Live music was a crucial part of the programming from very early on, because it represented a chance to push back against one of the great problems with American radio: it was re-active, not pro-active. Unlike the BBC in the UK, or WDR in Germany, American radio did not help create music, or create programming space that offered a chance for, say, a one-off collaboration, or a workshop for a new musical idea. Commissioning music involves money, so that had to wait. But presenting live music in the studio could, and did, happen almost immediately. And bringing live music on the radio to concert stages was a way to make a virtual community into a real one, at least for a couple hours.
New Sounds Live began at Merkin Concert Hall, near Lincoln Center, in 1986, and still takes place there; but the series has also brought live music, and occasionally film and dance, to the World Financial Center, BAM, the old opera house in Frankfurt, Germany, and to a boat cruising through the fog of San Francisco Bay. Meredith Monk presented an early version of what would become Facing North; a Palestinian-Jewish collaboration took place between sets by Simon Shaheen’s Near Eastern Music Ensemble and the Klezmatics, in front of MTV cameras; guitarist Gary Lucas brought along a promising young singer one night who blew us away—this would be the gifted but ill-fated Jeff Buckley. Alarm Will Sound did their first performance of multiple composers after making their name doing single-composer events. In the studio, pieces were premiered; musicians came together and tried out collaborations that worked, or didn’t.
Of course, there were challenges. The biggest was the very nature of the program. Classical music listeners can be as close-minded a group as any, and the very first letter I received after starting the show was from a very polite, but disappointed, listener who enjoyed my work hosting the evening classical programming but said my new show was, as he memorably put it, “as appetizing as sawdust.” Not all of the responses have been so measured. A later postcard informed me that a recent show, featuring a cellist who’d created a kind of Riley-esque soundscape out of looping devices, sounded “like a truckload of cats with M-80s jammed up their asses.”
Neither of these listeners was wrong. Sawdust and pyrotechnically challenged cats aside, it was New Sounds’ programming that was (and remains) “wrong.” I thought, well, there are way more rock music fans out there than classical music fans, so if I create a program that aims to bring them in, we’ll do fine, even if I only grab a small percentage. What I didn’t realize is how small that percentage was: Every time you tweak the programming on any radio station, you are filtering your audience. Let’s say you decide to play rock. That filters out all the potential listeners to your station except the rock fans. Now if you choose to add jazz to the lineup, you are filtering out all of the rock fans who don’t like jazz. Yes, you are adding some jazz fans, but not the ones who dislike rock. If you add folk music to the mix, now you’re talking about really small numbers of rock and jazz fans, with a smattering of folkies.
On the other hand, that group of listeners you’re left with will be seriously into what you’re doing—and, odds are, if they’re into rock and jazz and folk, you could probably throw a little Afro-pop and maybe some “new music” at them, too. This is no longer an audience defined by the type of music it listens to. It is not an audience of rock fans. Or an audience of rock/folk/jazz fans. It is an audience defined by interest, by curiosity. (Or perhaps by the amount of weed they’re smoking, but let’s try not to be too cynical here.)
And this is why I’ve been able to do what I do—because demographically, the public radio audience’s defining characteristic is not the usual race, gender, age, or genre (though you can measure all those things), but curiosity. Actually, it shows up in demographic studies as education, but that doesn’t mean that audience is necessarily smarter than average (though the cat-and-M-80 imagery was pretty creative); they are, on average, a lot more curious. So the point of everything I’ve done in the studio or onstage is simply to pique the listener’s curiosity. If the program satisfies that curiosity, I guess that’s okay; but it’s always been my hope that it actually doesn’t—that it instead sends the listener looking for more.