XM Radio debuts Classical Confidential

This week, XM Satellite Radio launches Classical Confidential, a series of hour-long artist profiles. Modeled after XM's Artist Confidential series, in which listeners can get to know high-profile artists "up close and personal," per XM, the new show's first installment features an hour with Sony BMG's favorite male violinist, the sweet-toned, extremely gifted Joshua Bell. Subsequent shows will feature the magnificent mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and conductor Leonard Slatkin.

Classical Confidential is hosted by XM's knowledgeable classical music program director, Martin Goldsmith, former host of NPR's Performance Today. The show is recorded in XM's intimate Performance Theater in Washington, DC. A cut above the standard Q&A format, Classical Confidential features live interview segments, on-the-spot performances, and answers to unscripted questions from a small studio audience of people from DC area universities, music schools, and performing arts organizations, including American University, the Peabody Conservatory, and the American Youth Philharmonic.

At the rate US classical FM stations are disappearing—the number of full-time classical stations has diminished from 70 in November 2001 to 31 as of October 2005—Internet and satellite broadcasts offer hope for the future of classical broadcasting. As XM's chief creative officer, Lee Abrams, explained to Stereophile, "Classical, more than any other genre, has been abandoned by terrestrial radio. We'll soon be the premier classical-music brand in America." Martin Goldsmith has discovered that when the Beatles gave their first American concert, on February 4, 1964, eight radio stations in the nation's capitol played at least some classical music. Today, not even NPR stations in Detroit, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, or San Francisco play the classics.

XM's 67 commercial-free music channels include XM Classics, XM Vox (opera, oratorio, and song), XM Pops (classical's greatest hits), and XM Fine Tuning. The last, an eclectic mix that claims to offer "the world's most interesting music," features everything from the Beatles and Tangerine Dream to Beethoven, the Bulgarian Women's Chorus, and blues. Abrams says the channel is aimed at someone who may be 50, grew up with music, but can't find anything compelling on commercial terrestrial radio.

"I'm pleased to work at XM," says Goldsmith, "where all programmers are given complete free rein to do music as they deem fit. Our directive is to make the programs the best they can be, without Arbitron pressure to get the mid-morning numbers up." Goldsmith's XM Classics programming ranges from Hildegard von Bingen to John Adams, with Shostakovich string quartets thrown in. You may not hear Bang on a Can or other screeching (if frequently compelling) experimental fare, but you'll hear Michael Torke and Philip Glass, plus one JS Bach cantata per week, broadcast during the week Bach intended it to be performed.

"I'm the son of musicians," Goldsmith explained. "I've been doing radio for 34 years, and I have a fairly good sense of what will be off-putting. There's no reason to put off people who will be coming to your house for a good time." He says that many who buy XM Radio are "disgusted" former terrestrial listeners. "If there's one common theme to the e-mails I receive, it's 'Thank God someone is treating me like an adult again.'"

Goldsmith decries classical FM stations that play Vivaldi mandolin concertos 24 hours a day because they believe that's all people will listen to. "If you present the full range of the extraordinary music that the human animal can be very proud to have produced, a continuing audience will find their way to you, once the word is out. Classical music has not survived for a thousand years by accident. There is something within classical music that speaks to the human soul. We need it as much as we needed it in the '50s, when we knew we were going to be obliterated by an atomic bomb next week."

XM's 152 digital channels currently serve more than five million subscribers (the actual listenership is doubtless far larger). The company expects to increase its number of subscribers by another million by the end of 2005, and projects a market potential of 20 million subscribers by 2010. About half of XM's subscribers sign on after purchasing new cars equipped for satellite reception; the rest buy their own satellite radios.

XM's honchos initially thought most of their subscribers would be younger, Internet-savvy folks; instead, they've been surprised to discover that their subscribers are of all ages and demographics. "We're in a period when America is re-tuning itself to the digital age," says Lee Abrams. "It's analogous to the FM explosion between 1960 and 1975, where people got fed up with the commercials of AM. We're doing to FM what FM did to AM 35 years ago."

XM's Classical Connections premiers with Joshua Bell on Wednesday, November 2, at 8pm EST on XM Classics (XM Channel 110), Pops (113), Fine Tuning (76), and Live (200). Expect encore broadcasts throughout November. The installment with Cecilia Bartoli is scheduled to air Monday, December 7, at 8pm EST on XM Classics (110), Vox (112), and Live (200), with repeat broadcasts throughout December. That show will feature Bartoli and the baroque orchestra La Scintilla in live performances of six arias featured on Bartoli's astounding new Decca/London CD, Opera Proibita.

"She did not strike a false note when speaking," Goldsmith revealed of his time with Bartoli. "She has hardly an ounce of pretension, and she has no time for small-mindedness. She has what we used to call class."

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