Category: Articles

Does Radio Have a Future?

Does new music have a future on radio?

Can radio programming embrace new listeners and new musical experiences? Is there a sustainable place on the airwaves for music other than the Top 40 Pop or Classical hits?

Do most of us actually listen to music on the radio? Or do we use it more as a comforting ambience, a kind of designer noise to fill empty times and spaces, in our homes, workplaces and vehicles?

Do people prefer Mozart on the radio simply because its easier to ignore than Harry Partch? Do we demand this kind of radio? Or does timid, unimaginative programming only perpetuate itself?

Most music radio these days is not broadcasting – it’s middlecasting. And the larger the target audience, the more middle-of-the-road the programming. The middle may be where the money is. But it’s rarely where the heart and soul of music resides. Maybe what radio needs is less middle and a little more of the extremes…radically-broader conceptions of broadcasting, or extremely specific kinds of narrowcasting.

All too often, music programming on both commercial and public radio is an uninspired blend of ignorance and fear. Most programmers know very little about new music, and they live in fear of negative reactions from their listeners and sponsors. The result is a widespread dumbing-down of radio, which sadly underestimates the intelligence and curiosity of listeners. But I believe listeners are far more sophisticated and open-minded than most radio programmers (and recording executives) imagine.

Just as people in the United States have become more and more adventuresome about experiencing new tastes in food and drink, they’ve become more and more ecumenical in their musical tastes. Younger listeners are especially open to a wide range of new musical experiences. Despite a prevailing wasteland of what Frank Zappa called “Ugly Radio,” there are some exciting and encouraging models of innovative programming, particularly on college and alternative stations.

In my travels around the country, I’ve heard some very interesting radio shows. One time in Virginia, I was a guest on a program called “Defenestrations”. The hosts lived up to their title. Demonstrating an extremely broad range of musical knowledge and tastes, they threw conventional stylistic distinctions right out the window. When I arrived, an Ives song was on the air. By the time I left, they had somehow made a perfectly seamless transition from my music, to a Bulgarian women’s chorus, and on to Marvin Gaye.

On the other extreme, I’ve heard what may be one of those urban legends about a radio station somewhere down South that plays “All Louie, Louie, All the Time!” Satie would be delighted. Radio is finally catching up with his Furniture Music and Vexations.

Beyond music, does radio in general have a future? Is there anything inherent in the medium itself which distinguishes radio from webcasting and other new media?

Radio people are fond of saying that theirs is an intimate medium. And if radio does survive into the new century, my guess is it will become more personal and more idiosyncratic. But radio needs something even more fundamental than smart new programs and ideas about “content”. What radio needs most is the best creative thinking of people who can re-imagine and rediscover its essential qualities as a medium for the transmission of magic.

What do you think? Does radio have a future? Do you have an encouraging or amusing radio story to tell? Have you heard or imagined any interesting new models for radio in this country?

When do you listen to the radio and what do you listen to?

Milton BabbittMilton Babbitt
“…in all the many years of listening to…public stations, I have not heard a note of the most influential music of the 20th century…”
Andrew LittonAndrew Litton
“Sometimes I awaken to my own voice when WRR plays one of our ads, which is extremely frightening.”
Steve MetcalfSteve Metcalf
“As a child of the ’50s, I have a romantic attachment to radio, or at least the idea of radio.”
Joan TowerJoan Tower
“Frankly, I only listen to the radio in the car and then I’m listening primarily to the local NPR stations.”

Can Radio Be Friendlier to New American Music?

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

This month marks the one-year anniversary of NewMusicBox and I am thrilled to say that it has been extremely successful thus far. When we launched our first issue a year ago, we had a little bit more than 5000 user sessions to the site. Not bad for a start-up, but last month we had over 20,000, which is a 400% increase!

I don’t cite these statistics to brag about NewMusicBox, although I’m understandably very proud. Rather, I offer this information as proof that the American new music scene is vital and that people around the world are paying attention to it more and more. A glance at this month’s News, our database of concert listings, or our compendium of new CD releases only begins to give an idea about just how much is going on every day. A reason for NewMusicBox being launched by the American Music Center in the first place was that there were no nationally significant media outlets covering new American repertoire on a regular basis. We were tired of bemoaning the lack of attention in traditional media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and decided to use the new medium of the Internet to create something that would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago.

