Musings about music and more from an SPR staffer

On the Road, part 1: Summer Music Festivals

Festival! Just the word conjures images of celebration, and how can there be a celebration without music? In the ancient world, athletic competitions included music entertainment; fairs (faires?), those storied events celebrating holydays and holidays in the Middle Ages always boasted music as a central feature. In the modern world we even have celebratory gatherings dedicated to music. These music festivals, some focused on education and development of young artists, others on performance by established musicians, have been around for a very long time. The English Three Choirs Festival, rotating each August among the cathedrals of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, began in 1719. The oldest U.S. festival–in Ravinia, near Chicago, begun in 1904–while considerably younger in absolute terms–is surely “old” by North American standards. Since that time music festivals have proliferated and endured in this country. Some approach “household name” status, even for those who do not follow the classical music scene: Tanglewood, Aspen, Santa Fe. Others, like the Montana Baroque Festival, although well-established and relatively close to Spokane, rank unfortunately low on the recognition scale. This is truly a shame (admittedly, though, with the upside of being uncrowded),  for the caliber of performance at these gatherings can meet or even exceed that at the most famous (and crowded) of the lot. In a series of 91.1 pieces we’ll explore three of these close-to-Spokane gems: the Montana Baroque Festival (Paradise, MT), the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival (Leavenworth, WA), and Festival Amadeus (Whitefish, MT). Stay tuned!

Musicians at this year's Montana Baroque Festival

Musicians at this year’s Montana Baroque Festival


Las Vegas Sojourn: Thursday, part 2

Two important breakout sessions at Thursday’s public radio conference had real relevance to us at Spokane Public Radio. The first explored ways of involving kids in classical music on radio. And we got honorable mention in front of an audience from all around the US for our long-term partnership with MusicFest Northwest that brings young performers to the KPBX studio to play on the air and do a short interview with Verne. Food for thought, though, was the more extensive (and quite creative) involvement schemes developed by a couple of the major players in public broadcasting, Minnesota Public Radio and WFMT in Chicago.


Another session brought a fascinating, sobering and occasionally frightening discussion of something on the horizon for all stations that broadcast music, regardless of genre: digitizing. Basically, all the wonderful classical, jazz, world music, folk and blues LPs and CDs in our library may ultimately be translated into sound files (think iTunes). Likewise, CDs themselves are beginning to travel the road of the Neanderthal. Digitizing sure seems to be the wave of the future, and everyone who spoke and everyone I talked with after the session is beginning at least to think about how this can happen. Interesting to note: of all the recording media, the CDs time in the sun may turn out to be the briefest.


After an intense day, an entertaining night followed with one of the many Cirque de Soliel shows in Las Vegas, “Love,” a tribute to the Beatles. The trademark of the Cirque is the incredible athleticism of the dancers, acrobats and other players, and that is certainly present in “Love.” But what I was completely unprepared for was the awe-inspiring use of special effects. Lighting, projections, draperies, streamers, an elevator stage that created all manner of levels and chasms all working for an effect going way beyond spectacular. As with all Cirque productions, there was a story line, but, again typical of the Cirque, it was highly fanciful one, held together in this case by the Beatles’ music. And the sound track included some recording session outtakes and other rarely, if ever heard material.


We’ll close the journal next time with news from the last day and the journey home.

Las Vegas Sojourn: Thursday

Before revisiting some of today’s highlight events, I feel compelled to share a wondrous experience from Wednesday night, a recording of a fairly new program, The Moth Radio Hour. Yesterday’s post suggested that a significant new wave in radio is actually very old. Storytelling is one of the earliest “art forms” of our species, flourishing in preliterate times, taking an ancillary role in the modern era, but certainly finding new strength in our time. I believe storytelling is enjoying new popularity is because it is a way we find human commonality and connectivity in an increasingly divided and disconnected society. To wit, The Moth. The concept is simple: find people with interesting stories to tell, let them organize and prepare their stories, then put them in front of an audience and turn them loose. The stories we heard: a professional poker player’s first big lesson in playing the game, a Vietnamese-American medical doctor’s tale of his family’s escape by boat from post-war Vietnam and a New York doctor’s engrossing tale of the odd circumstances that led him to save Mother Teresa’s life. Profound tales all, well told; an evening truly well spent.


On to Thursday! Our “free” breakfast was sponsored by NPR. This is an interesting time in public radio, in the same sense as the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” With some of the most cherished programs in the public sphere nearing the end of their runs—“Car Talk,” ending new production in October being the most obvious example—national producers are looking for the Next Big Thing. To this end, NPR (and other producers) are testing what they hope will be replacements for nationally popular radio programs. NPR producers think “Ask Me Another,” basically a popular music trivia quiz show, may be one of the hoped-for shows. (You may have heard “Ask Me Another” at noon Saturdays during the summer on KPBX.) For this conference, NPR staged a sample “Ask Me Another” program that we saw over breakfast this morning. Its format was identical to but shorter than the broadcast show. For me, the in-person experience was more satisfying than the broadcast (although the first pair of contestants, chosen in advance from the audience, so upstaged the hosts at times that the whole thing almost foundered—I felt the hosts’ pain, believe me). Reaction from those I talked with afterwards was quite mixed. But at this point negative reactions are as valuable or more so to the producers than praise. It’s an unsettled time on the radio landscape, and these experiments are vital. Some will succeed, some fail. All, I think, deserve a listen.


