Classical music radio: dated music for old people, written by dead white European males, out of step with a demographic growing younger and more diverse.
All Classical Portland, the city’s 24-hour classical music radio station, is blowing up that stereotype of contemporary cultural irrelevance. Last month marked the second anniversary of ICAN (International Children’s Arts Network), the station’s new, separate radio station aimed at the very youngest listeners: kids and teens.
ICAN is only one aspect of an ongoing reinvention. The station has been offering more sounds from today’s Oregon (for which it recently received an NEA grant) as well as music from film and other contemporary sounds, including shorter, pop-influenced works. And now it’s taking an even stronger leadership role in rejuvenating classical radio. This week, the station announced the first recipients of its new Recording Inclusivity Initiative: commissioning and recording new and older neglected music by composers of color. And it’s planning to take that diversification effort nationwide.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
These initiatives show All Classical Portland, established in 1983, serving a higher purpose than entertainment: it’s providing a new and unexpected avenue for arts education for old and new listeners alike. They’re invigorating an institution previously synonymous with “old” with its opposites: “young” and “new.”
ICAN is only the latest All Classical program to focus on young listeners. Begun several years ago, the station’s weekly On Deck with Young Musicians show, created, hosted, and produced by announcer and Communications & Technical Liaison Christa Wessel, profiles young musicians and explores musical opportunities for young people in the Pacific Northwest. It also features new contributing hosts and producers Raúl Gómez-Rojas, Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director, and Amy Faust, an established broadcaster whose career includes nearly two decades of co-hosting the “Mike and Amy” show.
ICAN and RII, the inclusivity initiative, are part of All Classical’s JOY (Joyous Outreach to You/th) program dedicated to promoting equity and inclusivity in the arts, started in 2017 after Suzanne Nance took over as president and CEO. It also includes:
• an Artists in Residence program that provides selected young and professional musicians with access to All Classical Portland’s tech facilities
• Where We Live, which spotlights community arts organizations that explore the intersection of art and social issues
• The Rising Tide Grant, awarded annually to small arts organizations that enrich the artistic landscape and strengthen the community.
• Youth Roving Reporters arts journalism mentorship program, in which the station’s on-air hosts provide selected teens guidance and insight on what it is to be a broadcaster and arts leader in their community.
Some other public radio stations (many affiliated with universities or other large institutions) boast similar programs, but I can’t think of another dedicated primarily to classical music that reaches so far beyond its narrow core mission and audience in so many creative and forward-looking ways.
“I think All Classical Portland has seized the opportunity to influence the future,” Nance told ArtsWatch. “We want to make sure children feel like they have a home in classical music, a place in the concert hall. All our initiatives are aimed at amplifying young voices and encouraging them to tell stories of their communities.”
In 2018, Nance was looking to further expand the station’s connection to young audiences and realized that “our HD2 channel was just sitting there, silent.” She recognized a need — and an opportunity. They’d discovered through surveys and anecdotal evidence that the station already enjoyed more younger listeners than most classical outlets. “And with arts education resources slimmer than ever,” she recalls, “we wanted to make sure children had access to a safe space, an audio playground where they could listen to and learn about music, poetry, and literature, [and] develop social and emotional literacy and cross cultural awareness.”
To head the initiative, Nance tapped Sarah Zwinklis, a colleague she’d met in her previous job in Chicago who now serves as ICAN manager, host, and producer. Both were determined to overcome the challenge that seems inherent in connecting young people to old music, especially music that even many adults often say they fear they don’t know enough to listen to.
“One of the points of building this network was breaking down those barriers,” Zwinklis says, “to open those doors and make kids feel welcome to enjoy classical music, poetry, arts, storytelling. To make them feel it’s a place for them.”
In devising ICAN’s programming, Zwinklis began by asking: “What does a day feel like?” to a kid. From sleeping to just waking up to eating breakfast and so on, she arranged programs and music into little blocks, including several lullaby-heavy shows for nap and sleep time, plus Dance Break! and Up Beat and Move Your Feet!, which give kids music for moving around and releasing all that kid energy. Nance remembers Zwinklis drawing big charts and posting them and sticky notes all over one of the studio’s walls. The result: a lot more than just a lot of classic tunes.
Zwinklis approaches programming as much from a kid’s perspective as an educator’s or radio executive’s. “We’re meeting kids where they are,” she explains. Zwinklis and Nance drew extensively on advice from friends with children in the target age group, and from kids and parents who came into record at the station or otherwise got in touch. “We asked for feedback a lot,” Nance says. “‘What did your 10-year-old say? Did they sit and listen?’ We tweaked the programming in real time based on what we were hearing.”
Nance especially valued input from her sister’s two boys, both under 12. “I would send Sarah a text message: ‘My sister’s listening now and she says this music isn’t working for helping the children get to sleep,’” she remembers.