To celebrate this anniversary, it seemed instructive to look at another important informational medium, radio, and see how it deals with the music of our composers. This past February, I attended the annual conference of the American Music Personnel in Public Radio (AMPPR) for my sixth consecutive year. Each year the Conference is something of a battle ground between the folks who believe in public radio as a mouthpiece for alternative intellectual enrichment (music, news, etc.) and people who believe that the only way to stay alive in today’s climate is through maximizing an audience via statistical research about what listeners want to hear at any given moment. I must admit, it frequently feels a bit like a battleground to folks who believe in the cause of contemporary American composers, and this year’s Conference in New Orleans was no exception. Several members of the Board of Directors of AMPPR were kind enough to meet with me for an informal chat about the role of radio in today’s environment. Their comments, which once again are presented in a full transcription along with some QuickTime video excerpts, will hopefully provoke some comments of your own.

Jennifer Undercofler has put together a remarkable HyperHistory exploring the tenuous relationship between radio and new American music. For the first time, the HyperHistory goes beyond an intro and one set of branches to numerous branches sprouting from each set of initial branches. So read on and discover a fascinating legacy that extends back to commercial radio’s commissions of the 1930s and looks forward to Web casting. In this month’s Hymn & Fuguing Tune, we offer comments about radio from composers Milton Babbitt and Joan Tower as well as conductor Andrew Litton and music critic Steve Metcalf. As a bonus, we also present a full transcript of Gunther Schuller’s keynote address at this year AMPPR conference, one station’s list of the 52 most important pieces of 20th century music which were broadcast one a week over the course of a year, and my own “Another Century List”, another attempt at devising a means by which radio stations can program in more new music.


Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri


What other jobs might you be interested in if you weren’t so busy writing music?

Michael DaughertyMichael Daugherty
“I would either run a used book store or be a lounge cocktail pianist…”
Daron HagenDaron Hagen
“My second great love is to conduct my own theater music…”
Jeffrey MumfordJeffrey Mumford
“Run a coffee house/art gallery with my wife…”
Melinda WagnerMelinda Wagner
“I’d really enjoy working in a library, however one that is pre-computer!…”
Stewart WallaceStewart Wallace
“I’d make things with my hands like a sculptor or a painter…”

Hyphenated Composers

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Like many other composers throughout our history, I have been a composer for most of my life but have always had other occupations as sources of income. Yet, when people ask me what I do, I always say that I am a composer first. The “composer first” response is true for every other composer I know who maintains multiple career identities. Why is that?

Today we honor Charles Ives as the first great 20th century American composer. We all know that he earned his living as an insurance salesman, and was in fact a pioneer in the insurance industry, yet somehow that part of his life is less important to us. Perhaps there is a greater connection between the two parts of his life than we realize. Long before Ives, America has had a tradition of the multi-tasking composer. One of our earliest composers, Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), also worked as a lawyer and a judge, finding time in between to write poetry, invent a shaded candlestick, and sign the Declaration of Independence! William Billings (1746-1800), the earliest American composer whose works turn up with some regularity, earned his living as a tanner. Perhaps pursuing several careers can allow composers to have a greater contact with the rest of society and can inspire the creation of music which has an ever greater sense of connection to the lives of others.

Although Meredith Monk considers herself a composer first, the success of her unique compositional approach is at least partially attributable to the fact that she is also a dancer, a choreographer, a filmmaker, a dramaturge, and, most importantly, a singer. We asked her to talk about the multiple identities of her creative path. Kenneth Goldsmith, who himself wears many hats, has offered portraits of a group of contemporary American composers whose other jobs range from performing and recording other people’s music to conducting in-depth research in neurobiology. To have some fun, we’ve asked Michael Daugherty, Daron Hagen, Jeffrey Mumford, Melinda Wagner and Stewart Wallace, each of whom are known exclusively as composers, what other jobs they would pursue given the opportunity. We ask you to ponder what the salary of a composer in today’s society should be, just to get a sense of the economic importance of maintaining a day job!

