Thursday night, at 8 p.m., the new WQXR as owned and operated by WNYC hit the airwaves. The station moved from 96.3 to 105.9 and became a public radio station, while continuing to broadcast classical music. The new version of the old station started with a few introductory remarks and a concert performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra broadcast live from Carnegie Hall.
But what’s next? How will the station’s overall sound change? Playlists for the few hours of operation so far are online (lots of standard orchestral music, but also Arvo Pärt and an opera aria), but it’s hard to tell the overall direction from such a short sample.
An October 1 New York Times article that discussed the programming philosophy and guidelines for choosing the station’s music suggested some unusually strict limits (“Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems”).
The article referred to programming guidelines and a mission statement, with some short quotes. When I asked WNYC for the statement, their publicity director said the document is “a casual, internal document, not an official public one.” But they arranged an interview with Dean Cappello, Senior Vice President of Programming, to discuss the programming a bit more.
The Times article referred to specific recommendations and limitations on certain composers or genres. Cappello didn’t discuss specific examples but emphasized that there are no hard rules:
It’s important to know that there’s nothing that is absolutely required, and there is nothing that is off the list. I think that’s just a really important message. This is kind of like, what does a whole radio station sound like, with human beings who are curating it and inhabiting it every day and speaking to the rest of the city and the people who are listening online. I would say, we don’t really have guidelines; we have fights we have with each other over what’s the right thing to put on the air.
Cappello did acknowledge that their direction was influenced by wanting to still appeal to listeners who are used to the sound of WQXR, even as they extend the range of music they will play:
WQXR has a long history and tradition of programming that’s on the air, and an audience that likes it. So this is different from what we might have done if we had started with an absolutely blank slate and said, “Well, here’s an opportunity to just start a radio station that doesn’t already exist, what do you do now?” It doesn’t mean that we would somehow go off on some giant limb that we’re not going off on now, but I think there is an expectation that people have, who have loved WQXR and have grown up with it, and we want to make sure that we don’t disrespect the audience that uses it.
The opening night concert did reflect a less restricted program than the guidelines referred to in the Times article suggest, with music by Stravinsky and Aaron Kernis, alongside Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
The Times article led to critical discussion among radio programmers on the AMPPR listserv and on blogs. Some people indicated they were troubled by the restrictiveness of the guidelines, and many were surprised at which composers and genres were and were not on the recommended list. In response to the article and these criticisms Cappello said,
I think it comes from the right place. Which is to say that Dan Wakin [the Times reporter] and other people are very concerned that serious music, and classical music, and other kinds of cultural expressions be really respected. …I think there’s been a lot of concern among WQXR listeners, the cultural press at the New York Times, that this be something that we take very seriously, and not just do an ‘oh by the numbers kind of thing’ and stick it on the air. And I think that’s where any kind of concern expressed comes from.
Cappello pays attention to audience research, especially what it says about how audiences use radio and how that changes based on the time of day. But he doesn’t want the station to be ruled by the numbers.
I think bad radio stations set up parameters, push a button, and then put things on the air. I think that we have a very big investment in starting with some kind of a rough plan, but managing it in a hand-built way, including the participation of the people who will be on the air, who have been chosen because they have things that they really love, and passion. …It becomes a very complex conversation with a lot of different people in the room to say what, on any given day or any given hour, what is the thing that we should have on the air, and I might add it also should be reacting to what is happening in the world at large.
The other project that launched at the same time is the online-only channel Q2, which Cappello called a “bear hug to serious music.”
… WQXR will have one kind of appeal to a broad classical music audience, and other people who may find it even if they’re not classical music listeners, but will like it. Q2 gives us an opportunity to feature things differently, to be more expansive, to play things that maybe don’t work as well when you’re sticking them in the middle of a big radio format. We have a long tradition of new music, original music, John Schaefer’s New Sounds, and other things that have been on this radio station for a long time. I’m calling it the sassy cousin of WQXR in a certain way. It can have a certain attitude, it can be more expansive, … we can kinda stretch the boundaries of classical music in a certain way.
As for the direction that New York’s new/old classical radio station takes, Cappello expects things to change over time: “The WQXR that launches from WNYC October 8 will probably be different from what we will have six months from now or one year from now or two years from now, if we’re doing it properly, because we’ll be constantly looking at what the reactions are and what’s working.”
Our previous posts on WQXR/WNYC: