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THE SECRET FUTURE OF RUSSIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC — WHO’S AFRAID OF LOW-COST DIGITAL BROADCASTING, AND WHY

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the recent history of Russian classical music, Mstislav Rostropovich grew so rich with the cello – Vladimir Spivakov with fiddle, Valery Gergiev with baton, too — how to explain that the broadcasting of classical music on the radio has grown so poor?

The technologies of digital reproduction of music are now so cheap, the radio audience can listen to far greater sound quality at a fraction of the price Rostropovich used to demand. The devices available for broadcasting and listening are also far smaller, higher in sound quality, and more affordable than ever before. With stream programming like Sweden’s Spotify [1], radio audiences can even assemble their own concerts, and do away with the cost of presenters, engineers and producers playing maestro themselves to justify their pay. Not to mention the costs of microphones, players, sound desks, transmitters, and radio frequencies.

When Rostropovich (below, left) died in 2007, the art collection he’d amassed fetched $31 million; his Stradivarious cello, $20 million. Including his real estate and royalties, the asset inventory was even greater. The annual income and asset disclosures for Spivakov (right) and Gergiev indicate that they are pulling in from $2 million to $5 million annually [2]. As a business model for turning music into money, they have been successfully fiddling the state’s culture budget to their own account for years.

Rostropovich_Spivakov

So why not dispense with such expensive performers altogether? Why not introduce to Russia the subscriber model of classical music from North America or Australia? The radio licence tax which funds the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Radio 3? Or how about the zero-spoken voice digital model like Avro Baroque from The Netherlands?

Why not? — Irina Gerasimova is why not.

Gerasimova (below) is chief executive and artistic director of Radio Orfei (Orpheus), a subsidiary of RTR, the state-owned All-Russian State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company. In other words, the Russian classical music broadcaster. Here is the radio’s website [3]. That’s the beginning, and also the end of the broadcaster’s effort to cater to its audience, and preserve the classical music culture of Russia.

Gerasimova (below, left) keeps her budget income and expenditures secret; publicizes her animus for journalists who inquire into such matters; and refuses to respond to the business model debate for classical music radio which is just as vibrant for Russian listeners, as it is for their counterparts in Europe. For the debate last week in London between the commercial business of Classic FM and the state financing of Radio 3, read this [4]. Such democracy for music is anathema at Radio Orfei, for Gerasimova is one of the Stalins of sound. For the others who run Russia’s culture in the same fashion, click [5].

Gerasimova_Stalin

Radio audience data are gathered regularly by the month and the quarter for the radio stations of Moscow and for a handful of other Russian cities. They are released by TNS Gallup. According to the media kit [6] prepared for advertisers, in the current fourth quarter of the year Radio Orfei has a daily reach or audience of 160,600; that is 1.6% of the total audience tuned in for the day. The weekly audience count is 373,600, or 3.6%; the monthly reach comes to 447,600, or 4.3%. Over the average quarter-hour (AQH) the most recent survey for Radio Orfei indicates it draws an audience of 15,400. Compared to the non-classical music radios, Orfei’s audience is relatively small, but they spend more time listening each day – on average 138 minutes.

Alexander_SharikovAlexander Sharikov (right), a government advisor on broadcasting and a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says that audience surveys show “the Orfei audience stays on the one station for much longer than the average listener. It turns out that background listening dominates; that is, people who love the music do something else in parallel.”

The radio claims the latest numbers show its audience is growing at a robust rate of 14.3%, compared to the data a year ago. It isn’t easy, however, to verify these measurements, or check how they were calculated. What is certain, however, is that the growth rate has not recovered anything like the audience numbers which existed for classical music in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Radio Orfei was reorganized out of the wreckage. Gerasimova has publicly acknowleged that at peak the Soviet audience for classical music was ten times larger than Radio Orfei’s today.

