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By Marcia Alvar, President Public Radio Program Directors
September 2002

From the start of the Core Values Project, we have said it is reasonable to assume that the values first identified in the Core Values Summit (2000) would also emerge in some fashion in the other genres and formats offered by public radio. We just wouldn't know for sure until we looked. Now that we have looked at classical music radio from the perspective of its most loyal listeners, how do the core values sort out when viewed through that lens.

We found that the three Core Values categories:

  • Qualities of the Mind and Intellect
  • Qualities of the Heart and Spirit
  • Qualities of Craft

Are all very much in play. In two of them, we found considerable resonance.

Qualities of the Mind and Intellect
In Qualities of Mind and Intellect, there is broad overlap but with two very important distinctions:

First, learning for news listeners means in-depth information. When it comes to music, we have a very different story. Music listeners want information to be presented concisely. The phrase we heard over and over again was that they liked learning "a little bit" about the music. The substance -- what's in-depth about classical radio for these listeners -- is the music itself.

Second, since the music is the absolute center of what listeners value in a classical station, every quality on this list is very tightly focused on the music. The interest in learning is to learn about the music. The curiosity is about the music.

Like our news voices, our music hosts are expected to be credible, accurate in what they say about the music and sincere in their enthusiasm for the music. Listeners want hosts to talk with them not up or down to them, and to enhance their listening experience not intrude on it. That should be our central purpose every time we open the microphone. Here are some of the comments we heard about classical music presentation from members of our focus groups:

"You hear music and you get into a state and you want to remain in that state. You don't want to hear anything, like the previous station that you played. That was irritating. It draws you out of the state you're in."

"I expect the announcers to be intelligent and to be able to communicate in a way that brings that intelligence out. And also in a tone that is consistent with what you're listening to."

"I think I would like to distinguish between educated and reading from notes. Sometimes I feel like the person really knows what they're talking about. It's almost a human tone in their voice. It's like we're here talking here tonight."

I want them to talk to us in a way that sounds like they're talking to you like a conversation, and not reading something from a script or just giving information out."

"I think announcers have to have some expertise…they need to know about the piece, be familiar with it, but they need to present it in such a way that if you're the casual listener, it's not talking down to you. I'm a casual listener, but I don't want to be lectured to. "

Qualities of Craft
Participants in the focus groups told us that they want the hosts to talk with them, to be conversational, which lines up with the values we've seen to date in Qualities of Craft. Listeners said they want the pacing and tone of our breaks to be congruent with and appropriate to the music so that the state the music creates for them is sustained. And they want us to pay attention to detail - to language, pronunciation and production style.

Elements of craft that were identified as intrusive included:

  • Multiple voices in a break - confusing, hard to keep straight even in focused listening setting
  • Talking over music-heard as "competing with" the music/hard to understand
  • Voice levels louder than the music -- seen by some listeners as the station or host thinking they're "more important than the music."
  • Too much information
  • Information not delivered clearly and concisely
  • Information and commentary that does not focus on the music

The information in the breaks we played sorted out into four categories with different levels of value to listeners.

Level I: "The Basics"
The information listeners told us they most want is the basics of what is being played.

  • Name of the Piece
  • Composer
  • Performer
  • Conductor

Level II: "Tell me a story, give me a picture, but keep it short"
Other information that enhances the listeners enjoyment of the music:

  • Date when piece was composed or first performed
  • Concise/compelling fact/story about piece, composer, performer

The value listeners gave this type of information depended very much on how well it was focused. If the information was both brief and memorable they liked it. If it gave them a picture to go with the music they liked it even better.

Level III: "I like to know what's happening…but make it snappy"
Classical stations are seen as a valued pathway to the music and arts community but we need to carefully structure and streamline the information we provide. Listeners consistently preferred very basic on air information that gave them the essence of the event or activity, then referred them to a place where they could get more detail.

  • Phone number
  • Station website

Level IV: "It sounds like a commercial. I hate commercials."
Commercials, fundraising messages, underwriting spots, PSAs, station and event promotions are all regarded as intrusions for which there is limited tolerance. We make distinctions in-house among these messages but listeners hear them all as commercials, they call them all commercials. These messages are vital to a station's well-being, but we need to be mindful of how we produce and place them or we will quickly reach a point of diminishing returns with these listeners - again those most loyal to classical music radio.

If we had to sum up what listeners said in a single phrase about the breaks we do between musical selections, it would be inform but don't intrude. We'll share some examples of several breaks and see how listeners reacted to them in the super session to follow this presentation.

Qualities of Heart and Spirit
The third and final set of Core Values is Qualities of the Heart and Spirit. It is in this category that the path between news and classical music listeners divides sharply.

In Qualities of the Heart and Spirit, only two values overlapped at all. The others, as described in the Walrus Research report, were almost polar opposites. The common ground was in humor - but again to be used only in a very disciplined, purposeful and respectful manner. And in generosity - an understanding by our best hosts that the content -- in this case the music-- is always the star. But now the values diverge.

News: Timely Engagement
The connection core news listeners have with our programming is shaped in large part by a particular political and social vision -- a sense of global citizenship driven by idealism, civic involvement and civility as they search for solutions to the timely problems of our world.

Classical Music: Timeless Inspiration
For core classical listeners - both public and commercial - the relationship to music programming is largely emotional, inspirational, even spiritual and experienced on a very personal, individual level. It takes them out of their stressful lives and taps them into something they find timeless and enduring.

From the beginning of our core values discussions we have emphasized that the three sets of core values qualities - Mind, Heart and Craft -- can be mixed in a variety of ways. It seems clear from this project that while elements of mind and craft are part of the format's value, the Qualities of the Heart and Spirit - comfort, inspiration, connection -- are pre-eminent in the classical listening experience.

This is extremely significant as we think about who our listeners are. Music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote recently that one of the biggest deterrents keeping people from classical music is a perception that you have to know a lot to get anything out of it. "Nothing could be more dispiriting and incorrect," he wrote. While taking care to point out that he was not arguing for ignorance, Tommasini went on to say that to appreciate classical music "All you need is an open mind. However minimal your music background, letting yourself respond intuitively, viscerally is the most important step."

We found that within classical radio's core audience, the power and impact of the music is shared by a great range of people -- from those who know a lot about it to those who said they knew little or nothing. To all of them, when we play classical music, we are by definition:

  • Above the common fray
  • Different than most everything else they hear and experience
  • Of higher quality

Differences we argue about inside public radio about how high above and about just how different we are pale in comparison to the shared core values of the classical listening experience.