I was kidding around on Facebook last night about today's Richard Wagner bicentennial, saying I planned not to celebrate, but to hunker down and grit my teeth until it's over — sort of like a colonoscopy. Amongst much snickering, one wise classical radio pro offered these sage words: "Classical Music birthday celebrations on Classical Music radio stations are often lame, uninterestingly done and mostly unnecessary. Why do we do them?"
Immediately, I flashed back to a 21st of March several years ago, when I received the following love-note from a listener: "Bloody Blue Blazes!!! Don't you know whose birthday it is?" I guess the listener was offended that we were not filling the airwaves that day with Bach, the whole Bach, and nothing but Bach.
So there you have it — two divergent views on the same radio show, one from an industry insider, one from a listener. Who's right and who's wrong? I'm not going there, mostly because there's no one answer. But if you don't mind a peek behind the curtain and into the sausage factory, to mix metaphors, I can offer a little insight into how we decide whether and how to celebrate composer's birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and the like.
This decision, like all those in the radio biz, starts with an attempt to put ourselves in our listener's shoes (and yes, we typically think of "the listener" as one person). When you wake up next Monday, for instance, how long before it sets in that it's Memorial Day? Maybe right away, since you'll have slept in a little, or maybe a few seconds later, when you think of whatever plans you have for the occasion. And when you turn the radio on (to New England Public Radio, of course!), you will not only unsurprised to hear programming that reflects the day, whether news or music, you will probably expect it. There's a Memorial Day mood, one different from the typical workaday Monday. Whatever we play will be heard in that context, not that we have to overdo it. Indeed, I prefer observing such occasions with a light touch, and to keep things varied, lively and enjoyable. But yes, there'll be more than the usual amount of Americana, and some selections suitable for both reflection and celebration.
On the other hand, when you woke up this morning, did you already know that today is Wagner's bicentennial? I bet you didn't, until you either heard it on WFCR or read it here. And if you tuned into WFCR for the usual classical fare, and were instead offered non-stop Wagner, wouldn't that have been a drag? For you, it's just another Wednesday, and I bet you want your favorite classical radio show to reflect that by doing what it usually does, whatever that is. The fact that May 22, 2013 looms so large in music history is our problem, not yours. Even when the composer is more beloved and less controversial than Wagner, such as Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, you probably don't have their birthdays circled on your calendars, and would prefer not to have their entire output dumped on you like a ton of CDs. Let me know if I'm right or wrong on this.
But on the other other hand (could someone please lend us a hand?), observing a composer's birthday with a work or two...or three...and briefly telling his/her story can be one of those small but fun things that makes one day a little different from the next — as long as those works make positive additions to your listening pleasure. Read here what I had to say about this several blogs ago.
Finally, let me offer my perspective not as a radio programmer, but as a listener like you. I'm a big sports fan, and when I'm not (ahem) glued to NEPR, I enjoy tuning in to New York's all-sports station WFAN. I have my regular listening times and favorite hosts, just like most listeners. But when something alters the usual schedule, like a Mets game (blech!), or worse, when the station celebrates its own anniversary by breaking format and beating its own drum, I am seriously bummed. The station's management may consider it a big occasion, but I don't. That's not what I tune in for. And what would be my reaction if my favorite host celebrated, say, Mickey Mantle's birthday with a non-stop discussion of ol' number 7, one of my favorite players? I can tell you exactly what it would be: Bring back the regular stuff, please!