Classical Radio’s Personnel Problem: Get New Talent In The Door!

In my previous post, I laid out a quasi-apocalyptic vision for the bleak future of classical radio.  Or at least raised some minor concerns.  Now it’s time to think about solutions to those concerns.

At the heart of the issue is making the case that classical radio can be a fun, rewarding, and financially stable career.  Finding the money to make this happen is the biggest concern, and I’ll get to that eventually.   But another part of the problem lies with content and staffing choices already being made that, at best, fail to appeal to a younger audience, and at worst, actually drive younger audiences away.  On either end of that spectrum, the implication is that younger people, even if they are active musicians or love classical music, never consider classical radio as a career path.

For me, it was pure happenstance that I fell into an internship/part-time hosting gig at KCME in Colorado Springs.  A forward-thinking general manager tipped off the music department at Colorado College that they were seeking an intern, and so began my journey.  And part of what made that internship work was that KCME took a huge gamble on me.  I was 20 years old, had no radio experience whatsoever, yet all of a sudden, there I was after two months of practice, hosting Sunday mornings from 6 to noon.  I’m sure I was terrible at the beginning, but I grew into it.  I found my voice, and even though today I shudder at some of the choices I made during that time, the fact that KCME stuck with me and helped nurture me made me realize that this was my career path.  And people listened!  I tipped off my friends to the new gig, and many of my classmates set their clock radios to the KCME to wake up in the morning (even on weekdays, when I wasn’t on the air).  Some even became members.  The older crowd liked me, too, and I still miss that job in many ways.

And there’s the crux of the issue.  Too many stations say they want to attract a younger audience, but fail to make content and staffing decisions to meet that end.  I understand how difficult it is to tinker with a program schedule and move an announcer who’s been on the air in a certain daypart for a long time.  And putting someone with little or no on-air experience is a tremendous risk.  But until stations start creating and presenting content in a way that reflects the audience they wish to gain, they risk both an erosion of their potential future audience and an inability to attract new talent down the line.

I return, once again, to the CMR workforce survey.  Aside from the lack of ethnic diversity in the classical radio workforce (an entirely separate but important issue), of the 256 reported classical host positions at both all-classical and mixed format stations, 183 (or 71%) of them were over 50.  As for digital/social media staff, half (22 out of 44) of all reported positions were under the age of 35.  What does this tell us?  It certainly explains why younger people prefer listening to on-demand audio and podcasts: they’re the ones actually producing it!  They want to hear voices like their own.  They’re not as inclined to listen to content presented by the same person who has been doing it, more or less, the same way for decades.

The rise of digital platforms to present all types of music is inevitable.  But good old fashioned, live host-presented music won’t be going away, either, whether it’s distributed over the airwaves or through the series of tubes that make up the internets.  This is why finding younger voices to present it is crucial to the future of the business.  And the effects of having these younger voices can ripple beyond the radiosphere.  At the risk of sounding like a shill for radio in Southern California, KUSC host Brian Lauritzen is a fine example.  In addition to running the Mahler’s Bahler’s fantasy football league (where my team “Leopold Gronkowski” is poised to make some noise this year), he also has a robust Twitter presence that he uses not just to promote his daily show, but also to comment on the world of classical music in an inviting and relevant way.   A lot of the time it’s fun, but he has also used it in recent months to tackle more serious issues like the lack of programming diversity at major American orchestras.  And the old ladies still love him on the air.  He also is an in-demand pre-concert lecturer for groups like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a group whose image is no doubt enhanced by not only their young fireball conductor Gustavo Dudamel, but also the relationship they have with Brian.

The classical radio world needs more voices like Brian’s.  Much like me, his career started when someone (probably Gail Eichenthal, bless her heart) gave him a chance.  Think how many others out there who have unique voices to offer, but who might be completely oblivious to the opportunity.  It’s time for stations to step up and aggressively seek out these new voices.  And they should not wait out the clock on older announcers to retire.  Get some new blood in the door now.  Get them on the air.  If they’re really good, put them in a prominent spot, even if it means moving someone else.  Nurture them, let them make mistakes, and give them the confidence they need to succeed.  You’ll be happy you did.

About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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2 thoughts on “Classical Radio’s Personnel Problem: Get New Talent In The Door!”

  1. Joe, this is a great read, but I wonder how a young person could even pursue classical radio. It sounds like you and Brian sort of fell into your careers on accident. And it appears you need additional work other than hosting on your local station, hence you doing the overnights remotely on my local station in Arizona.

    You mention the 256 hosts from the survey, but how many classical time slots get filled with syndicated hosted programming out of Minnesota, Chicago, or elsewhere? How many of those slots used to have local hosts? Will that trend continue?

    Unless I’m in my car though, I actually find myself listening to other classical stations via web stream, rather than my local one, due to what I feel is a rather repetitive playlist. It’s something I don’t really understand because when looking up the playlist history, it shows different recordings of the works, so they mix that up at least, but it’s equivalent to top 40 where they tend to play a lot of the same “hits” over and over. I’m not sure why some stations seem to give their hosts more freedom to mix things up than others.

    I always hear that the demographics of the membership for these stations tend to skew older, so I suspect that is why a lot of things are the way they are.

    I’d love to be involved with classical radio however I can – but not having a radio background, nor a professional music background, I don’t think that’s really a viable path to go down.

  2. Good afternoon from New Hampshire, Joe! Found you at last. I used to love your program on VPR, especially the new music segments. I see that you are remoting to WMNR in Monroe, CT now. Caught you this morning.

    I used to be a subscriber to WMNR, but just got tired of hearing the ‘heavy classics’ over and over again. So now I stream mostly from WXXI, Rochester, NY or WFMT, Chicago if I am looking for classical. There is so much good music out there that gets neglected in the rush to satisfy the perceived demand of the perceived audience, especially once the fundraising drives start to show disappointing results. I would love to see a broadcast venue that featured new or unusual music, or even such sub-genres as the Latin American baroque.

    Like the above commenter, I lack the depth of musical knowledge or the lilting voice required to be a profession classical music broadcaster, not to mention the fact that I am 68 years old and seem to only be considered suitable for grocery store work! But I often wonder what it would be like to put a ‘new and unusual’ music show together on a regular basis. I wonder if WMNR would even allow such a thing. But hearing you there gives me a sense of hope! Keep mixing it up!

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