How Classical Radio Can Reverse "The Curse of Knowledge" & Resolve "The Barriers Paradox"

May 20, 2016

In response to a brilliant online dialog about classical radio, I took the opportunity to pull together a few of my own thoughts about the nature of classical music, the missions of public radio and classical radio, the so-called "curse of knowledge," and more:  

How often in 2016 do you read a genuinely civil online disagreement between smart, informed people? Even better, about your own profession? This week, two notable composers,  Kurt Knecht  and Daniel Gilliam, had exactly such an exchange about classical radio. I regard composers as having inside knowledge of music, so I’m relieved to find that most of what they said seems completely right to me. Still, 15 years of programming classical radio in Iowa have given me plenty of opportunity to think about the medium, so let me throw in a few further thoughts. (Obvious disclaimer: I’m speaking for myself, not for Iowa Public Radio.)


Daniel Gilliam (composer and Louisville Public Media's radio director) with Jason Weinberger at the wfsymphony's premiere of Gilliam's "Sweet Rivers" at the first RiverLoop concert in Waterloo (which was broadcast on IPR's Symphonies of Iowa)
Credit Randy Darst

Kurt started the conversation with a blog post. He had, basically, two complaints about what he called “NPR stations” (not quite the right term, by the way - public radio services like IPR carry programs not only from NPR, but also from many other sources like American Public Media, PRI, the BBC, and independent producers, not to mention all the content we produce here in Iowa, like Symphonies of Iowa, on which you heard a marvelous composition called Sweet Rivers by none other than Daniel Gilliam when it was premiered by Jason Weinberger and the wcfsymphony. But I digress.) I felt Kurt’s pain when I read his first concern: that wherever he lives, “the local [classical radio] crew always runs a promotional ad that extols the virtues of classical music as 'relaxing'.” Vivaldi relaxing? - no way, he says! Even worse is the implication that “I can actually equate [Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] with a Corona commercial and relax on the beach with a lime in my beer while the violins saw away.”


I suspect that Kurt hasn't lived in Iowa, because as far as I know IPR Classical does not run such an ad, imply such an equation, or extol such a virtue. We recognize that the rubric “classical music” covers repertory written over the course of 1,100 years (counting this week’s batch) for every purpose from salacious to sacred. Further, as John Butt observes, “‘classical music’ has always had the tendency to absorb and transform gestures and vocabularies from other types of music," acting as a sort of "enzyme" that "absorbs many elements....but somehow changes their meaning and content in ways that cannot necessarily be predicted." I’ll list a few examples of the enzyme at its unpredictable best: Telemann responding to the sound of Polish street musicians, Haydn to Croatian folk songs, Brahms to Roma fiddlers, Ravel to jazz, Milhaud to Brazilian choros, and Sibelius or Rautavaara to the songs of wild birds in northern Finland. The classical repertory is so vast and so diverse that deciding which pieces to program is orders of magnitude more complex than, say, choosing which movie to watch tonight, even if you subscribe to all the streaming services and have a huge DVD library.

In any case, if you do want something relaxing, classical music has you covered. But if you want sublime, ridiculous, profound, frothy, angry, joyous, resigned, defiant, tragic, comic, foot-moving, trance-inducing, argumentative, conciliatory, complex, simple, unsettling, sweet,  austere - you name it, classical music has that too. I have never before loaded a single sentence with so many adjectives, yet they don’t come close to covering the range of this repertory. (I could add religious /devout vs. secular /sarcastic, nature mysticism vs. urban pizzazz - and so forth and so on, and on.) So yes, “relaxing” is way too reductive. We’re on your side, Kurt Knecht! 

