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A New Way To Hear What You Can't Hear On The Radio

Living in a city without a full-time jazz station, I have to rely on CDs and downloads to hear my fill of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But to discover new jazz from singer Madeleine Peyroux or pianist Bruce Barth, it's necessary to reach past broadcast radio to online music services, music blogs and pay satellite radio.

But now comes NPR Music, a sprawling Web site from National Public Radio on which I can listen to the NPR jazz (or classical or folk or indie rock) shows that don't air on Washington's public stations -- as well as tap into song lists, video and audio of concerts, music-related stories from NPR's news shows and a raft of programs from public stations across the country.

The Web site, NPRmusic.org, which launched in November to the joy of many listeners and the consternation of some local public radio stations, helps fill the gap in the many parts of the country where jazz, classical and other traditional public radio music formats are vanishing as stations increasingly focus on news and talk programming.

The site is meant to break through the limitations that have made radio a primarily local and tightly formatted medium. "As listening to radio flattens, we are looking to use digital platforms to reach audiences with music that crosses genres and geographic boundaries," said Maria Thomas, NPR's senior vice president for digital media.

NPR Music includes programming from the network's own shows as well as from 12 of its member stations, including top music producers such as jazz WBGO in Newark, acoustic rock WFUV in New York, classical WGUC in Cincinnati and Austin's KUT, which features a mix of rock, blues, jazz and Latin sounds.

But perhaps the best-known and most original public radio music format, the eclecticism of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., is nowhere to be found on the NPR site. Nor is the alternative rock of WTMD (89.7 FM) in Towson, in both cases because station managers believe the new site is undue competition or detracts from NPR's mission.

"NPRmusic.org is the first service NPR has created that competes with NPR stations for listeners' time," says Stephen Yasko, general manager of the Towson station, one of four public stations serving the Baltimore area. "They're reducing the number of hours a listener spends with their local public station. NPR Music is potentially taking membership money away from WTMD." (NPR is funded in large part by membership fees paid by public stations across the country; those stations in turn depend heavily on listener and corporate donations.)

When a show such as "World Cafe," a daily two-hour broadcast of world music from Philadelphia's WXPN, airs on the Towson station, it includes promotional announcements for NPR's music Web site, so Yasko believes he is "involuntarily promoting something that draws listeners away from my station." For that reason, he is "very strongly considering dropping 'World Cafe.' "

Similarly, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour told trade newspaper the Current that she saw no reason to put her programming on the NPR site because her station has its own brand and reputation to protect.

Those stations that do share programming with the Web site hope both to stretch their business model -- the NPR site will share revenue from corporate sponsors with participating stations -- and lure new Web listeners back to the stations' own sites and radio stations.

For listeners who live in a market such as Baltimore -- where public stations include all-classical WBJC (91.5 FM), jazz WEAA (88.9 FM), alternative acoustic WTMD and news-talk WYPR (88.1 FM) -- the new Web site may not seem essential. But in markets such as Washington, where there are but two NPR affiliates, classical WETA (90.9 FM) and news-talk WAMU (88.5 FM), NPR Music can seem a godsend.

Listeners who prefer a more expansive variety of classical music than WETA provides will find there John Schaefer's "New Sounds" show of contemporary classical from New York's WNYC as well as a collection of audio guided tours to music conducted by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Despite the hundreds of hours of classical programming available on the Web site, WETA General Manager Dan DeVany says he is "not concerned" that NPR Music will steer listeners away from his station. "It's a good move for NPR," he says. He's not about to promote NPR's site on WETA -- "We have our own Web site," he says -- but he believes "it's perfectly appropriate for them to have a strong online presence."

"The Internet is simply very disruptive to our historical model" of local stations each creating their own mix of homemade and nationally distributed programming, NPR's Thomas said. "The bigger point now is how are we positioning ourselves unconstrained by radio towers?"

Ironically, NPR Music sounds more like a creative, genre-busting radio station than do many actual public stations. It's a place where radio adds value, with smart critics presenting and telling stories about music, programs that happily smash through the genre limits that make so much of radio too predictable, and online-only shows such as "All Songs Considered," which grew out of listeners' fascination with the music producers used to fill the spaces between stories on NPR's "All Things Considered" newsmagazine.

"The public radio listener is not bounded by a particular genre," Thomas said. "It is absolutely an intentional part of our strategy to bust the format and connect to public radio listeners, who are characterized by certain qualities, including curiosity, lifelong learning and joy."

I just listened to top 10 song lists put together by classical, jazz, rock and folk critics, along with a video documenting how the D.C. band Georgie James responded to NPR's challenge to write and record a song in two days -- a full menu of music you unfortunately can't hear on the radio.

