To get a sense of how much the environment of radio broadcasting has changed in the past half century, one only need ask CRB station manager Anthony Rudel, who has been in the industry for most of that time.
When Rudel took his first radio job at age 19 at New York classical station WQXR, he said, the on-air announcers were all men who had mostly made their radio debuts in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, each boasting the mellifluous baritone voices that modern listeners associate with vintage broadcasts. “You’d go in there, and it was like stepping into ‘Brigadoon.’ It was all smoke!” said Rudel, who recalled working alongside a news director who went through two packs of cigarettes a day.
But just like the air quality in the office, the on-air environment has changed in the years since. Instead of the paternal voice of authority that mid-to-late 20th century listeners expected from classical radio, CRB — which broadcasts at 99.5 FM in Boston — aims for a friendly, let’s-listen-together vibe.
“We’re in a period right now where it’s not so much ‘let me teach you about this,’ it’s ‘let me experience this with you,’” said Rudel. “And that is a sense of discovery that the hosts have along with the audience.”
CRB’s recent listener data suggests that a growing share of younger listeners are responding to that sense of discovery. In February 2014, when Rudel took over the station, the median age of CRB listeners was 74; as of this past February, it was 54, with 24 percent of listeners under age 35.
“The overall attitude at the station is that everyone belongs here, because classical music belongs to everyone,” said Edyn-Mae Stevenson, the newest addition to CRB’s weekday lineup of DJs. “And our attitude in the station when it comes to putting out content is, ‘How can we make this for everyone?’”
When Stevenson sees a piece on her playlist she hasn’t heard before (such as Richard Harvey’s “Guitar Concerto Antico,” which she first heard last month) she’ll sometimes listen ahead, but more often she prefers to be surprised. “I like to think I’m sharing that first-time experience with listeners,“ she said. “The programming staff are great at pulling out music you don’t always get to hear in the mainstream classical music sphere.“
CRB’s stable of on-air hosts is distinctly multigenerational, with the youngest hosts in their 20s and the oldest in their 80s. Several announcers have decades of on-air experience, such as Cathy Fuller, Laura Carlo, and the voice of CRB’s Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts Ron Della Chiesa, who has spent more than 60 years in the radio world. Stevenson and host Chris Voss grew up with the voices of their now co-workers in the background.
“The fact that I’m working with Laura Carlo is still mind-blowing to me, because her voice was part of my morning routine from age 8,” said Voss, who switched career tracks from opera performance to radio after graduate school.
Program director and associate station manager Rani Schloss is proud of the environment that has evolved during her time at the station. “When I got hired [in 2012], I think I was the only person under 30 by a bit,” she said. “To be able to come into a team where there’s a wide mix of backgrounds and ages and experiences … you join in a more comfortable way.”
Rudel added, “Continuing to diversify the racial and ethnic backgrounds on the CRB team is a priority.”
Before the pandemic, Voss would go into the station early and spend an hour in the booth absorbing what knowledge he could from Fuller, who held the on-air slot before his. Fuller has picked up a thing or two from Voss as well. “Back in the ancient days, I used to read the numbers of the CDs slowly,” she said, switching to her calm radio voice to demonstrate: That was RCA 632.
“For the new generation, for these younger hosts, there’s such a natural thing … they’ve always got one hand on the computer and one thought in social media space,” Fuller said.
Many hosts are engaging with listeners in different ways, and most are active on Twitter: Carlo, who has been CRB’s morning announcer for more than 20 years, now typically greets the day with a “good morning my Tweethearts!’” In the station’s monthly “Instant Replay” blog posts, digital content manager Kendall Todd compiles a playlist of whatever the hosts have been listening to on their own time, not limited to classical music. April’s entry features a Bach organ concerto arranged for brass alongside tracks by Nirvana and Japanese Breakfast.
“I can send out a tweet and immediately get a response from a listener. You can help people dig deeper without feeling compelled to do something on the air,” said Fuller. In the end, she said, it all comes back to listening, and how best to invite people to do that.
Younger listeners are especially “willing to dip their toes into stuff without knowing all the history and context that a lot of people think you have to know in order to know classical music,” said Todd, who manages social media for CRB as well as digital content for GBH Music. “The way that my friends interact with classical music is not reverential.”
And that attitude has helped retain one crucial listener: Rudel himself. When he came on board in 2014, he had only planned to stay for a couple of years; instead it’s been eight and counting. “I got hooked,” he said.
“It’s about respect and love for the music and also the listener,“ Stevenson said. “I think people get it when you’re having fun.”