Kurt’s second objection is to the idea “that you can even have [classical music] on in the background while you’re doing other things.” Here let me bring in Kurt's respondent, Daniel Gilliam, whose other job is as Director of Radio at Louisville Public Media. When Daniel was in music school, he says, he felt like Kurt  -  but not anymore. He now realizes that most listeners do in fact have his station on while they do something else, and he’s good with that: “I’m not going to close the door to those who just want to escape for a little bit on their commute home while listening to my station. .... Who am I to judge why our listeners want to listen to classical radio? I just want more people listening to my station so I can do more for my community.” Besides, he notes, such casual usage is a portal for many people coming to love great music as much as he does.  

But is that usage really best described as "background"? Not according to our colleague Frank Dominguez, whom you hear every Saturday morning as host of the bilingual show Concierto. Frank commented, "Background" is not "an accurate term for how listeners interact with classical radio.Instead, he says, classical radio offers "companionship....  the kind of relationship we have with trusted confidants, where we can enjoy each other's company while doing completely different things."

These observations say so much that I could happily leave it there. But let me improvise a bit on the themes:

First, I’d emphasize the “broad” in broadcasting - our mission is to serve a wide public. So if there’s a systematic difference between the tastes of the expert few and those of the novice many, our mission demands giving more weight to the latter. And here’s the thing: experts in any art tend to experience it very differently than novices do. The film school Ph.D. may be bored by the flicks most of us love and genuinely prefer art films we find obscure. In the classical world, composers are unusually expert; how they hear and value music differs from how a typical listener does. A professional might honestly prefer Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle or Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to, say, Fountains by Maurice Ravel. I didn't pick those examples at random: psychologist Stephen Palmer found in 2012 that as people received more years of education in music they became more likely to prefer atonal, expressionist pieces by Bartok and Schoenberg; people gaining just as many years of advanced education in other fields kept on preferring tonal, "harmonious" pieces by Haydn and, yes, Ravel. Palmer's peer-reviewed publication confirms what we classical-radio people know from our own research: that if we program purely for expert listeners, many of our other listeners go away instantly. And as NPR used to say, “No listeners, no mission.”

Furthermore, composers are professional craftspeople, so when they hear classical music their brain attends to the craft and argument of a piece; to try to do anything else while music plays is, for them, a very un-relaxing sort of multitasking. But an amateur’s brain can easily filter the music into one mental channel while focusing on another task, and its presence enhances daily life. 

This cognitive gulf between experts and amateurs goes beyond the arts. In his excellent writing guide  The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker describes a persistent challenge that he calls "the curse of knowledge: professionals know so much about a topic that they can scarcely remember what it was like to know nothing at all, yet that's exactly what they need to remember when writing for the layperson. I'd say that goes double for broadcasters. Terry Gross excels precisely because she imagines what it’s like to be a listener who hasn’t done any background research. We want our classical programmers to be as knowledgeable as possible about music, but the more knowledgeable we become, the more susceptible we become to the curse of knowledge -  and the harder we must work to remember what it’s like to be a new listener. The ideal is to maximize both our knowledge AND our ability to imagine our listeners’ needs. Daniel is a master at that. I do my best! 

One more thought inspired by Kurt. He illustrates his point by comparing classical radio to art museums:  “I suppose looking at Monet’s Water Lilies is relaxing in some sense. The trouble is, they are always hanging in museums that have a Goya or a Bosch lurking not too far away, so I never feel like I can let my guard down enough to be fully comfortable.” I was grateful for that comparison, because I’ve long used the art museum as a metaphor for what concerts do and classical radio programmers do NOT.  Franz Liszt described the concert hall as an "imaginary museum of musical works,” but classical radio is more like the art you put up in your bedroom and office. Bedroom and office artworks are what psychologist Sam Gosling calls "feeling regulators"  - that is, “stuff we gather about us and the environments we create … specifically to manage our emotions and thoughts.” Gosling adds that many people also “use music to manipulate and maintain their feelings and thoughts.” A composer may be less likely to use music that way, but many people who listen to classical radio do so unapologetically. And yes, Guernica could be considered greater than the posters in my bedroom - but who wants to go to sleep or wake up to an anguished depiction of a brutal massacre?   

