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Project Sounding Board
Conference Call, April 30, 2002

Sounding Board members on the call included Debbi Aliano, Frank Dominguez, Robin Gehl, Chris Kohtz, Robert Peterson, Hal Prentice, Ben Roe, Dale Spear and Karla Walker.  Marcia Alvar and Tom Thomas also participated.

Discussion began with areview of the project’s objectives and methodology.  The central goals are to:

  • Explore how public radio's classical service can strengthen its value to and connection with listeners.
  • Gain a better understanding of the values and qualities current classical programming brings to those who like it best.
  • Create a vocabulary that clearly articulates those values and qualities

The methodological basics are:

  • Two focus groups in each of six markets in which there is a single all-classical station.
  • In four of the markets the service is from a public radio station.  In two of the markets the service is from a commercial station.
  • All participants will be listeners for whom their local classical station is either their first or second radio choice. 

The most important methodological issue raised was how to link the findings of this study, which involves “all classical” stations, with the needs and interests of the many public radio stations that present classical music as part of a mixed format service.

Some noted that several stations had already explored classical music within a mixed format.  It would be worth reviewing that material if it is available.

It was also noted that the direction of public radio was toward more single-format channels, whether broadcast, satellite, or web.  In that context, understanding the “stand-alone” value of classical music would be important.

Sounding Board members also discussed the merits of screening focus group participants by various factors.  It was generally agreed that it would be best to include people with a range of ages and a mix of contributors and non-contributors in the four markets with public stations.

The group then turned to topics that might be addressed through the study.

One cluster of questions centered on what might be considered the “value proposition” that classical music radio delivers.

  • Is music the total value?
  • What is the role and impact of the host in delivering value?
  • If the key in news programming is access to information (is that the key?), then what is the equivalent for a music station?
  • What might be highly valued by our core listeners that we are not delivering?

A second cluster centered on what might be called the “world view” of classical listeners.

  • We have heard about news listeners thinking of themselves as “citizens of the world” who connect with “universal topics.”  What is the equivalent for classical music listeners?
  • In McLuhanesque terms, what is the “tribe” of classical music radio?
  • Where is the “you are here” of the audience – and who else is there?

Another discussion took up the issue of where to focus in terms of listeners’ use of classical music radio.

  • Should we focus on “super serving” core listeners?
  • What about fringe listeners, whom we might better serve to move them toward the core?
  • What might we learn about how to do better at the edges of the current audience?

All of these questions circle the goal of how best to grow the audience.

The group talked some about the issue of personal importance.  A clear objective of the study should be to understand what factors foster a sense that our stations’ service is personally important to listeners.  But the group noted the need for a distinction between “Why the music is important to me” and

“Why the station is important to me.”

The emphasis, it was agreed, must be on the station.  It was noted that participants in the focus groups might be able to express considerable discernment about classical music, specific composers, and the like, but that such information would not get us very far as radio professionals.

The discussion next turned to information that would readily translate to specific actions that stations might take.  The topics that surfaced included:

How important is extensive local arts coverage?  Most stations presume that such coverage goes with the “cultural franchise,” but what do listeners say?

How important or valued are the most common major programming elements for a classical station:

    Local music mix with an announcer
    Orchestral series
    Specialty programs like Schickele Mix

How do personality factors play out?  What makes a host a companion?  Is the personality the person or the station?  Can a station be a “personality”?

What information does the listener want along with his or her music?

    What kinds of context?
    Historical or contemporary references?
    Musicological context?
    Performer/performance anecdotes?
    What other kinds of information: time, weather, news headlines?

Why do listeners go to their radios instead of listening to the music on CDs?

Are listeners more likely to be a consumer of classical music because of what they heard, such as purchasing tickets to a concert or buying a CD?

What would increase loyalty or, conversely, why do classical music listeners tune to other stations?

To the extent that these listeners use the web, what should we know about that?  Some research suggests going to station websites to find playlists is valued: what else?

Does it matter to the listener to know “where the music comes from,” as in local versus national, or specific locales, or particular networks?

How do classical listeners react to underwriting announcements?  How is this different (if it is) than their reactions to commercials?

The group offered a few final thoughts.

When preparing presentations of findings, let people know what we were looking for – even if we did not necessarily find it.

Think carefully about the mixed format stations.  Is the classical public station and classical listener really different than the news public station and the news listener?  Where do they overlap and where do they diverge?  And what is likely to happen when you put the two together.

For all the specificity of topics and issues raised in this conversation, don’t be afraid to zero in on the initial broad questions of value and connection.