In our News section, we pay tribute to the late William Colvig and Vivian Fine. Their contributions to American musical life will be sorely missed. We also pay tribute to Joseph Ridings Dalton, who is still very much alive but is stepping down as the Director of CRI. His energy and enthusiasm have helped to make CRI one of the most important record labels in the business. Our Hear&Now Database features a plethora of concerts featuring music by Americans around the world. This month’s edition of SoundTracks includes 33 CDs spanning American music of four centuries with a range of living composers in their 20s to their 90s, each with a RealAudio sample.

So despite all the jobs so many of us are juggling, there is a ton of musical activity going on all across the country. We can only hope to inspire a continuation of this discovery.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet…

Kenneth Goldsmith
Photo by Melissa Richard

Conventional wisdom says: Don’t quit your day job yet. Stick it out until you are sure that the opportunities and cash is plentiful enough. Then quit. It could be a long time. Let’s face it: day jobs suck. Or do they? I’ve recently spoken to 5 composers who have not only loved their day jobs but felt that they have actually enhanced, influenced and informed their composing. Perhaps among artists, attitudes toward work are changing. During my last job, one of my co-workers was a famous novelist who made scads of money lecturing, writing articles and publishing books. When I asked her why she was working 10-7 as an online strategist instead of being the glamour queen that she was, she replied that being home all day alone drove her crazy; she missed the interaction with other people (which fueled her writing in the first place) and felt like the world was passing her by.

Innovative artists, on the other hand, generally don’t find themselves in the glamorous spotlight too often and if they do, it’s often only after working for a long time in obscurity. While their more conservative peers often find themselves swamped with commissions for everything from operas to car commercials, those who fall on the more experimental side of things usually have to do something to make ends meet. Unfortunately, history has confirmed this: in the late 1950s, well into his career and just before fame struck, John Cage worked as a designer for the textile firm of Jack Lenor Larsen; Virgil Thomson scribbled as chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune; Charles Ives raked in the dough as an insurance exec; and Marcel Duchamp served his time dealing art and living off a family fortune for decades until the culture finally caught up with him in the 1960s.

While it might sound like a drag, the composers I spoke with have created their own agendas and made choices that seem to suit them. In fact, some of these composers could very well make a living off their own compositions, but stuck with their day jobs for reasons other than money: Morton Subotnick‘s 4 decade-long infatuation with electronic music and computers has led him to writing software, CD-ROMs and websites that teach kids how to read and compose music; David Soldier‘s day job as a scientist directly influences his conceptual-based musical projects; Joan La Barbara, by performing other’s compositions, has led her to develop a vocabulary of her own; Stephen Vitiello, had he not worked in the artworld, would have still been a rock musician instead of a noted improvising experimentalist; and David Behrman did god’s work by helping his fellow avant-gardist’s recordings to find their way into the hands of the mainstream back in the 60s when he did a stint at Columbia records as a producer.

I suppose my old-fashioned notion of what constitutes an artist’s pride made me approach my subjects gingerly. With each interview, I almost apologized for prying into the nuts and bolts of one’s financial life and made sure to ask if they felt absolutely comfortable discussing this subject with me. No one seemed to mind and several were surprised at my timidity. In the end, I was taken aback by the strange reversal of common knowledge; what emerged from this series of interviews is an overall positive attitude about employment, rather than the usual tired notions of work as enslavement. But in hindsight it makes sense: all of the composers I interviewed refuse to see their work – both art and employment – in conventional terms. In the end, I discovered that it was I who was holding on to dogged notions of what employment means.

What other jobs might you be interested in if you weren’t so busy writing music? Michael Daugherty

Michael Daugherty
Photo courtesy 21st Century Music Management

If I was not a composer I would either run a used book store or be a lounge cocktail pianist. I have always loved the smell of old books and enjoyed rummaging through the stacks never knowing what I might come across.

For years I was a lounge pianist and enjoyed playing all over the globe during my student years. One meets many interesting and strange people at the gigs. My most unmemorable lounge gig: Ramada Inn, New Jersey Turnpike, Exit One.

What other jobs might you be interested in if you weren’t so busy writing music? Daron Hagen

Daron Hagen
Photo courtesy Carl Fischer Inc.

If I could spend one hundred percent of my time composing I would. Now in my twenty-third year of thinking of myself as a composer, I have worked up to being able to spend eighty percent of my time pushing notes around. I’m proud of that.