Let me put it differently: when music is broadcast or art is hung in the bedroom it becomes functional. That's the opposite of what's supposed to happen in the concert hall or museum: such "temples of art" are meant to focus our minds on the "work" in itself, and to help us contemplate it with our full attention. But functionality, by contrast, means using the work as a means rather than an end - and if that seems to denigrate it, note that much of the music we consider "classical" and attend to in concert halls was originally functional. It was meant to serve as accompaniment to a wedding, funeral, coronation, garden party, church service, treaty signing, inauguration, play, firework display, and so forth.  Much of it was conceived before what Lydia Goehr calls "the work concept" ruled in music.  The history of classical music abounds with pieces that started as functional and only later were anointed as "works.” But the progression can go the other way too, or both ways at once. Thus, when classical music is broadcast during the daytime, every piece of music in fact becomes functional - that is, most listeners use it at least partly to help improve how we feel in daily life. Music that can't make the transition to that function isn't usually suitable for how our listeners use daytime classical radio.


Hiroshige sure looks nice on my bedroom wall! (Even if it messes up the text formatting on a web page!)
 Of course, a painting can be BOTH great art AND uplifting decoration at once - and so can the music we play on the radio. My bedroom includes poster reproductions of a Diebenkorn still life, a Klee "sunken landscape," a Hiroshige print of a Japanese canal, a Canaletto painting of San Marco plaza, a Cezanne of Lake Annecy, and a Vermeer of a house in Delft. The originals qualify as great art, but the cheap reprints are on my walls because they make me feel good when I'm about to turn out the lights - as Guernica would not. They are better than just decoration, since even after years I can notice new subtleties in their design or detail; but mostly, the image of an alpine lake or sunlit plaza soothes me as I hit the sack. These prints are, therefore, metaphors for what I play on the radio every day - great music that ALSO fulfills the purpose we use it for, which is to boost how we feel. Guernica is not on my bedroom wall, and its absence is a metaphor for what I don't play during the daytime on radio - its musical equivalents, such as, say, the Shostakovich 8th String Quartet or Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw.


That a single piece can be both functional and great at once allows me, as a programmer, to try to square the circle. I try to play only recordings I regard as special (including the performance) - ideally, something I consider excellent in some way, and in any case not "meh." And I try to get the right mix of novelty and familiarity. On a good shift, you hear your favorites, but also at least three pieces by living composers, which is part of why I’m excited to discover the composers’ collective site, MusicSpoke, where Knecht and Gilliam posted their exchange. In every shift I try to cover a wide range of history, styles, textures, and sounds, and I try to make both the music and my commentary interesting, as Terry Gross does - to give you an occasional “ah hah” insight or new discovery. I try to share my enthusiasm and provide a human connection that a music bot never could. But all of it must appeal right away* to a novice and fulfill the function of "feeling-regulation." 

Is that a burden for me as a programmer? On the contrary:  I'm excited about a "dual mandate" that includes making daily life feel more positive for my listeners along with satisfying your desire to learn about a wide range of music from all eras and about vital currents in our cultural life today. 

One other point: let’s call it "the barriers paradox." The Station Resource Group, a public media consortium, has just inaugurated a half-million dollar Classical Music Rising study. In its prospectus, it notes that classical radio is in 2016 the single main source of classical music for Americans. I’d guess that in part this reflects how low the “barriers to entry” are for our medium. You don’t need to dress up, go anywhere, or buy anything (and offering our service free to all Iowans regardless of ability to pay is part of our mission). You already have a radio, whose dial you scan anyway; it’s easy to check out the classical frequency. It’s no wonder that classical radio is where many people discover this music, and such discoveries are central to our mission. But the flip side is that classical radio has exceptionally low “barriers to exit.” (I might be coining that phrase, though probably someone has used it before.)  At a concert, when they play the Carter or Schoenberg you can boo, hiss, grimace or walk out in a huff -  but you probably won’t. You will probably sit politely and applaud when it’s over, then stay for the Tchaikovsky. To walk out while the players are working their hearts out for you is so dramatic a social confrontation that few of us consider it.  By contrast, radio programmers like Daniel and me know that if we play the Carter or Schoenberg during the day, a majority of listeners tune out. They may switch over to NPR or iTunes or just to silence, but tune out they do. Remember, “no listeners, no mission”; we are not fulfilling our purpose if we are broadcasting to the pavement and three experts. 