By Marc Fisher |  January 12, 2008; 1:06 PM ET
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Comments

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As someone who went to college with the full intention of working at a public radio station like an NPR affiliate, I feel mixed emotions toward this.

#1: public radio music formatting sucks. It's completely mired in ancient baby boomer politics and tastes no different than people who thought rock and roll was going to go away in 1968. The baby boomers involved in public radio in 2007 ARE the same personalities who voted for Nixon. Folk, Jazz, and classical are dead media and about as vital to our culture as poetry: aka, niche markets on the sidelines. I live down the street from a grandfather who told me stories of seeing Grandmaster Flash spin the wheels at the Danceteria in New York City in 1978. Rap music is grandparents' music in 2007, yet true 1970s rap and funk, every bit the folk idiom, is missing from public radio. I personally know another couple, proud of their three grandchildren, who were ubderfans of DC's Urban Verbs and local art punks. Punk Rock of the 1970s is the music of grandparents, yet where is it on NPR? NPR isre focusing on the 70 year olds at the expense of 45-60 year olds and wondering where their audience went. Well, NPR, you abandoned the youth, then you abandoned the middle aged, where are YOU? Why no ROCK AND ROLL? Why not vitality? Why nothing that someone can play while racing their engine at a stoplight?

Secondly, there are probably one thousand music websites competing for listeners out there. So Stephen Yasko, by suggesting that NPRmusic competes with him, is blatantly stating that he is not competent to manage a radio station and needs to step down. In business, if you are afraid of competition, it's time to step down and let the young guard run things correctly. Yasko, you just talked yourself out of a job! Competition breeds better programming- what better programming have you created to beat out NPRMusic.org?

It's not like the music industry, where criminals are ripping off the musicians by refusing to pay for music anymore, radio always has been giving it away. Well, NPR, you've made so many mistakes over the last 20 years, when are you going to do something right?

Posted by: DCer | January 12, 2008 5:41 PM

Oh, good, another aging rock-and-roller who says that any music he doesn't like has no value. Guess what--this is the internet, where each new option does NOT take away any other option, unlike radio. If NPRmusic does not suit you, find something that does. FWIW, I'm in the lower portion of that age range you think is not being served, and I'll take all the jazz and classical I can get.

Posted by: Kimba | January 13, 2008 7:39 AM

Don't tell the RAA. They will sue all involved with music.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | January 13, 2008 8:08 AM

That was RIAA. Sorry.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | January 13, 2008 8:09 AM

Baltimore: "where public stations include all-classical WBJC (91.5 FM), jazz WEAA (88.9 FM), alternative acoustic WTMD and news-talk WYPR (88.1 FM)"

What the h___? Why does Baltimore have three public stations worth listening to and Washington has only two. I would LOVE to have an an-jazz station in addition to WAMU and WETA. Why should Baltimore have more than Washington?

Posted by: Daniel | January 13, 2008 8:57 AM

Many, many thanks for publicizing NPRmusic.org, which I did not know about, no thanks to Dan DeVany.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2008 9:11 AM

What about WPFW? I know it is a crazy commie station, but they do play a lot of jazz.

Posted by: johng1 | January 13, 2008 11:23 AM

The problem is that if you log onto a government sponsored site, the government has access to your computer and your files. Michael Chertoff (aka Skeletor) loves to have his minions in the "watcher class" of our Orwellian society snoop on Americans. Supposed subversives, such as members of Right to Life organizations, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, environmental groups and student activist groups, have all been spied upon by the watcher class of people installed at the Department of Homeland Security.

No thanks "National Proletariat Radio", I will stick to using audio streams from privately owned radio stations

Posted by: Clairese | January 13, 2008 12:26 PM

To the last two posters:
1) I didn't include WPFW because they have cut back so sharply on the hours they devote to jazz. Sadly, the station took a turn toward the same political content that's so widely available elsewhere, spurning both its original mission--to provide a voice for this nation's native classical music, jazz--and its local roots. That said, PFW still has some extraordinary jazz presenters, such as Rusty Hassan, Tom Cole, Larry Appelbaum, Candy Shannon and Faunee Williams. And--I think--the great Willard Jenkins, though his name is oddly no longer on the station's program listings.
2) NPR is not in any way a government operation. Public radio is a totally independent entity that relies largely on corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and individual listener donations for funding. Public stations do accept money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but that makes public radio no different from colleges, hospitals, non-profits and religious institutions that accept government grants. The government plays no role in the management or governance of NPR.

