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bach’s still in the house
by erik hage

wmht hangs on to the classical-music format against all odds

If recent events and trends are any indication, classical music might have a dim future on public radio. This is a story with few, if any, bright spots. It not only highlights the jeopardy of classical radio, but the tenuous federal funding of all public broadcasting. (In commercial radio, classical programming is down to about 20 stations, vs. 41 public, having been decimated by the debt-heavy economics of corporate consolidation.)

There’s a ray of hope locally, however, as the Capital Region’s classical music station WMHT-FM 89.1 (also heard on WRHV-FM 88.7, Poughkeepsie) is a relative success story in a format facing daunting challenges.

But first, the bad news: On June 1, Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR) axed almost all of its classical-music programs in favor of talk radio and news. In comments to the Hartford Courant, the upper-level administration at WNPR cited a decline of classical-music listeners and, more urgently, a plummet in support during membership campaigns, which are the lifeline of public radio. (WMHT, for example, relies on the community for three-quarters of the money it spends.)

In short, classical music was hurting the bottom line, and Connecticut simply echoed a nationwide trend: Just last year, WETA-FM in Washington, D.C.—once a major station in the classical format—changed over from music to talk and news. (Another factor in the mix: post-9/11 interest in talk radio spiked.)

Bill Winans, the operations manager of WMHT, is all too aware of the reverberations from across the border. “It’s closer to home than any of the other [format changes] we’ve been announcing the last few years,” he points out. “Detroit, of course, was a big one a few years ago . . . and Washington D.C. This one is getting closer.”

There’s a bigger picture here as well, one that impacts all public programming. On June 7, the House Appropriations Subcommittee proposed cutting $115 million dollars from public broadcasting. Next week, the full House will review this proposal, and within four months the cuts could be enacted.

Last year, the Subcommittee recommended zero funding for public broadcasting (a $223 million cut), but listeners lit up legislators’ phone lines, and a bipartisan majority in the House was able to restore funding.

This federal money supports more than 1,000 public-radio and TV stations in the United States—not just music programming, but journalistic, educational and local outreach efforts as well. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting—CPB—is a private corporation created by Congress that both distributes the appropriation and serves as a buffer between partisan politics and public broadcasting.)

So amid all of these dismal trends, where does WMHT, a public-radio station fully dedicated to classical programming, stand? Chris Wienk, vice president of radio at the station, points to Audience 2010 (released by the Radio Research Consortium in May) for some perspective. The extensive and important report designates U.S. public stations as “climbers,” “divers” or “cruisers” based on audience momentum in recent years.

“WMHT is the only all-classical station to hit the ‘climber’ list,” Wienk says. “We had an audience low point four or five years ago, where the station was down to about 45,000 listeners, from a peak of 80,000—and we are now back up to the peak, so we’ve come out of the bottom of the pit.” (Local station WAMC, which serves a less specialized audience, is designated a “diver.”)

This is all the more remarkable, as WMHT, now in its 34th year, has to endure the challenges facing both public radio and the classical format. Wienk notes that part of WMHT’s success comes from sticking to tried-and-true classical radio dynamics.

“We are pretty traditional in our sound. . . . We play full-length works, and we pause a second or so before and after each piece.” He adds that many classical stations try to break out of the grey ghetto by adhering to a more modern approach and playing more recognized compositions.

Wienk is perhaps too modest to point out that the listener turnaround came during his tenure, which began four years ago. According to Winans, “Chris has taken over choosing the music in the last several years [and] our audience has increased exponentially since then. Chris has very tightly formatted the station.”

There’s also a less romantic reality to the economics of WMHT: Having laid off the bulk of its on-air staff in 2003, the station relies heavily on a national satellite feed. WMHT’s Web site shows several photographs and bios of the “on-air talent,” but the only local staff pictured are Wienk and Bill Winans. (Many of the other DJs have roots in the rich landscape of Minnesota Public Radio.) Nevertheless, the local skeleton crew produces several key programs, including the popular Baroque show Bach’s Lunch.

Another obvious key element is the support of the listening community, and currently the station is in the midst of one of its life-affirming pledge drives. Wienk, a transplant from commercial radio, says he actually got into public radio because of pledge drives.

“I thought, ‘This is where public radio has all its personality. It’s so exciting for me to listen to a pledge drive. That’s why I love listening to Alan Chartock [president and CEO of WAMC] when he’s on a pledge drive. It’s so much more personable to me.

. . . People may like or dislike what he’s doing, but I think he does an amazing job of resonating with the emotion of the radio station for you in your life. That’s what we try to do.”

As for the future of classical music in general, a May 28 New York Times article (“This is the Golden Age”) disputes the death of the genre, suggesting that classical music is in fact undergoing a rejuvenation and is more relevant than ever. Winans agrees: “Classical music’s time has come again.”

He also believes that the radio format will survive, despite the devastating economics of public radio and the bottom-line urgency of consolidated commercial radio. “Most radio stations, by the force of sheer economics, have been forced to program strictly by the numbers. And what you end up with is one radio clone after another. But people aren’t stupid. I think they’re eventually going to go and look for something unique.”

Wienk remains cautious, however, and is wary of the New York Times article’s assertions. “The guy [Allan Kozinn] didn’t substantiate any of his claims. It really scares me, because I don’t want people to think that the fight is over, [to think that] classical music is safe. I don’t think it is. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, and I do believe there are young people who are going to want to listen to classical music.” He cites the example of an 18-year-old intern at the station who is a lifelong listener of WMHT and classical music fan.

But he also indicates that most people who listen to classical music get it from the radio, “so it’s got to stay on radio somehow because otherwise no one’s going to be exposed to it.” Wienk also runs down a list of “hitmakers”—that is, artists who are an album-selling market force. He lists people such as youthful sibling group the Five Browns, the ubiquitous Yo Yo Ma, and

violinist-composer Joshua Bell, who, exclaims Wienk with emphatic seriousness, is “somewhat of a sex symbol!”

WMHT’s success at staying financially afloat in the troubled economics of radio has also led to the acquisition of WBKK-FM (97.7), a smaller classical station that operates out of the same studio. Having bought it out of bankruptcy last summer and converted it into a public station, Wienk is aiming at “a younger listener” with the new endeavor. With Classical 97.7, he hopes to be more contemporary and less daunting.

“There are a lot of people who listen to classical music who consider themselves casual listeners. They kind of just like to hear the familiar sounds. So we thought, let’s try to reach those people with what they want to hear.”

WBKK hits about 300,000 listeners (versus the million or so of WMHT) and is run without any additional staff, with the small WMHT crew, including Wienk, pitching in on production and on-air time for little compensation. “It’s an expensive endeavor to run a radio station. You have to do it carefully, so we’re running WBKK on a shoestring,” claims Wienk, who can often be heard on the air at WBKK. “We’re a lean, mean fighting machine, I guess you’d say.”

 


ROUGH MIX

 

Got Rough Mix items? Contact Kathryn Lurie at klurie@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 143.



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