WQXR-FM in New York has been a pure classical-music station since starting in 1939. It’s harder to find classical music on the dial than it used to be, but after decades of decline the public radio sector is grabbing an opportunity to plug the gap. Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) reported that in 2012, classical was the number-two public radio format, and a mix of news-plus-classical was third.
WQXR joined the migration movement from commercial to public in 2009 when former parent The New York Times sold the station to New York Public Radio (which also operates WNYC-FM).
That same year, WQXR started an experiment, launching an Internet-only offshoot called Q2 Music. The Q2 Music pureplay, which concentrates on less mainstream and more modern classical, averages over 82,000 stream sessions per month. RAIN spoke with Graham Parker, general manager of WQXR, about Q2 Music’s mission, programming, audience makeup, and affiliation with flagship WQXR and cousin WNYC.
RAIN: Congratulations on the station’s long-standing success, and more recently, Q2. Can you describe how Q2 developed?
GP: Q2 Music started as a fantastic way to offer a different music selection [from WQXR] that was more focused on contemporary music. At that time, it also played old music — the tagline was “500 years of new music.” So it would play everything from Palestrina to John Cage. It was a broad range. Over the last three years we’ve gotten Q2 more focused, and grown the audience. Q2 Music is [now] exclusively focused on contemporary composers. It’s more like 100 years of new music, or even 50 years.
RAIN: How is Q2 Music connected with WQXR?
GP: We’ve worked carefully and deliberately to find the connections between WQXR and Q2, because the audience does so. There is quite an audience overlap. People will listen to WQXR, then drift over to Q2, or start with Q2 and realize that it’s attached to WQXR, and shift over there. There is a lot of brand interchange, so we work to be sure that it’s reflected in programming choices and promotion choices. It has become a 360 degree approach to programming, rather than two stations that have nothing to do with each other.
RAIN: You mentioned audience overlap. Do you measure that as streaming-only overlap?
GP: Streaming and uniques. We did a piece of research, where we did a WQXR survey with a Q2 piece tacked on. That’s where we discovered that people expressed an interest in both brands. We also discovered overlap with WNYC.
RAIN: Do you have a promotional arrangement with Soundcheck [a long-running new-music program on WNYC]?
GP: Sometimes. It is content specific. It is not ongoing. We pitch them ideas; they pitch us ideas. We try to find connections. We have an incredible audio archive [across WQXR and WNYC], so we can find those connections. For example, yesterday when [composer] John Taverner unfortunately died, we were able to quickly pull up an interview that [Soundcheck host] John Schaefer had done with John Taverner — it was immediately on our website and on the air.
RAIN: You mentioned the music archive. The WQXR library must be immense.
GP: It is big! We add to it all the time. But we have to be careful what we add. We ask ourselves whether we need the nineteenth version of a piece. Q2 went through an important purge, deemphasizing and sometimes deleting a significant chunk of material that wasn’t making it into the playlist. That was part of our focusing effort in the last year in Q2 Music. We tried to be clearer about what the audio brand is for that station — a clearer equation with our audience.
RAIN: What is the programming mandate for Q2 Music?
GP: The focus is living composers. We try to find music that is wonderful to listen to, challenges the ears, encourages you to discover things you don’t know. We put the discovery objective quite high up. We play challenging music but must balance that with our desire for people to keep listening.
We try to frame it up with hosts who can explain it and put the music into interesting context. For example, Phil Kline, who’s a well-respected composer, is one of most frequent hosts. The composers he plays might be friends of his, or he might be associated with the music in another way . He can tell a story about the music.
We also highlight dead composers when we feel there is a need to do so. For example, we have a marathon series. It started on the hundredth anniversary of [Stravinsky’s] “The Rite of Spring” in Paris. It was a 24-hour “Rite of Spring” marathon. We don’t play a lot of Stravinsky on Q2, but we thought this was a good experiment. It turned out amazingly — we actually played the same piece over and over for 24 hours, and tripled our audience. We did some cool online content to go along with it. People love themes, and they love programming that ties into a calendar day that makes sense. We do it on both stations.
RAIN: How much of your audience crosses over from WQXR, and how much is new audience that comes to Q2 because they are already interested in the music?
GP: We see crossover, which helps membership dollars — important to a public station. We work on promotional relationship also. For WQXR that might be Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. For Q2 Music we work more closely with composer collectives, or smaller concert halls. Such external partnerships are important for driving new audiences to Q2 Music. We hope our audience growth comes both from communicating with existing listeners, and all the external work we’re doing.
RAIN: Is there any staff overlap between the two stations?
GP: We have two people directly and solely responsible for Q2 Music. One of them is on the senior staff, and attends WQXR meetings, too. It’s important for each station to know what both are doing. It helps when driving [audience] in and out of each other’s brand.
RAIN: What about WQXR’s approach to streaming? Extending into the online realm can be a challenge for any broadcast station. Can you share your strategy or success metrics?
GP: We’ve seen great success in the digital realm. We have without doubt the largest digital audience of any classical radio station. We are seeing a national and global audience. We think excellence is what sets us apart.
When I arrived I hired a new head of digital who came from VH1. The big strategy is that we want the biggest audience possible for our brands. We don’t think of it as just radio — we are a classical music media company, which includes, audio, video, writing, editorial, social, feedback loops, live concerts, the whole thing.