Of course, they had access to ideas for musical selections and other programming from the station’s team of veteran announcers. They also invited listeners to recommend pieces — and received plenty of emailed suggestions, from music teachers and other educators, parents and grandparents — and, of course, kids. For a show focused on tales of adventure, they talked to kids, asking them to imagine what an adventure would be like. One 10 year old, Duncan, wanted “an adventure in sound,” Zwinklis remembers. “He’s frightened of spiders. ‘You know what’s scarier than spiders?’ he said. ‘Spiders clumped up in a big snowball, rolling downhill!’”
Such programs show that ICAN is about more than providing a passive soundtrack to days and nights. It also stretches their boundaries by providing ample doses of kid-friendly dance and other music from beyond traditional classical music’s narrow-minded Eurocentric traditions. And it gently teaches kids about the arts — not just music — and inspires their own creativity. Here are some of the station’s offerings so far.
- Screenshot explores and explains the educational value of digital media, TV, movies and video games through the music written for them. In the 15-minute weekday afternoon program and podcast, kids hear music that they’re already encountering in movies and video games, which Zwinklis (like many of us) consider to be classical music too. ICAN also offers classical arrangements of familiar pop tunes by Lady Gaga and others. The implicit message, she says: “Even though you think classical is stuffy and not cool, you actually hear it all the time in your life.”
- Audio Book Tour invites young listeners to discover children’s books that help them connect to the world around them.
- Monthly blog features prompt young listeners to engage online with the monthly theme. April’s National Poetry Month article, for instance, encouraged listeners to submit their original poems, so as to bring more children’s voices to the network.
- What if World and Adventure Stories stimulate young imaginations with stories, while Colorful Compositions includes music intended to inspire them to create their own art.
I initially worried about the programming coming across as the music-ed equivalent of “eat your peas,” but everything I’ve heard so far has been presented in a concise, non-condescending, and often fun way. In fact, Nance says, more than a few adult listeners have confessed to her that ICAN is now their preferred classical station. That means that ICAN is also helping build an audience for the future. As Looney Tunes was for my generation and several before it, ICAN could become a gateway drug for classical music.
Diversity and Equity
Like those old cartoons, ICAN is widely accessible. “The station is available to everyone,” says Nance. “It’s free, it’s in the air. You just have to know it’s out there.” Although, like most public radio stations, All Classical depends on donations and grants to pay for programs like this one, any kid or parent can tune in via radio (if in range of one of its seven Oregon transmitters) or internet stream, which reaches a global audience. That means its educational aspects are available to nonprivileged kids who don’t attend affluent private or public schools that can afford strong arts ed programs. And in arts-neglecting 21st century Oregon, that’s a lot of them.
Moreover, the station has strived to include music, musicians and kids who are “representative of different backgrounds and communities,” says Nance, and to present material “addressing immigration, bullying, race. Sarah has made it a point to have diverse voices telling those stories. As we look to serving and broadening our audience, it’s crucial having that representation on the air.”
ICAN’s educational programming has been especially valuable during the pandemic, which further undermined Oregon’s already underfunded arts education efforts and left kids stuck at home, where they could at least listen to the radio. That impelled Nance to double the program from the initial 12 hours a day to 24. “During the pandemic, we saw a need greater for at-home learning,” she explains. Zwinklis says ICAN benefits even pre-schoolers. “Studies show that brain development during a child’s first five years is faster than at any other time in life,” she explains. “Our 24-hour, commercial-free programming delivers educational content to supplement and support our young listeners’ development, especially when in-person learning experiences remain limited.”
Beyond ICAN’s educational benefits for kids, Nance and Zwinklis believe it will boost future classical music listenership. The environment in which you first learn about it in is important, Zwinklis says: “When you think of learning about classical music in an environment of fun and creativity, it becomes a fun thing,” not just another school requirement.
The word — and the music — are getting out. Since its first year, the station reports, ICAN’s web traffic has increased 83 percent. Unique web streams on icanradio.org alone have registered more than 1,700 listeners from more than 80 countries every month. And there’s more to come. As part of the station’s effort to promote the role of the arts in a comprehensive STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, Math) curriculum, the team is creating a new program called sARTience that explores “the science of art and art of science,” Zwinklis says. When the show debuts next April, “kids and hosts will talk about how art is process — subjects like how paint is made, how science and art are paired together.”
In future, Nance says, the station might partner with schools and other institutions. “By and large, [ICAN] was created for parents and caregivers,” she says. “As we look to the future of ICAN, we will consider strategic collaborations with schools to take content we created and build out the curriculum so educators can take advantage of it.”
Broadening the Spectrum
All Classical’s interest in broadening its audience and reaching a wider community, so evident in the diversity found throughout ICAN, sparked its latest major project. The Recording Inclusivity Initiative (RII) aims to expand the recorded classical music canon by inviting selected contemporary composers to spend a week-long residency with All Classical Portland and partner N M Bodecker Foundation. During in-studio creative sessions, their compositions will be recorded by a quintet of regional musicians, and the new recordings will be aired on All Classical in the fall, added to the station’s regular playlists (meaning they’ll reach a quarter-million weekly listeners across the Pacific Northwest and millions around the globe), and distributed worldwide by the world’s biggest classical music label, Naxos Records.
