For several years something distinctly odd has been happening to the classical music played on WETA-FM, the National Public Radio station I listen to in Washington, D.C. From time to time I've read complaints that classical stations were "dumbing down" their programming, or playing only the most popular warhorses, or swearing off twentieth-century pieces, but none of those diagnoses ever seemed quite to match the symptoms.
Clearly, WETA was lopping huge chunks of the standard classical repertoire from its playlists. But trying to divine why some things stayed and some went reminded me of trying to solve one of those kids' brainteasers: Why does Mr. Smithers like artichokes, Valium, and tooth decay but not apples or Turkmenistan? Because he likes only things with three syllables. To be sure, some warhorses remained much in evidence (Ravel's Bolero, Pachelbel's Canon, Strauss's waltzes, Holst's The Planets), but many other standard works had vanished. Like most classical stations, WETA had never played a lot of opera or other vocal music, but it had played some—for instance, the famous arias that Pavarotti or the Three Tenors had done so well with on stage, screen, and compact disc. Now, for months, I didn't hear any. (WETA has recently begun to bring some vocal music back into its programming.) Well-known keyboard works by Bach and Mozart and Schumann and Beethoven were practically gone too, except in arrangements: the Bach two-part inventions for harpsichord arranged for guitar, Mozart's Turkish Rondo for piano arranged for the Canadian Brass, Bach organ fugues arranged for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
At the same time, pieces that no one would call well known or popular began filling more and more hours each day. For several weeks last summer every afternoon brought another long orchestral work by yet another generally forgotten (though invariably knighted) Victorian English composer. Twentieth-century music, too, was on the playlists almost every day—lots of big, sweeping orchestral pieces with titles like Spanish Fantasy and Celtic Symphony, plus film scores—but again, almost none of it was by familiar composers. And although the station still played plenty of complex and challenging music, such as symphonies by Beethoven and Haydn and Brahms, chamber-ensemble works by the same composers had nearly vanished.
Although the charge of dumbing down didn't seem to explain what was going on, the announcers were becoming more and more nurturing, to the point that I sometimes felt I had tuned in Mister Rogers by mistake. For a while the morning announcer on WETA kept telling me that she was going to play something to "soothe" my workday.
WGMS, Washington's commercial classical station, was meanwhile continuing to play a more mainstream selection of the repertoire, including well-known solo-piano works and string quartets. But here, too, some not quite definable force seemed to be reshaping the playlist. In sharp contrast to what was typical a few years ago, WGMS now never played vocal music, period. Last spring the station dropped its Saturday-afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, joining two other major commercial classical stations—WCRB, in Boston, and KDFC, in San Francisco—in bidding farewell to the Met. Perhaps the oddest thing was that the progression from one piece to the next seemed to lack rhyme or reason. Indeed, WGMS's basic daytime formula, to the extent there was one, seemed to be a rapid-fire barrage of single movements of concertos or symphonies that left me feeling a bit disoriented.
What, I wondered, was going on here?
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 "sound" that seems to make a background-music-seeking audience content is mainly a bright and smooth orchestral texture, which explains how Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, an Irish Rhapsody by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and the score to the 1940 Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk could all fit the same bill. It also explains why playlists have shrunk so dramatically.
The market research that DeVany cites to back up WETA's programming philosophy comes largely from the "Denver Project," a series of surveys and focus groups done back in the 1980s, which aimed to find out what kind of music the people who listen to public-radio news would like to hear when they're not listening to public-radio news. In recent years, as public broadcasters have come under pressure from Congress to cover more of their expenses through corporate sponsorship, stations like WETA have begun to pay attention to market research, which appears to offer formulas for increasing market share.