How about that mission of educating the public about great music? It is central; I hope my comments and music choices are accurate and give you some new insights. And I should mention that IPR Classical continues to carry symphony concert broadcasts at night, so you can indeed hear the Shostakovich symphonies or a Daniel Gilliam world premiere with expert commentary. And then there’s the Internet - anyone with a web browser can hear and learn all they want about Bluebeard’s Castle. But I do find something special from classical radio, the same thing I continue to get from Terry Gross. I would never bother to check out half the topics she covers on my own, but I rarely am less than riveted; she broadens my scope. Classical radio does that for me too. When I listen on my own I tend to dig more deeply into my familiar grooves (lots of Bach and the Baroque, in my case), but radio leads me constantly to explore as many styles and sounds as possible. Who knew how much I’d love Emmanuel Chabrier’s piano music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s songs, Louise Farrenc’s chamber works, Morten Lauridsen’s choral music, Dobrinka Tabakova’s instrumental pieces, Gustav Holst’s works for band, etc. etc. etc? Not me.

Of course, I’m a programmer who takes seriously the idea that the radio should not be my personal jukebox, but I find the same benefit when I tune in as an IPR Classical listener. Kurt is right - by no means do I want only “relaxing” music, and luckily I find far, far more. But I do want radio that fits how I use it in my life, and how my public does - and that fit is central to why classical radio continues to thrive. Relax!

 Dobrinka Tabakova's Suite in Old Style - one of those joys I'd never have stumbled upon without public radio, even if you can now hear it on youtube:


*POSTCRIPT:  A digression on “instant appeal” - I don’t mean to carry that too far. Some music unfolds its secrets only after repeated exposure, and that’s as true in jazz and indie rock or folk as it is in classical music. I recall a review of a recent Arcade Fire album by a superfan - he hated it at first hearing, but because it was his favorite band he kept listening, and eventually it became his favorite Arcade Fire album. I had the same experience as a teenager with the Brahms Fourth. But classical broadcasters can help in various ways. Some music never makes it (even composers of serial music do no better than chance at guessing the 12th tone of a tone row - the human brain just doesn't work that way). And other music needs great recordings. One reason I resisted the Brahms Fourth at first was that the performance I was listening to, while “great,” was heavy and forbidding, and the recording cavernous. When I play the Brahms Fourth today on IPR I make sure to find recordings with warm, beautiful, detailed recorded sound and vital, directly communicative performances - neither Furtwangler nor Norrington really works as an introduction to the work. Not even my favorite Brahms Fourths -  the BBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini in 1935, and the London Philharmonic with Eugen Jochum in 1976   - quite do the trick because of their older recorded sound. Brahms benefits from digital sound that lets you hear the many often-hidden layers of back and forth between instruments. Besides, in any music, glowing, rich, realistic sound is a “hook” in itself for a new listener because of its beauty to the ear. Happily, to my ears, we are living in an era of great Brahms playing, and recordings sound better than ever. POST-POSTCRIPT: The great pianist, composer, music critic, and broadcaster Jed Distler sent me a very nice note about this piece, which I quote with his permission: "....Even as a budding musician I depended on the radio to guide me to music that I didn't know and give me a little context. If you have a host who functions as a benevolent guide and curator who shares rather than preaches, then you're bound to attract people. Always assume that someone is tuning in for the first time who has NEVER heard a note of classical music, and if you're presenting something in a  way that is welcoming and sharing, rather than preachy and snooty, you'll get converts. This is what I try to  do on my show. Thanks for posting this wonderful piece, bravo!" [Thanks Jed! - Barney]