While I was in conservatory I worked as a music copyist. (Interesting fact: Now that Finale, Score, and Sibelius rule the day, I am a member of the last generation of concert music composers who shall have moonlighted as professional hand music copyists –quill on vellum!– for their mentors and colleagues. Question: how long will the elite Broadway hand copyists be able to hold out?) I still treasure my Local 802 card: hand copying is a deeply honorable profession now gone.

Then, for ten years, the other twenty percent was filled first with a faculty position at Bard, then occasional stints filling in for David Del Tredici at CCNY, then a brief spell on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music and Princeton University.

Finally, about three years ago, I took the plunge and quit teaching entirely. That was a scary step. The dreaded other twenty percent is now spent (in descending order): giving composition master classes, pre-concert talks, doing website design (writing HTML), and (when things get really bad, which they do) music proofreading for a cherished ex-student’s Broadway copying house. Three years ago, I worked for two weeks as a Coffee Comrade at Starbucks. Last week, I also painted a colleague’s office! I do not feel entitled to a career composing music, but I will continue to work at it with all my heart.

What other jobs might I be interested in if I weren’t writing music? My second great love is to conduct my own theater music. I have begun stretching my wings in that direction – have just conducted the full-recording of my opera “Bandanna” in Nevada for ARSIS Audio, will conduct Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for Ohio Opera Theatre in November and the full-recording of my opera Shining Brow next year. Every time I conduct my own music I learn dozens of incredibly important new things that I write down and bring to the next compositional assignment. I have since high school been extremely comfortable in the pit, both as a conductor and pianist. I adore the theater’s ennobling tradition of Communion and delight in the responsibility that a theater conductor has to not just control the flow of the entire production but also to protect and uplift the singers while helping his orchestra to shine. I am thirty-eight years old. By the age of forty-five, I would like to be spending sixty percent of my time composing and forty percent conducting revivals and premieres of my own operas. I can think of no greater honor than to spend the balance of my days balancing these two activities.

If fate tears me away from my first and second loves, I would try to write prose. As a passionate lover of the written word, I have the amateur’s enthusiasm for writing fiction. I’d like to think that I would be pretty good at it – certainly, I would enjoy myself for a while. But, as a career? No. Words are in a way too specific; I would always crave music’s ability to discuss the all-too-personal in an abstract and curiously universal fashion.

What other jobs might you be interested in if you weren’t so busy writing music? Jeffrey Mumford

Jeffrey Mumford
Photo courtesy Theodore Presser Company
  1. I would love to run a radio station that plays REAL music, that does not compromise (whatever style, just intensely good and focused). It would have a live format incorporated wherein there would be performances and interviews. There would also be live panel discussions on matters of musical aesthetics (I can dream!). One of my dreams is to convene a huge stylistically diverse panel (from Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Donald Martino through La Monte Young, Philip Glass, “Blue Gene” Tyranny, George Lewis and all in between) to have a no holds barred aesthetic free for all! Also regular calendar updates, Concert links from other countries. An IRCAM show etc. A course/show on orchestration taught and moderated by Bernard Rands AND John Adams. Shows on Black composers (in its HUGE variety from Olly Wilson to William Banfield to Tania León); on women (from Augusta Read Thomas to Ellen Zwilich to Jennifer Higdon to Pauline Oliveros) the world is wide open. Just one man’s dream.
  2. Another would be to be a tennis correspondent with assignments all over the world. To be able to cover Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open IN PERSON would be a real kick. Plus getting to hit with and get free lessons from anyone I want from the tour.
  3. Run a coffee house/art gallery with my wife (who is a painter) and get the best art and music exhibited and played continuously.
  4. Paris bureau chief for almost anything!

What other jobs might you be interested in if you weren’t so busy writing music? Melinda Wagner

Melinda Wagner
Photo courtesy Theodore Presser Company

In the field of music, if I weren’t so busy, I would return to teaching. I’d also really like to coach chamber music or conduct.

Outside of music, I’d really enjoy working in a library, however one that is pre-computer! I love to work with file cards. I would also enjoy making furniture. Of course, I don’t know how; but I’d love to learn.

If I had even more time, I’d be an athlete. I used to run long distance but then family and professional obligations just took over. I would run marathons. Of course, I’m running one now, aren’t we all!