NPR: A loyal friend to alternative music Recording artists out of the mainstream have found a profitable home on public radio.


National Public Radio has its critics and continuing crises, including the never-ending battle against funding cuts and concerns about its programming inching toward the commercial mainstream.

But to many U.S. record companies, it can do no wrong. For them, the nonprofit network, founded in 1970, provides un-rivaled publicity and air time for nonmainstream acts that translate into exposure and sales.

The network (heard locally on WJHU, 88.1 FM) gives its largely upscale, adult listeners big spoonfuls of jazz, folk, roots, classical and world music, accompanied by explanatory chats that run anywhere from a minute to a quarter-hour. This sets NPR apart from any other entity in U.S. radio.

Jai St. Laurent-Smyth, publicist at the PolyGram jazz label Verve, puts it in a nutshell. "NPR can make a record happen, especially a jazz record," she says. "We see large sales spikes when features on our releases run on NPR. I mean, no joke. We can literally gauge it like that. It's amazing."

David Gorman, a producer of reissue sets and marketing manager at Rhino Records, agrees. "They sell records for us, no doubt about it," he says. "They're grand. The day the Ray Charles set came out [in September 1997], they did a huge segment on it that was really a miracle, saleswise."

Gorman explains why he thinks the NPR treatment works with listeners. "If a regular radio station plays something from one of our boxes, unless the announcer takes the time to say something or talk about the tune or the artist, it's just another song that listeners have heard all their life.

"But on NPR, they'll give the entire background of the artist - not just why you should have this collection of big Ray Charles hits, but also the significance of Ray Charles as an artist. NPR is almost the media equivalent to what we do in the liner notes of our boxed sets."

Dan Sorenson, bass player with the Mollys - a constantly touring, as-yet-unsigned Tucson, Ariz.-based folk/rock group that offers a rootsy, original mix of Tex-Mex border music and Celtic tunes - admits he's addicted to such NPR program staples as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," if not always a fan.

"I'm a confirmed listener; I'm pretty familiar with the left end of the dial," he says. "It's the only place where I'm going to have any chance of hearing the kind of music I like or want to learn about while I'm on the road."

Despite such feedback from core fans, NPR is being cautioned by some cultural critics to keep to its high road. For example, NPR's classical music programming is being threatened by calls from some member stations for "dumbed-down" programs that can compete with "lite" commercial classical radio.

Siriol Evans, manager of media relations at NPR, rejects the "dumbed-down" phrasing. However, she says, as a result of demographic research NPR has changed some its programming to reflect a "lighter" tone.

"We know that on a Saturday afternoon, for example, [listeners] are interested in hearing music that might be derived from American traditions [roots, blues, country] and something a little bit fun," says Evans.

Nonetheless, she adds, there is plenty of "serious" music to be found.

In a 13-minute interview that aired on "All Things Considered" May 1, a Deutsche Grammophon artist, superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, talked about the importance of Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki and his Violin Concerto No. 2, which she had just recorded.

Penderecki, often mentioned as one of today's paramount composers, wrote the piece especially for Mutter and conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on the recording. It is a piece as far from the "lite" category as possible.

Still, according to Glenn Petry, director of publicity for Deutsche Grammophon (U.S.), sales of the album went through the roof.

"The record had been out for a while, and it had never charted," Petry says. "But the week after this interview, it popped in out of nowhere. It's a triumph for new music, which is notoriously difficult to sell. ... They're the only ones in radio who can take the time to explore things like this."

While a funding crunch has meant staff cuts and turmoil at NPR in recent years, and critics have complained that the programming is sounding more like commercial radio, label executives and music fans generally agree that there's still nothing comparable on the airwaves.

"Their integrity is amazing. They'll only take the very best," says Deutsche Grammophon's Petry of NPR's producers. "You just can't plop down any old artist."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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