 1.2 percent share of all listening in the station’s market. By way of context, public radio’s Station Resource Group reports that the median audience share for U.S classical music stations is 1.7 percent based on analysis of 2010 Arbitron figures.

From composers to performers to radio announcers, no one in the classical music business wants to be thought of simply as a purveyor of high-toned background music. Although it can be “very polarizing” for listeners, Lueth says, “there’s a lot of great choral and vocal music out there. We’re always searching for how we can do more with it and still accomplish our goals as a radio station.”

Satellite and Internet Radio Spawn Niche Formats

Satellite radio and internet radio are already doing more for vocal music. Dozens of “stations” stream choral music and other niche formats on the web, ranging from the rapidly growing, personalized service Pandora to pre-programmed channels on to the passions of solo hobbyists represented on the Live 365 Internet radio network.

“I’m trying to be creative with the show so that’s it’s interesting to a broad band of listeners—cognoscenti and people without a choral music background. It’s been an interesting journey.” —Kent Tritle, host, The Choral Mix, WQXR, New York

Before it merged with Sirius in 2008, XM Satellite Radio devoted an entire programming channel to vocal music. Called Vox, it is now confined to five hours on Sunday mornings, repeated overnight Sunday-Monday. With San Francisco’s passionate opera community in mind, Lueth says KDFC considered but ultimately decided against a partnership in VivaLaVoce, a 24/7 online vocal web stream from WETA-FM, Washington that concentrates on arias and art song.

Now Minnesota Public Radio has joined these online efforts with a 24/7 web stream that’s all choral music, all the time. Newhouse and Gilliam say they are beginning with a seven-hour block of programming that is continuously recycled. Aiming to expand their library, they’ve appealed to Twin Cities-area choruses to contribute concert recordings.

The success of any niche format, says media consultant Mark Ramsey, “depends on the depth of the passion (i.e., fans will pay or sponsors who need them will) or the breadth of the platform (e.g., Pandora, where you can house an infinite number of niches).” According to Chorus America’s Chorus Impact Study, there are 42.6 million choral singers in the U.S. To the extent that statistic indicates a depth of passion, a steady stream of choral music could do very well on the web. Still, some listening habits are bound to carry over from the old medium to the new: Even the most ardent fans will use radio to accompany other activities.

Ober says that’s the most powerful lesson she learned from radio research. “You don’t program a Bach cantata imagining someone with a score in his lap following along,” she says. Instead of fighting that reality, Ober advises choruses to nurture relationships with their local radio stations to discover opportunities that work for both sides. Look outside the warhorses and the sacred Christian tradition for short, appealing repertoire that is not often recorded. Above all, make sure your recorded performance is at the highest level.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Spring 2012.