When the data are aggregated across the second and third quarters – April 1-September 30, 2014 – the swelling of the audience numbers for the other broadcasters dwarfs Radio Orfei, and it disappears into the remainder category at the bottom of this tabulation.

AUDIENCE REACH FOR SELECTED RUSSIAN CITY RADIOS, Q1 AND Q2 2014

TNS1
Source: http://www.tns-global.ru [7]

When the broadcast geography is restricted to Moscow, where the audiences are largest, and the data reported for the third quarter only, August 1-October 31, Radio Orfei appears at the bottom of the chart with a daily reach of 122,100, and a share of 1.2%. Both numbers are smaller than the broadcaster’s claims. Unlike its Soviet predecessor, which broadcast countrywide, Russian classical music radio is mostly confined to Moscow, a one-city phenomenon.

TNS2
Source: http://www.tns-global.ru [8]

In 2013 Gerasimova acknowledged [9] there has been an expansion of the broadcast network to the south of Moscow, but “things are much worse in the provinces. At present in St. Petersburg, classics can only be listened to on the weak medium wave [frequency]. We love Petersburg and want to broadcast there, but there are obstacles that we are not yet able to overcome. But we are working hard on it.” Altogether, Radio Orfei can be heard on radio waves in 13 cities, including Smolensk, Yekaterinburg, Perm, and Volgograd. Beyond the Urals eastward into Siberia there is no signal.

No measurement is available on the distribution of the Radio Orfei audience which listens through the internet. In Brtiain, 43% of the Radio 3 audience listens through a digital audio broadcast (DAB) receiver, principally radio sets, followed by car radios, then telephone apps. Altogether, in Britain about one-third [10] of all radio listening is through a digital receiver.In the US the proportion [11] is roughly the same, and growing faster. In Germany, FM radio is still favoured over DAB, and the proportion [12] of the DAB audience much smaller at about 20%.

Radio_f

There is no comparable measurement for Moscow – and little sign that the Radio Orfei management wants to develop a low-cost alternative for fear that it might encourage further cuts in state budget funds.

Surveys reported by the broadcaster identify the unique characteristics of the Russian classical music audience – more women than men (57% to 43%); more than 45 years old; and with a far greater proportion of advanced education degrees than in any other radio audience (84%). Thirty-two percent of the listeners describe themselves as professionals; 37%, managers of middle to high rank in their organizations; or pensioners, 30%. A similar profile emerges from British surveys of the BBC Radio 3 audience; its current size is 1.9 million – 70% bigger than Radio Orfei.

This is hardly an audience of low socio-economic status, though social status is evidently higher than income or spending power. More like the old Soviet intelligentsia than the new Russian middle class. But are they too strapped to pay an annual subscription, or a radio tax, or operate digital receivers through their computers? If they are the remnants of the Soviet culture class, can they afford to participate in the commercial model Gerasimova has introduced, and buy the stuff which advertisers offer who sign up to Gerasimova’s rate-card [6]?

Pricelist

ORFEY_-_BERCHENKORoman Berchenko isn’t comfortable explaining how the circumstances of the audience are tailored to the programming of the radio. Berchenko (right) is deputy programme director at Radio Orfei. He says that audience characteristics are for the advertising director, Oksana Serejenko, to discuss. He is also reluctant to reveal what he knows about the musical tastes of the Orfei audience. “You can order a sociological survey and do it yourself. But I don’t have these data, and I’m not sure that anyone has ever done it.” According to Berchenko, the selection of music is done by the station management. If it were arranged by audience preferences, he says, “if airtime were ruled by percentages, this airtime would not be alive.” The programme must keep changing. “We will have four evening broadcasts of Wagner, the entire Ring of the Nibelung every Friday in December – more than 16 hours of the opera music of the 19th century. Next month we are not going to have even one minute of 19th century opera.”