Posted by: Fisher | January 13, 2008 1:46 PM

I've been a fan of KCRW music (thanks, www) for many years and wonder if / why / how WAMU could support an alternative music station in the DC market. As a music lover (who's 31 yo, btw) who grew up in this area, I think few would disagree that local music radio is awful and has been for many years. When I lived in College Park, I could tune into the U of MD station....but their signal strength is laughable at best....drive a coupla miles down Rt. 1 and the station disappears. I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I'll either listen to talk radio (occasionally classic on 90.9)or tune into my iPod.....pretty sad in this large of a market.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2008 4:12 PM

Oh, good, another aging rock-and-roller who says that any music he doesn't like has no value. Guess what--this is the internet, where each new option does NOT take away any other option, unlike radio.
----------

Ok, so you violently AGREE with me?

Posted by: DCer | January 13, 2008 5:21 PM

WTMD joined NPR simply to obtain the money making cache the NPR moniker provided.
There is virtually no PUBIC in their programming. Since Mr. Yasko has taken control, WTMD has removed all locally produced public service and ethnic music programming.

Now nothing more than a Triple-A jukebox.

Posted by: Carl Olson | January 14, 2008 7:14 AM

I find one of Mr. Fisher's comments in his recent article about NPR music -- "The baby boomers involved in public radio in 2007 ARE the same personalities who voted for Nixon." -- to be blatantly ageist and therefore truly offensive. More than that, I find the comment to be truly uninformed and just plain stupid.

When Fisher goes on to say "... Stephen Yasko, by suggesting that NPRmusic competes with him, is blatantly stating that he is not competent to manage a radio station and needs to step down," Fisher is abusive.

A columnist/commentator is entitled to his own opinion, but the Washington Post ought not to associate itself with such cheap below-the-belt slurs.

Posted by: Jim Russell | January 14, 2008 10:30 AM

It has been pointed out to me that Fisher didn't say that Yasko should resign, a reader did. My mistake.

Posted by: Jim Russell | January 14, 2008 11:36 AM

Did this article appear in print or just this blog entry?

Posted by: chris | January 14, 2008 12:45 PM

If you are looking for classic jazz, check out Bop City - Classic Jazz Internet Radio.

We started the station because classic jazz is constantly being dropped from radio programming and the art form deserves better.

Bop City has listeners from every state in the U.S. and from all over the world. In fact, we have some very dedicated listeners from the Washington D.C. area.

We just celebrated the anniversay of our first year of broadcast and look forward to another great year.

You can reach the broadcast via Bop City's website at

http://bopcity.blogspot.com

Thanks!

Posted by: Bop City | January 14, 2008 8:15 PM

It's all about money. Consultants have persuaded station managers that news/talk listeners are more likely than music listeners to contribute to the station. In the case of WETA, now classical in the wake of WGMS's demise, ex-WGMS program manager (and now WETA's) Jim Allison apparently has even been persuaded by questionable research not to play popular, late-Romantic composers such as Sibelius (other than "Finlandia"), Richard Strauss (other than the suite from "Der Rosenkavalier"), and absolutely no Bruckner and Mahler.

It's tragic. It's insane. It makes you wonder what they'd do if 10 million dollars suddenly landed in their laps with no strings attached. Would that at last free up scheduling decisions and, as a related issue, stop the on-air fundraising?

Pledge drives are killing public radio and TV by inches because they're running off listeners and viewers who often don't come back after a drive. In the wake of sponsorship cutbacks, a disturbing trend brought about by corporate mergers and resultant bottom-line pressures the past decade or two, pledge drives have gotten longer and longer in an effort to make up for this lost corporate revenue. It's a death spiral. And no one has found a substitute. Replacement revenue is certainly not coming from the Internet nor from the Congress, not as long as the Administration has its military adventures to fund.

And so, the programming "regression toward the mean" continues so as to attract as many donors (not listeners, necessarily) as possible. One day every public station may sound about the same as the next--just as so many do now in commercial broadcasting.

Posted by: Former public broadcaster in Alexandria | January 16, 2008 11:33 AM

Radio cannot be programmed like the concert hall. The majority of the dwindling audience that listens to classical music on the radio basically wants it as high-class background music and nothing else. They do not want to hear screeching sopranos, long boring pieces or weirdo avant-garde music. And in case you've forgotten, they are the people who subscribe to stations like WETA. What gives you the right to cram your minority tastes down the throat of the majority? What part of "majority rule" don't you understand?

And you wonder why America hates ivory tower intellectual elitist snobs like you. When are you going to get off your ivory tower and start living in the real world?

Posted by: Actual Radio Listener | January 16, 2008 5:45 PM

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