American Impresario: John Schaefer

American Impresario: John Schaefer

John Schaefer and Laurie Anderson, 2005. Photo courtesy of Irene Trudel.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage’s American Impresario series explores the careers and contributions of leading United States music curators whose creative work has profoundly influenced the field by giving listeners new ways to experience and understand music.

The premiere American Impresario article comes from one of the nation’s most adventurous radio producers, WNYC’s John Schaefer. Since 2002, John has hosted Soundcheck, a show featuring daily live music and criticism. He has also hosted and produced WNYC’s radio series New Sounds since 1982 (“The No. 1 radio show for the Global Village” —Billboard) and the New Sounds Live concert series since 1986. In May 2006, New York Magazine, in its “Influentials” issue, cited Schaefer as one of “the people whose ideas, power, and sheer will are changing New York.” He first blogged for WNYC when accompanying the New York Philharmonic on its trip to North Korea in 2008 and continues to do so on the Soundcheck page at wnyc.org.


“Making Waves in Radio”
by John Schaefer

In 1981, I was young, restless, and bored. (For most people who write those words, the next sentence is, “so I formed a band.” To this day I’m not sure why I didn’t try that first.) Mostly, I was bored with the music I heard on the radio. Top 40 classical hits here, All Things Springsteen there…it was the real beginning of the tightening of radio formats in the U.S. I knew there were things bubbling away under the surface, but you couldn’t hear them anywhere. How did I know that? Because in the ’70s, I became a fan of David Bowie, and through his records I discovered Brian Eno, and then Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I had stumbled into the nascent punk scene because a high school friend had a brother in a band that played CBGB all the time, and that led to an interest in the “downtown” New York scene and, eventually, to the music of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham.

One thing led to another, often very different, thing. And if I could make this kind of journey, I thought, lots of other people could too. All you needed was a chance to hear what was going on. WNYC, with an admirable history of including living American composers in its programming, offered me the chance to test that theory.

It is a theory I’m still testing today, actually. I was recently invited to lecture in several music classes at Bucknell University, so I loaded up the old iPod and spent a fair amount of time introducing the students to recent developments in the amorphous “new music” scene, including the collaborations between the indie-rock world and the emerging generation of classically-trained composers—many of whom are part of that indie-rock world, too. I also touched on the state of the art of digital music-making, and new approaches to world music traditions, from the West and from within those various traditions themselves. It was like a classroom edition of New Sounds, and seemed to go pretty well; most of the classes stayed late to ask questions about what they’d heard. And then one student asked, “How do you play all of this stuff on the radio? Don’t you have to worry about ratings?”

What a simple, straightforward question. And how convoluted the answer would be, if I had the time to give it.

Public radio operates differently from commercial radio on some pretty basic levels, but we do have ratings, and we have to keep an eye on them, because higher ratings usually translate into more listener support—the lifeblood of public radio. But it’s hard for a pub-radio lifer like me to say that out loud without automatically adding, “So, please, call now and make your pledge!” Instead, I explained that I had, over the years, made the decision to play a wide variety of music—from thumb piano music of Zimbabwe to the Holy Minimalism of Arvo Pärt—knowing that this sort of variety guarantees that someone will be pissed off by virtually anything I play. It was, I said, about trying to build up a level of trust with the listeners over a period of time, so that if you hear something you hate one night, you might still come back the next to check out what was likely to be a completely different sound.

As a radio show, New Sounds is an oddity—it is absolutely antithetical to the way radio is formatted (because it inhabits no set format), and yet it is absolutely dependent on radio as a medium. Think of it. Radio is a storytelling medium, whether that means literal stories like The Shadow or The Lone Ranger in the mid-20th century, or the very narrow narrative told by most commercial music stations—”These are the most successfully marketed recordings of the week” or “Relax, you don’t need to keep up; just enjoy these songs you loved as a teenager. You know you want to…” The story I’ve tried to tell since 1982 is that if you like music, chances are you could like much more of it than you ever would’ve expected. You just need a chance to hear it.

John Schaefer, 1982. Photo courtesy of WNYC.

In 1982, New York City had three classical music stations, two of them commercial. And at 11 p.m., all three stations were playing chamber music. I don’t know why, especially since we were getting crushed in the ratings. Anyway, WNYC had made a commitment to living composers—American music—but the so-called “downtown” composers were not represented. This seemed to be a great opportunity: Let’s cede the 65-to-dead demographic to WQXR and WNCN, and play “classical” music for all the other disaffected rock fans who are bored with the music on the radio.

That was the idea. After that, I was making it up as I went along. On the first show, September 3, 1982, I played Terry Riley because he was as important to the European rock scene as he was to the American minimalists. Hell, every rock fan knew the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (often mistakenly called “Teenage Wasteland”)—if you knew that song was named after this composer, wouldn’t you want to hear some of his music? I played Keith Jarrett because I heard something spiritually, and perhaps at times musically, akin to Riley—that was me discovering something through programming the show.

I wasn’t sure how far I could go. The ECM catalog that produced the Keith Jarrett records also had a very odd album from a singer named Meredith Monk. It was Dolmen Music, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Voices without words, evoking both modern abstraction and some ancient, perhaps pre-verbal form of communication. It took a couple of weeks before I took a deep breath and played just a short excerpt on the radio. In a few days, a postcard arrived. It said simply, “Brava Monk!”