“We have dates that we observe — socio-political events of significance; the memorial dates of great musicians. We have festivals that we organize by ourselves, or we broadcast other festivals such as the Rostropovich festival; the big festival of the Russian National Orchestra. [Mikhail] Pletnev can have three opera premieres in one year; in another year he did foreign symphonic music; and a third year was dedicated to Russian music.”

“Of course, we have to focus on the tastes of the average music lover. We are not the radio of avant-garde music, or the radio of medieval music. But at least we must cover the period from Bach to Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten in the middle of the 20th century. In the playlists we have other criteria. We would like to see more different sounds. We try, but we don’t repeat pianist after pianist. If we are having a violin concert one evening, we try not to put too much violin in the rest of the airtime.”

Berchenko said that programming is oriented to the different hours of the day when the FM and internet audiences are concentrated, but he isn’t sure what the numbers for each are. Morning audiences have different tastes to those later in the day. “It would be foolish to broadcast Verdi’s Requiem at ten o’clock in the morning.”

Berchenko says he doesn’t have any information about the budget for Radio Orfei, or who decides it. Papers issued by the umbrella state radio and television organization indicate budget plans decided before this year’s financial crisis required a 6% reduction in overall funds from Rb94.6 billion in 2015 to Rb89.3 billion in 2016. But then in 2017 the budget outlays were planned to rise again to Rb102.2 billion. Radio Orfei’s share of the aggregate is very small – about 0.3% — but stable for the time being. When commercial advertising dwindles, as it did during 2008 and 2009 and now, the state budget policy appears to aim at offsetting part, but not all of the lost revenue.

According to an interview [13] Gerasimova gave a decade ago, the BBC financing model has been rejected for Radio Orfei. She explained why, but not who decided. No other classicial music model has been considered. “In Russia it would be wrong to hang on to our students the burden of the state-owned stations, given that we have in general a very large and poor country. For example, BBC radio in England is distributed over a smaller area and can exist by contributions from a relatively small [sic] number of people. If to talk about the applicability of such schemes in Russia, the following is obvious: given that half of our country is sparsely populated, and to broadcast the signal right across the country will be quite expensive for our listeners.”

Most of the state funding for the state-owned radios, she said, is for the frequencies and the transmission of the signal. “It’s hard for me to imagine a successful commercial radio, which would buy a few thousand low-power transmitters and install them in the remote Russian villages, with the understanding that advertising opportunities there will not be implemented. The heads of the state radio stations will only be happy if the government provides the funding for all needs, and they could forget about advertising.”

There is nothing exceptional about audiences defending their radios from the commercialization of advertising. In Canada the debate is encouraged by groups like the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. This is what they have to say [14] this week: “Faced with deep budget cuts, our national public broadcaster plans to become more commercial, including placing unlimited ads on some of its radio networks. Canadian media is already saturated with commercial advertising messages. That’s why CBC Radio stands out as such a welcome contrast, a commercial-free oasis. If CBC is allowed to place ads on its radio network we will lose the last remaining commercial-free public space in our media. Please do not allow ads on CBC Radio.”

stop ads

Oksana Serejenko is the director of advertising and marketing at Radio Orfei. Since it is clear the Orfei listeners are professional and highly educated, are they willing, she was asked, to subscribe a small annual membership like public radios in the US and Australia? What effort has been made in Moscow to introduce a radio licence tax scheme? She sidesteps the point. “We are a state radio station, not a public one. In all countries, the percentage of the radio audience for classical music is not more than 0.1% to 0.9% of the total number of radio listeners, and therefore, we can conclude that the cost for such a station is not possible for them because communication services are expensive. We broadcast in several cities. Yes, we thought about [other financing models], but our radio station is educational, and our audience is asking us , not just to broadcast the music, but to tell stories of the life and work of musicians.”

According to Serejenko, most of the paid advertising currently on Radio Orfei goes to support live performances, the impresarios and the performers. “Most of the advertising on our airwaves advertise concerts. Our audience attends concerts.”