The first-of-its-kind initiative addresses a complaint raised for years on ArtsWatch and around the country: the overwhelming dominance of music on classical airwaves and in concert halls by white and male composers. According to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras, African Americans account for less than 3 percent of orchestral musicians and Hispanics for less than 4 percent, while just one in 10 classical musical directors are women.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of women and composers of color writing significant music. A big reason that canon remains so stale and pale is the lack of published scores and readily available recordings for performers and radio stations to deploy. While you can hear literally hundreds of recordings of the same piece by European masters, it can be tough to find even a single widely distributed recording of new music by many contemporary composers of any race, a scarcity compounded for Black composers by systemic racism that has excluded so many from the access channels.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that classical music as a genre hasn’t always welcomed diverse perspectives or communities, and we see it in the lack of broadcast-ready recordings,” says Nance.
Many have decried this injustice, which deprives not just composers but all music lovers of the opportunity to hear rewarding music. But All Classical Portland is actually doing something about it. This week, the station announced the five inaugural awardees, chosen from nearly 100 nominations.
- Dallas-based Jasmine Barnes’s Taking Names ”honors women who fought for emancipation, civil rights and the #SayHerName movement.” (Barnes’s Songs for the African Violet was a highlight of Portland Opera’s recent Journeys to Justice program.)
- Atlanta composer Lauren McCall’s A Spark and a Glimmer was “inspired by visual artist Alison Saar’s sculpture installation Feallan and Fallow, which is based on the Greek myth of Persephone and represents fertility in summer.”
- Maryland-based Cuban composer Keyla Orozco’s Souvenirs “reflects the music and rhythms of many cities, from Paris and Santiago de Cuba to her ‘inner city.’”
The three Composers in Residence each receive a $2,500 award and access to the N M Bodecker Foundation’s state-of-the-art recording facilities and its artistic director, Chris Funk, who ArtsWatch readers will recognize from his work with The Decemberists. Along with the recording sessions, expected to wrap up by the end of September, this summer’s residencies include youth outreach opportunities in which the composers will talk to Oregon students about what composers do, panel discussions, and interviews. Oregon Cultural Trust and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) joined the Bodecker Foundation in investing in the project.
While providing opportunities to today’s composers is probably the most exciting part of RII, I’m happy to see the initiative also including music by past composers of color. Ghettoizing new music not only limits exposure of new composers to listeners who might enjoy them if given the chance, it also deprives fans of older and newer music alike from seeing the connections between them. Fans of Romantic and 20th century sounds can enjoy great music written by composers from those eras whose music never made it onto playlists — or sometimes even publishers’ dockets — thanks to the classical establishment’s systemic racism and sexism. RII this year lifts up piano works by French pianist Mélanie Bonis (1858–1937) and a flute sonata by African American New York composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).
“These recipients offer passionate perspectives that will help broaden classical music and the future of musical education,” said Portland flutist Adam Eccleston, All Classical Portland’s 2020-2021 Artist in Residence, who chaired Recording Inclusivity Initiative’s eight-member selection panel. “Together, we can change America’s playlist as their music is recorded, released and played on All Classical Portland and other radio stations throughout the country.”
Enriching America’s Airwaves
Nance hopes All Classical’s efforts will extend way beyond the Northwest. RII will issue a national challenge to peer radio stations, encouraging them to adopt future regional inclusivity initiatives. As part of that 2022 campaign, All Classical Portland will provide stations with a free how-to playbook complete with a step-by-step guide designed to help them connect with marginalized communities and replicate RII in their respective regions. Stations in Spokane and Kansas City have already expressed interest.
“As an independent public radio station with a global reach and a mission to reflect and serve all communities, we’re uniquely positioned to address this deficit,” Nance says about the paucity of recordings of music by women and composers of color. “The Recording Inclusivity Initiative will elevate and amplify underrepresented composers and their music through the new recordings we produce and distribute together. We hope that the work we do through RII has a ripple effect that inspires others to act.”
For example, she says most stations don’t track the composer racial composition of their playlists. She hopes that RII will encourage them to start collecting that data, as well as beginning to redress the imbalance between what’s being written by diverse composers and what gets played on radio.
Regardless of how many other stations take them up on the offer, All Classical’s recent efforts have already shown several ways the field can overcome its long and ignoble legacy of exclusion, and maybe its self-inflicted cultural irrelevance. Granted, for all the welcome changes, the station’s playlists remain dominated by the same old dead white European male rep. But what a welcome surprise to find an Oregon arts institution historically mired in the past beginning to address the issues and listeners of today — and tomorrow.
All Classical Portland streams worldwide at allclassical.org and broadcasts on KQAC 89.9 in Portland and Vancouver; KQOC 88.1 in Newport and Lincoln City; KQHR 88.1 in Hood River and The Dalles; KQHR 96.3 in the Columbia Gorge; KQMI 88.9 in Manzanita; 95.7 FM in Corvallis; and KSLC 90.3 in McMinnville. Tune into the International Children’s Arts Network at icanradio.org.
Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.