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

Randy Darst

In response to a thoughtful 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 and classical radio, the "curse of knowledge," and why low barriers to entry might also mean low barriers to exit:
How often in 2016 do you read an online disagreement that's civil and informed? This week, two musicians had such an exchange about my own field, classical radio. Both Kurt Knecht and Daniel Gilliam are notable composers, and since composing gives special insight into music, I was relieved that I liked what each had to say. Still, I've been programming classical radio for so long that I had a few thoughts I wanted to add. (Obvious disclaimer: I’m speaking for myself, not for Iowa Public Radio.)

Kurt started the conversation with a blog post that lodged two complaints about public-radio stations. I felt Kurt’s pain when I read his first concern. Wherever he lives, he writes, “the local [classical radio] crew always runs a promotional ad that extols the virtues of classical music as 'relaxing'.” He rightly rejects that adjective for Vivaldi, and ridicules the implication that he "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.”


IPR Classical does not run such an ad, and I agree that we shouldn't. We should recognize that the term “classical music” covers 1,100 years of music written for every purpose from the salacious to the 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." Think of Telemann responding to the sound of Polish street musicians, Brahms to Roma fiddlers, Ravel to jazz, Milhaud to Brazilian choros, Steve Reich to tape loops, and Sibelius or Rautavaara to the songs of wild birds in northern Finland - the list could go on for pages. The classical repertory is so vast that programming it takes orders of magnitude more filtering than, say, choosing which movie to stream.

It also has a diversity of moods that I've found in no other form. If you want something relaxing, classical music has you covered. But that's also true if you want something sublime, ridiculous, profound, frothy, angry, joyous, resigned, defiant, tragic, comic, foot-moving, trance-inducing, argumentative, conciliatory, complex, simple, unsettling, sweet, austere, devout, profane, mystical, sarcastic, urban, rural - and while I have never before loaded a sentence with so many adjectives, they are just a start. Yes, “relaxing” is way too reductive.

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, Gilliam, whose other job is as Director of Radio at Louisville Public Media. When Daniel was in music school, he felt as Kurt does, but not anymore. He now realizes that most listeners have his station on while they do something else, and he’s fine 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 interactwith 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."

That covers the key points, but let me improvise on the themes.

First, I try to remember that in broadcasting (as opposed to narrowcasting), our mission is to serve the greater public. If there’s a systematic difference between the tastes of the expert few and those of the novice many, we should give more weight to the latter. And there is evidence for such systematic gulfs. Experts in an art experience it differently than novices. This gap is a continual challenge for, say, TV critics with doctorates in film. In the classical world, composers often hear music in ways most of us cannot, and value it differently as a result. A professional might honestly prefer Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle or Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to, say, Jeux d'eau by Maurice Ravel.

I pick those examples for a reason. Berkeley psychologist Stephen Palmer found in 2012 that every extra year of music education increased a person's preference for atonal pieces by Bartok and Schoenberg. Palmer compared them to a control group of people who had as many years of advanced education, but in other fields. No matter how advanced their degrees, they preferred tonal, "harmonious" pieces by Haydn and Ravel. Palmer's peer-reviewed study conforms to classical-radio research, which shows that when we program purely for the taste of self-described "serious" classical listeners, self-described "casual" listeners tune out immediately. This matters to public radio for reasons other than ratings. We are mission-driven, but as NPR used to say, “No listeners, no mission.”

Furthermore, composers are skilled craftspeople, so when they hear classical music their brain attends to the craft and argument of the composition. To try to do other work while music plays is, for them, a stressful sort of multitasking. But an amateur’s brain can more easily filter music into a background mental channel while focusing on a foreground task, and can find daily life enhanced by the right music. 

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 keep in mind when writing for the layperson. In broadcasting, Terry Gross excels precisely because she imagines what it’s like to be a listener who hasn’t done any research. We want our classical programmers to become as knowledgeable as possible, but the more they learn, the more susceptible they become to this curse. The ideal is to maximize both knowledge AND the ability to imagine listeners’ needs.

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.” As it happens, I’ve long used the art museum as a metaphor for what concerts do but classical radio does 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 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 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. By contrast, functionality means using the work as a means rather than an end. If that seems to denigrate it, note that much of the music we consider "classical" was originally functional. It was meant to serve as accompaniment to a wedding, funeral, coronation, garden party, church service, treaty signing, inauguration, play, or even firework display.  Much of it was conceived before music was governed by what Lydia Goehr calls "the work concept," and only later was anointed as "a great work.” 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 becomes functional - that is, most listeners use it at least partly to improve how they feel in daily life. Music that can't make the transition to that function isn't usually suitable for how 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, and so can the music we play on the radio. My bedroom includes poster reproductions of a Klee "sunken landscape," a Hiroshige print of a Japanese canal, 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 decoration, since even after years I can notice new subtleties in their design or detail; but more to the point, the image of an alpine lake soothes me as I hit the sack. These prints are metaphors for what I play on the radio every day. I seek great music that also fulfills the purpose we use it for, which is to boost how we feel. The absence of Guernica on my bedroom wall is a metaphor for what I don't play during the daytime on radio - masterly equivalents such as the Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet or Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw.


That a single piece can at once be functional and great allows me, as a programmer, to try to square the circle. I try to play only recordings I regard as special - ideally, something I consider excellent in some way, and in any case not meh. And I seek the right mix of novelty and familiarity. On a good shift, you hear old 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 the commentary interesting, as Terry Gross does. I try to give you an occasional insight or discovery, to share my enthusiasm, and to provide a connection that a bot never could. But all of it must appeal right away* to a novice and fulfill the function of "feeling-regulation."

You might call this a "dual mandate": good programming makes daily life feel more positive while also helping you learn about 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 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. To hear radio, you don’t need to dress formally, travel downtown, or buy a monthly subscription. (Indeed, offering our service free to all Iowans regardless of ability to pay is part of our mission.) You already have a radio, and it’s easy to scan to 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 exitAt a concert, when musicians play Carter or Schoenberg, audiences could boo, grimace or walk out in a huff - but don’t. We sit and applaud politely, then stay for the Beethoven. To walk out while the players are working their hearts out is so dramatic a social confrontation that few of us consider it.  By contrast, radio programmers know that if we play atonal Carter or Schoenberg during the day, most listeners tune out immediately. 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 mandate if we broadcast only to the pavements and corn fields.


How about the mission of educating the public about great music? It is central, and we hope our comments and music choices are accurate and give insights. And 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 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, and it's similar to why I still listen to Terry Gross. I would never bother to check out half the topics she covers on my own, but I am usually 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, but radio leads me constantly to explore as many styles and sounds as possible. Without it, I'm not sure I would have found out how much I’d love Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s songs, Louise Farrenc’s chamber works, Dobrinka Tabakova’s instrumental pieces, and so forth.

Kurt Knecht points to a tension that is eternal. We want far more than relaxation from classical music, but we also want it to fit our uses for it in our lives. Classical radio continues to thrive because programmers keep trying to resolve this riddle. That is why we benefit from dialogues like the one between Knecht and Gilliam.

Dobrinka Tabakova's Suite in Old Style - one of those joys I'd probably not 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]