BOSTON — THE popularity of classical music on the radio may be dropping, but if one radio network gets its way, it's not going down without a fight.
American Public Radio (APR) has shifted into "rescue mode" and through an arduous campaign of pilot programs and experiments is hoping to help stave off, if not reverse, the decline in the number of listeners to classical music on the airwaves. Like their colleagues in symphony orchestras, network officials are worried about the "graying" of audiences and where the next generation of music lovers - and patrons - is going to come from.
"I call it the Rip van Winkle syndrome, where we're just waking up after a long sleep and realizing that our audiences are going away," says Ruth Dreier, project director of APR's Classical Music Initiative.
The Minneapolis-based network - the nation's largest distributor of public radio programming - began brainstorming in 1990 to devise ways of presenting classical music that sidestepped the stereotypes.
"The way we typically present music on the air is very much like we
did it in the 1950s: deep-throated announcers, rustling programs at the start of the concert.... That's just not good enough anymore," said Stephen Salyer, president and chief executive officer of APR, in an interview.
This month the public will hear the first results of APR's efforts with the launching of "Schickele's Mix," a one-hour weekly program of classical music - with a twist. The host is none other than composer and musical satirist Peter Schickele, on sabbatical from his popular P.D.Q. Bach concerts. Produced by Tom Voegeli, a prizewinning independent producer, the show pairs old with new, ignoring barriers between "high brow" and "low brow." Says Mr. Schickele: "The music selected for this program will not b e determined by brow height."
Schickele's choices make strange bedfellows. One show spotlights a Philip Glass piano piece called "Modern Love Waltz" alongside jazz pianist Lenny Tristano's "Turkish Mambo" and Chopin's Berceuse, Op. 57. Schickele compares each composer's use of ostinato - a figure that is repeated constantly in the lower part.
Schickele doesn't shrink from playing Elton John, John Coltrane, or the Beach Boys, either. In one segment, he follows a Beverly Sills performance of Mozart's aria "Ruhe Sanft, Mein Holdes Leben" with a tune sung by country-and-western duo The Judds, called "Why Not Me?" Both songs have unexpected vocal leaps of an octave.
Such juxtaposition can be jolting, but "that's the experiment," says Ms. Dreier. APR, with more than 400 affiliates, plans to conduct surveys to determine if Schickele's approach is engaging for both young listeners and classical music devotees.
"We think [the program] needs some refining," says Ann Santen, general manager of public station WGUC in Cincinnati. With the median age of its listeners at 55, she is interested in offering "Schickele's Mix" but hasn't committed yet. "The informality of Peter Schickele is beautiful" but some ambiguity remains as to whom he's speaking, she says. Still, Ms. Santen says innovative programs are scarce and APR is "definitely on the right track."