It is hard to explain just how important that tiny moment of feedback was. But maybe I don’t need to. If you’ve ever taken a chance on something, made a conscious decision to break with conventional format or expectation, and gotten a pat on the back afterwards, you know how much even a tiny bit of support can mean at a time of uncertainty. And if I felt this way just for playing some of this music on the air, how important must it have been to the composers themselves? That was a question that would not take long to answer.

I had hoped that an audience would find its way to this music. What I was unprepared for was the Field of Dreams-effect the show had within the music scene—you know, “if you build it, they will come.” That music community, like nature, apparently abhorred the vacuum it was living in. BAM called early on to ask if I wanted to interview Laurie Anderson, who would be unveiling her magnum opus: the work called United States. The pianist/composer Elodie Lauten was just releasing her first LPs, which I liked and played; she asked if I’d want her to come in and play on our piano (which hadn’t been used in years—I wonder if that” what propelled her down the path of alternative tunings she later took?). That exposure, by the way, got her booked into one of the city’s dance clubs, and I was invited to be the club’s guest DJ for the evening. Even the reclusive godfather of Minimalism, La Monte Young, came to the studio. My chief worry—that I wouldn’t be able to find enough music to sustain the program—was replaced by a torrent of records and tapes, and phone calls or letters asking for interview and performance opportunities on the show.

The new music community had actually been several discreet little scenes, but New Sounds became a place where they could all be heard; and because, frankly, there was no competition, it became the radio hangout for the composers and musicians—but also for the choreographers and visual artists who were out there, trolling for interesting sounds to work with.

David Byrne, Meredith Monk, and John Schaefer, April 2011. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Berger.

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.

John Schaefer and Steve Reich, 2006. Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

In that respect, New Sounds was actually modeled more on NPR’s news magazines than on any of the music programs I knew. Over the years, my programming would evolve as more unfamiliar sounds caught my ear. The early music revival, for example, struck me as a literally “new sound”: certainly the mystical language of Hildegard von Bingen’s music, and the Christian/Moorish/Jewish collaborations of the court of Alphonse the Wise, had important resonances with modern times, with the rising interest in world music, and with the spiritually-inclined music of composers like Arvo Pärt, who was also coming into view at the same time in the mid-’80s. (On a more nuts-and-bolts level, the early music singers were often the new music singers—you’d find them in Steve Reich’s ensemble, for example.)

That’s where the curatorial work comes in. Playing Hildegard and Pärt and the Mevlevi Dervishes in a single program will filter your audience real fast—unless you can tell the “story,” make the connections that explain why, if you like A, you might then be interested in B and C.

So to answer that Bucknell student’s question, the reason I could play all this music on the radio is that New Sounds is mission-driven, not ratings-driven. (Part of WNYC’s mission statement now reads “to make the mind more curious.”) In other words, we all know by now that the show by its very nature will never be a ratings giant. But the people it brings in have been proven over the years to become active members of the music community—in New York or wherever they’re listening—because they are curious and engaged. Not coincidentally (and fortunately for me), they also tend to become active WNYC listeners—especially of the NPR new magazines that I was originally inspired by.

My other program, Soundcheck, is even more explicitly based on this “community of interest” idea. And here I have to give commercial radio its props: what it does, it does exceedingly well. It tells very clear and single-themed “stories.” Listen to a station for 15 minutes and you know all you need to know about it. Soundcheck is, to me, like the musical version of the popular sports/talk format. It is about people who are passionate about music having a place to talk about it, or argue about it, and then settle down for a live set. Those sports/talk stations will discuss multiple sports, and what’s wrong with the business of sports, and how sports affect their lives; we do the same with music. Our community of interest consists of fans, critics, musicians (with live performances in studio practically every day), other artists—anyone who considers him/herself a fan is by definition a member of this community. The interest is music; and just as the sports talk shows will bounce from football to golf to basketball, we cover a wide variety of genres.

There’s a nice symmetry here: Soundcheck is the general interest music show and New Sounds gives the interesting musicians outside the mainstreams a place to be heard. And, in a way, I have the former show only because of my complete failure to do what I wanted with the latter. See, New Sounds wasn’t supposed to be a Thing unto itself. It was supposed to be an inviting entrance to curious listeners, a gateway drug to the wider world of music. I actually thought that if I did my job right, my program would disappear after a while because it wouldn’t be needed: all of this music would be infecting the rest of WNYC’s programming. If I was experiencing a real rush of blood to the head, I might actually dream that it would be a musical virus that could infect other radio station’s programming. (Being carried by NPR and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for many years can do that to you…)

You probably see the problem with that kind of thinking. Yes, Steve Reich and John Adams have Pulitzer Prizes. The Bang on a Can folks now run a festival, a record label, a band, and have provided a model for independent younger composers to follow, or break, as they see fit. The Kronos Quartet got an Avery Fisher Prize and a Polar Music Prize—on the same day. But just because they will now appear on Soundcheck doesn’t mean their music no longer belongs on New Sounds. Plus, there is a whole new generation of musicians and composers—some of whom have grown up listening to New Sounds—coloring outside the margins, and that means we will always need a place for their music to be heard. So, in fact, while all the specifics have changed, the overall picture hasn’t. The story continues.

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