Content in today’s sessions was significant and, in one case, statistical. The general session this morning had an imposing title: “The Unique Media Habits of Age 25-54 College Educated Americans.” The quickie takeaway, probably a surprise to no one, is that these folks get most of their information and entertainment online, not on-air, creating a real challenge for broadcasters who try to reach this audience. OK. The real takeaway, for me, at least: these figures reflect a growing chasm in the American populace. We have the college-educated who are increasingly separated, economically and otherwise, from their non-college-educated brethren. I could not help thinking back to the CPB presentation Wednesday with its stress on the vital importance of doing everything possible to keep kids in school until successful completion of high school at the very least.


We’ll finish up Thursday’s sessions in tomorrow’s report, adding a garnish of our visit to the Cirque du Soleil.

Las Vegas Sojourn: Wednesday

After an inauspicious pre-conference day marked by heavy rain and flooding, the 25th annual Public Radio Program Directors’ Conference (PRPDC), attended by yours truly as a board member of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio (AMPPR), began this morning. We gathered for breakfast and (because there is truly no free lunch—or breakfast) a presentation by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on their “American Graduate” initiative. A panel, moderated by Ray Suarez, discussed this effort that includes public media outlets in what they term “dropout epicenters” in thirty states and Puerto Rico. These stations, in partnership with students, teachers, mentors, community volunteers and business leaders work together to help students stay on track to graduate high school. There is more info on CPB’s program at <americangraduate.org>.


Our first full session featured a fascinating look at a contemporary, the TED talks. Executive Producer June Cohen described how these forward-thinking gatherings for the intellectual elite with significant talks on technology, education and design (hence, TED) begun in 1984 have now evolved into a worldwide online phenomenon centered on the telling of compelling stories by interesting people. No one could have expected this; the essential nature of the originals hardly seemed amenable to the compression needed to make them work online, even on smart phone screens. At the heart of the “new TED” are stories that engender, in Ms. Cohen’s words, “contagious emotions.” These are  also the spiritual parent of the “driveway moments” that are now an essential part of contemporary radio. You can experience TED on the TED Radio Hour, Sunday mornings at eight on KSFC.


In addition to plenary sessions, there are many breakout presentations for various interest groups at the Conference. The main music breakout today featured conductor Sarah Hicks, who leads pops and other “alternative” programs for the Minnesota Orchestra. She called for a radical rethinking of concert (and radio) programming based first on the inescapable reality that “it’s all different now.” The weakness of music education in our schools combines with the lack a unifying cultural context to make the conventions of mid-twentieth century concert going an institution in jeopardy. This was a challenging, frustrating but ultimately rewarding session.


But wait, there’s more! Lunch, with a panel moderated by Kai Ryssdal of “Marketplace” discussing a topic appropriate for Las Vegas, “Risk and Chance in the Global Economy.” The takeaway: We’re not at the bottom yet. On a more positive note, two of the emerging shows in public radio today, Philosophy Talk and The Moth Radio Hour, are recording shows for broadcast tonight here at the Conference.


Stay tuned; more tomorrow.

Las Vegas Journal: Tuesday

A hot (and humid) morning gave way to an afternoon of torrential rain here as the conference of public radio program directors and music personnel began with small group sessions for classical, jazz and new/talk specialists. The light morning schedule allowed me to do a bit of exploring in the town that Johnny Carson once called “Lost Wages: where old paychecks go to die.” From the conference headquarters hotel, originally the Las Vegas Hilton, now the Las Vegas Hotel or LVH, visitors can take a monorail down the length of “The Strip,” the heart of the hotel/casino scene. Suitable, accurate words are hard to choose to describe this scene. I am a first-time visitor, McCarrin Airport being the closest I ever came until now. The colors are vivid, music drips and sprays from every building, and the architecture… If you’ve never been here, imagine if the Disney folks had designed and built Manhattan: all the really good bits, including the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings and the Brooklyn Bridge, crammed into a large city block. Oh, and don’t forget the Statue of Liberty (in a pond on the corner) and a large roller coaster in the front yard. That is the New York, New York Hotel and Casino, and it is to me an icon of this unique place. After quality time tonight visiting with friends and colleagues from around the country, the substance of the conference commences tomorrow. I’ll post about what I’ve heard and seen then.

Away We Go!

Hello, I’m Jim Tevenan, KPBX afternoon host and music/arts producer for Spokane Public Radio. Soon I’ll be heading down to Las Vegas to attend a large gathering of public radio movers, shakers and (this is most of us) toilers. Consider this your invitation to join me on this journey and share with me what I learn from some of the most creative and innovative people in media today. All this and pictures too! Who can resist? Join me starting next Monday, September 10th, as the journey begins.