Radio for the 1890s

Post by , November 8th, 2014

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, facing funding cuts, intends to reconceive aspects of the ABC to ensure a successful future. Perhaps some things will be cut, others strengthened. Classic FM is at risk. Why not get in front of the game by reconceiving Classic FM too?

Almost all of the classical music heard broadcast or live this year by someone 25 years old could have been heard also by his or her great-great-great-grandparents when they were 25! For Mozart’s music, great-great-great-great-great-great-great and then some.

This is not an attraction likely to lure the young. As teenagers, they listen to and identify with music created by other young people. It is simple, short and shared. Classical music is long, complicated and as things stand, someone else’s.

The easiest access to classical music is via ABC Classic FM. According to Mark Scott, Classic FM has a “niche” 50+ audience. (With a weekly reach of ¾ million, a pretty good niche.) Apparently the ABC audience demographic generally is 14 years minus and 50 years plus. Understandably, Scott wants to pull in that enormous missing 35 year demographic.

In line with the ABC Charter’s requirement that it must “encourage and promote musical, dramatic and performing arts”, Classic FM broadcast 400 live performances of Australian artists last year. Cancelled, this and a few other surviving initiatives could provide more dollars for the grand reconception of ABC audiovisual.

Possibly, classical music, like the Classic FM audience, is seen as niche. It is a good moment to state loudly and firmly that this music, in its extraordinary depth and breadth of expression, its amazing intellectual content, its embodiment of Olympic virtuosity, is one of the great achievements of humankind. What’s more, Australians are high achievers in classical music both as performers and composers.

The ABC has the great good fortune to own and manage the country’s national classical music broadcaster, inherited from previous ABC generations. Its trajectory has headed via slow attrition towards a disc-spinning operation which, if it could no longer record Australian artists, would eventually be unable to broadcast them much either.

There is an alternative. Reconceive Classic FM as an energetic, creative force in classical music for Australia and indeed, the world.
What might this look like? To begin, it certainly would work to attract that missing demographic of 15-50 year olds. Since it would not want to lose the 750,000 50-90 year-olds, the total demographic covers 75 years.

Of course, there cannot be a single program and a single approach that successfully serves everyone who can tie their own shoelaces. The older audience will probably want to continue to listen via broadcast FM radio in its familiar, comfortable way. Younger generations move increasingly towards other formats and Classic FM already has them, including a second classical music program online. Program variations could serve different interest groups within the large demographic.

Classical music everywhere faces a big problem. Its main audience is stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s probably getting bored but doesn’t like the alternatives. When Australian classical composition found its feet in the 1960s, most composers wrote in the complex and dissonant style that dominated the Western world. The audience was largely baffled and deterred. Orchestras and opera companies, the economic engines of the sector, are large organisations needing large audiences but generally could not attract them with this music. It loses money and therefore they program it sparingly.

It is important that there is a place for this new and complex music, but over decades it has won only a small audience. The main audience probably assumes that anything written much after 1900 may be that music it doesn’t like. Programming is stuck.
We need a music of our time of power and integrity that will attract the large audience. The audience should anticipate new works with pleasure, not fear.

Since ABC Classic FM does not have a box office problem, it could take an active role in supporting the production of this new repertoire and could be a crucial player in building an audience. This music of our time could be key to winning back the younger audience that decades ago, gave enthusiastic support.

Classical music radio in the USA has disappeared in many cities and no longer feeds audience members to the orchestras. Orchestras are closing.
Australian orchestras have Classic FM and the MBSs and they have retained their audiences. With imagination, Classic FM could go much further than supporting the status quo: it could be a force for renewal and diversification of the repertoire and expansion of the listener base. What an achievement that would be!

In summary, here are some activities for an ABC Classic FM that is a strong and active force in the creation of Australian musical culture:

• Reach a listener base with strong representation from all age groups
• To this end, continue to explore FM, digital and online radio and various interactive formats as they evolve.
• Present a program with its base in the core Western classical music repertoire but extend into its evolutionary present, and include other art musics and hybrid forms
• Give special attention to the creation and presentation of music of our time in forms capable of attracting a substantial audience
• Commission musical works and present them
• Commission special broadcast productions and series that illuminate the music and its context
• Maintain and expand the live broadcast program
• Restore and expand the recording program
• Reclaim and reinvent a dynamic role in education. This could seek the collaboration of the programs already run by each orchestra, the opera companies, small ensembles, Musica Viva. It could bring the curriculum to life, recruit young people as producers and present a youthful voice.
• Review presentation styles as a means of expanding the listener demographic.
• Encourage the musical arts by supporting the artists; do not exploit them. This requires a budgetary allocation.

For the annual cost of a few hours of television drama, art music radio could be transformed.

(I thank members of the Advisory Council of The Music Trust for their contributions to this paper.)

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