Daily Bow: Dusting Off Classical Radio Model

Daily Bow LogoClassical radio is something of a rare bird these days. Most cities don’t have a classical station at all, and many that do have it in the form of a shared station that plays a little jazz, some NPR, and a few hours of classical programming every day. Coming from a city that is fortunate enough to have a listener-supported, non-NPR-affiliated station, I’ve always taken classical radio for granted–it seems like something of a basic right. Classical radio, especially now, is hardly a given. Rather, it seems to be on the decline in many areas, which is what makes the story of Britain’s Classical FM such a welcome change of pace.

Classic FM is, as the name would suggest, a radio station dedicated to the broadcast of classical music. The station is helmed by Darren Henley, a man who has, by age 39, managed to build a following of 5.5 million listeners for his classical station. The size of the station’s following is part of what makes Classic FM, according to the Independent, the most successful commercial classical radio station in the world. Henley is not what one might consider the typical classical music fan. Rather, he is the type of person that classical music hopes to draw in all of the time: he credits his love of classical music to an outdoor concert that he attended with his parents. He was so impressed by the real cannons that they used in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that he went out and bought a recording on a cassette tape. That, for him, was the gateway, and he’s been excited about classical music ever since. Henley makes sure that his station eats, sleeps, and breathes classical music (the music is even piped into the restrooms).

While Henley is enthusiastic about the traditions of classical music, he is aware that classical music doesn’t have the universal appeal that pop and hip hop does. He sees himself as “a custodian of something precious,” he says. He’s on something of an evangelistic mission to bring classical music to the uninitiated, even going to far as to publish a newbie’s guide entitled Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Classical Music But Were Afraid to Ask. Under his guidance, classical music has undergone something of a re-branding. “We have got to a stage now where we are part of national life.” His mission is to make the Classic FM website the “world’s go-to destination for classical music”, responding to a surge in interest in classical downloads. “We are at a tipping point now in digital consumption versus physical product. In the next 12 months, we will see digital really ramp up.” Much of the change in classical music’s reputation with the British public is due to Henley’s efforts at his station. Housed in the same building as a hip-hop station and a pop station, Henley’s station benefits from his willingness to adopt many of the same techniques that his neighbor stations do. Listeners can download an app for their iPad to listen live, and they can interact with the station in ways that most classical radio audiences can’t–the station has a “name that tune” segment and plays various popular pieces that the audience may know from television spots and movies. The station also keeps laudably abreast of current events and pop culture, as illustrated by a recent interview with the author of the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Gray books, whose classical references have sparked a wild interest in, of all things, Thomas Tallis.

Perhaps the greatest message that can be taken from Classic FM may be drawn from the medium itself. Radio, once thought to be headed down the road of the dinosaurs after the advent of television, has remained strong–it has adapted itself and learned what the listening public wants, unafraid to take risks or adopt the latest strategies. That is precisely Henley’s plan at Classic FM, and it seems to be working. Henley’s weapon of choice in his battle to bring classical music to the masses is the radio, and it’s a fitting choice for an art form that is also refusing to give up in the face of newer, flashier models. His goal is to “make the classical world not only accessible, but also disarmingly simple and utterly engrossing…There are so many more people we can turn on to classical music and we have this amazing tool to do it.”

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