Firing Up the Bandwidth
VPR’s classical hosts woo listeners across the state — well, most of it
Walter Parker leans into a padded microphone and intones the credits of the Edward Elgar symphony recording he’s been airing during his daily program on Vermont Public Radio Classical. The 61-year-old’s voice is sonorous and slightly singsong, as calming as the peach-and-beige palette of Studio B, home of VPR Classical. The room sits at the silent center of VPR’s headquarters in a remote corner of Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester.
The whole scene, in fact, seems optimized for delivering lengthy, emotionally intense works of classical music — except for the small diorama of Simpsons figurines arranged on top of a subwoofer.
“That’s a different generation,” Parker explains off-air, in a voice that’s missing only the lilt. Hiding a smile under his mustache, he dismisses the toys with a wave and adds, “Ask Joe Goetz.”
At 26 years old, Goetz is the youngest of the local foursome who program and host the classical music Vermonters hear on VPR’s 24-hour classical music station. Cheryl Willoughby, 43, airs her selections weekdays from 8 to 10 a.m.; Parker’s program runs from 10 until 2; Goetz’s is 3 to 7 p.m.; and Peter Fox Smith has long hosted “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” during the New York Metropolitan Opera’s off-season. (All other night and weekend programming is purchased from Classical 24 in Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio.)
The three weekday hosts — Parker, Willoughby and Goetz — represent a large span of VPR’s history with classical music. Parker came on board in 1984, when classical programming was still sandwiched between news and talk radio on a single, mixed-format station. Goetz was hired right after college, and Willoughby from Los Angeles public radio in 2007 — the year VPR launched its all-classical station and eliminated classical music from its main station.
The shift was part of a nationwide trend: Public-radio stations in the U.S. added nine classical-only stations in 2009 alone, according to a report by Arbitron, radio’s equivalent of television’s Nielsen ratings. And listenership increased, in part because the number of commercial classical radio stations in the country shrank to 20 that year. Now there is just a handful left, including one in Vermont: WCVT in Stowe. “It’s not the most lucrative format,” Parker concedes.
At first, the change was a mixed blessing for Vermonters. Virtually everyone could get VPR, but VPR Classical was only added as the FCC made bandwidths available and channels came up for sale around the state — both rare occurrences. If you lived outside Chittenden and Windsor counties, you went from hearing some classical music to hearing none.
VPR has steadily increased its classical coverage in the last three years and plans to continue doing so. In the past year, two new frequencies were added in Middlebury and Randolph. According to VPR president Robin Turnau, 70 percent of Vermonters can now tune in to VPR Classical. The actual number of those who do is about 35,000, out of a total VPR audience of 180,000. And classical listeners tend to be “60-plus” years old, says Turnau — about 10 years older than the average public radio news listener.
“People always ask me why we are building a classical station if the audience is dying out, but the average age of a classical-music listener has been the same for 20 years,” she notes. “I like to say that people come to the public radio time of their life, and the same is true of classical music.”
Despite their age differences, Goetz, Willoughby and Parker are keenly attuned to Vermont’s classical audience — a highly informed crowd, in their experience. Goetz, a lean young man who enjoys ribbing Parker about his “wild” side, sits in a cubicle next to the wheeled walls of CD shelving that hold the station’s 25,000-disc classical library.
“We have a very educated, very discerning listener base,” Goetz declares. “It’s unique. Their correspondence [by email and phone] is very specific and high level. We have a core group of listeners who ask why we would play that recording of a Haydn piece when Bruno Walter recorded this other, better version in the 1960s. We have to answer for everything we do.”
Parker agrees that, “even in rural areas, people are very knowledgeable about music,” but he also hears from plenty of “casual” music lovers. “There was a fella the other day who was just getting into Mahler and wanted suggestions for recordings,” he recalls. Parker is a huge fan; he’ll ride his Harley Davidson to Tanglewood for a Mahler symphony. “I gave him some, but I also said, ‘Once you start getting into it, you’ll develop your own taste for certain conductors, and so on.’”
VPR Classical listeners may well be the most impassioned segment of Vermont’s public radio audience. On a “Conversation with Robin Turnau” that aired on the main station on April 6, the status of classical was the VPR president’s first topic: Listeners from Peacham and Brattleboro had called ahead to ask when the classical service would reach their areas.
A low-power translator currently serves Brattleboro, explained Turnau on the show; there are no plans to install more high-power transmitters until more frequencies become available. Willoughby, the director of music programming, says she doesn’t get VPR Classical where she lives, either — in Hanksville, near Huntington — but she does have a good DSL connection, so she just listens to the live stream on her computer. Listeners who already get analog VPR can also purchase an HD radio to get digital access to VPR Classical, she adds.
Perhaps most popular with Vermont’s classical community is the station’s commitment to showcasing performers in upcoming local concerts. Live, in-studio performances air an average of once every two weeks from the Performance Studio, which contains a concert grand piano. And the hosts regularly interview local and visiting musicians, composers and conductors in advance of their live concerts.
The DJs even promote concerts that occur outside the listening area, such as the Scrag Mountain Music chamber series in Northfield, attests its appreciative cofounder, Mary Bonhag, 25. She notes being “in talks” with VPR about coming in to play live on the air.
VPR’s acknowledgment of local concerts definitely “translates into higher ticket sales,” says piano tuner Allan Day, 64, of Williston. Day, who recently restrung VPR Classical’s 1971 Yamaha, can see the difference at the concerts he attends. He tunes pianos at the University of Vermont, the Elley-Long Music Center and the like for specific performers, and he always listens to the results at subsequent concerts.
Parker, who plans his four-hour program no more than two days ahead to accommodate such events, recently interviewed Robert de Cormier, founder of the choral group Counterpoint, just before de Cormier’s Legacy Concerts — his three last performances conducting the group. The station then recorded the Burlington concert, which took place on April 3 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, for later airing. Parker says this year is the first that VPR is allocating funds for such off-site broadcasts.
Shelburne pianist Paul Orgel appreciates VPR Classical’s commitment to the local classical music scene. “As a performer, I’m extremely grateful for their live-performance opportunities, both to perform myself and listen to others,” he says. Orgel, who goes on the air once or twice a year to give a live preview of his solo concerts, deems the station’s extensive local-scene coverage “unique around the country.”
The 56-year-old pianist admits he would appreciate more “adventurous” programming on VPR Classical, especially during the hours of nonlocal programming. Orgel wishes the station weren’t so geared toward a “mainstream audience” whose tastes are “more conservative” than his own. But, he adds, any criticism has to be taken in the context of the station’s existence at all. “VPR being all classical is basically a wonderful thing,” he declares.