Missing Pieces

The strange case of the disappearing arias and adagios

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.

WGMS, as a commercial station, can afford to spend a lot more on collecting survey data, and it collects data constantly. Jim Allison, the WGMS program director, makes no bones at all about his intensely survey-driven strategic vision. Allison says that WGMS—which ranks No. 4 among all stations in the Washington area, with a weekly audience of close to 400,000—has been drawing significant numbers of listeners from "smooth jazz" and "mix"-format (sixties, seventies, and eighties soft rock) stations. "We're a quiet, relaxing alternative to rock," he says. "We have a large audience that do not associate themselves with classical but like the sound." That fact is a dominant consideration in programming decisions, especially because most of these "casual" listeners (whom Allison contrasts with "the aficionados") are younger than the usual audience for classical radio: they tend to be in their thirties and forties, rather than over fifty-five, and are a group that the station and its advertisers are eager to attract.

Allison, a classically trained pianist who holds a master's degree from the Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore, states flatly that in drawing up playlists he is not programming a classical-music concert, and he's most definitely not making selections to match his own tastes. Rather, he considers the core of his job to be "day parting": providing the particular sounds that listeners who tune in at different times of day are seeking. In the morning, when people are getting ready for work, they want "a good start to their day with uplifting music." For the morning rush hour Allison programs "energetic" and "lively" selections. "By nine A.M. the majority of the audience is using us as an accompaniment to their workday, so it's middle-of-the-road tempo, not so aggressive." Afternoon drive time, the station's surveys show, is harder to characterize. Some listeners want energetic music again, to get them revved up for the commute home, whereas others want to relax, so Allison programs "a combination of up-tempo things" and puts in "a feature we call 'rush-hour relief'—this would be a more tranquil piece."

To help him match the sound to the desired mood, Allison has a database containing descriptions of the music in the station's 10,000-CD library. Selections in the database are categorized according to a couple of dozen adjectives that the station has come up with to define each composition's "mood and energy level"—among them "boisterous," "pleasant," "tranquil," and "lively."

WGMS's surveys, which are done three or four times a year, test audience reaction not only to general "sounds" as defined by compositional period (in the Washington area, Allison says, audiences tend to prefer "Baroque sound, your Bach and Vivaldi," and "Classical sound, Beethoven and Mozart," to "Romantic sound") but also to various specific instrumentations. Allison says that chamber music with strings plus piano or some other instrument tests better than strings alone; Scarlatti played on the harpsichord is a more acceptable sound than Bach on the harpsichord; pieces featuring guitar or flute tend to test very well; Mozart piano and some Chopin test better than more "virtuosic" piano pieces; and Mozart string quartets that "have forward motion, that don't bog down too much in the slow movements," work. "Organ is a radio turnoff, big time." And about 80 percent of WGMS's listeners "do not want to hear vocal music in any way, shape, or form."

Fully a decade ago Peter Schickele, the composer who is also the zany genius behind P.D.Q. Bach, produced a parody of this entire phenomenon in an album titled WTWP Classical Talkity-Talk Radio. It features relentlessly happy-talking announcers and a station ID that declares, "WTWP ... listening so easy, you don't even know you're listening." (The station's call letters stand for "Wall to Wall Pachelbel.") Schickele recently told me that the album hadn't even been released when it was overtaken by reality. "I really did hear about one station that wouldn't play pieces in minor keys during daylight hours," he said.

Schickele acknowledges that classical stations face a genuine problem in attracting listeners for serious works, in part because classical music is just not as much a part of the "cultural fabric of the nation" as it once was. But Schickele has been vigorously, and almost single-handedly, bucking the trend toward classical-music-as-Muzak with an hour-long weekly show of his own, Schickele Mix. It's practically the antithesis of the homogenized easy-listening sound and the chirpy but inane announcers that are heard the rest of the week on the very stations that carry his show. Schickele dares to be both individualistic and educational—two things that regular programming shuns. Typically, each of his shows is devoted to a single musical concept, and Schickele unleashes a steady stream of puns, musical jokes, and shtick relating to his theme. The music he plays in one hour exemplifies more styles and forms than can be heard in a week of regular programming on most stations.

Schickele's program actually conveys an infectious enthusiasm for music, and it's carried on 125 stations. But the show has run out of funding, and its future is now uncertain. (Tellingly, when the show's producer, Tom Voegeli, began marketing Schickele Mix, he found that it was much easier to sell as an "information" show than as a music show. On WETA, for example, it airs right after Car Talk, on Saturday mornings.)

Both Dan DeVany and Jim Allison insist that they see themselves not as pandering or as dumbing down classical music but, rather, as providing a welcoming entrée. "To champion classical music is to invite people in to listen to it," DeVany says. "And if you do not do that, you will ultimately destroy classical music."

Classical-music enthusiasts who bemoan the trend argue exactly the opposite: that the same programming that so successfully pulls in casual listeners probably guarantees that those listeners will never be anything but casual. "What these stations are doing is not really bringing people in at all," says Mary Davis, a professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. "You're not getting people to engage with the music when you do things like play a single movement of a symphony. It's like cutting a painting into three pieces and only showing someone the top piece and saying, 'Okay, you've seen the Virgin, you don't need to see the child with that.' This approach will never build the audience classical music needs if it's going to survive"—an audience that will also go to concerts and buy CDs and in other ways support classical music as a living art form.

The new problem to be solved, then, is this: How can you get people to fall in love with classical music if you never play them the pieces that people can truly fall in love with?