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Classical Notes

Sirius trouble for Met broadcasts?

Posted at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2006 by Don Lee (1 Comments)

Breaking news in the opera world:

NEW YORK (AP) - The Met will be on the air almost as much as the Mets.

Sirius Satellite Radio and the Metropolitan Opera plan to announce Wednesday that they will launch a new channel to broadcast four performances a week during the company's 32-week season, part of the company's vast media expansion under new general manager Peter Gelb.

Metropolitan Opera Radio will debut with Monday's opening-night gala of a new production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." When not broadcasting live performances, the channel will air operas from the Met's archive of 1,500 radio broadcasts that date to 1931.

Sirius, which has about 125 channels, has a subscription price of $12.95 per month, with discounts available for long-term deals. It was available to 4.7 million subscribers at the end of June and expects to be in 6.3 million by the end of the year, spokesman Patrick Reilly said.

Sirius will have 10 historic broadcasts per week, Met spokeswoman Sommer Hixson said. Producers will replace the original commentary by Milton Cross and Peter Allen and original intermission features with new lead-ins and intermissions. The channel's announcer will be Margaret Juntwait, who replaced Allen in 2004 as host of the Met's Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, which run from December until spring and will continue.

Satellite radio is built for narrowcasting and opera is just the kind of programming it's best suited to deliver. But where does this move leave the Met's Saturday radio broadcast? The announcement says it will continue, but for how long?

Last I heard, the broadcast's future sponsorship was far from secure. And more than a few classical radio programmers have long been convinced that the opera audience is different from and smaller than the rest of their listenership. Some have already pulled the plug on the Met. Others have wanted to do the same, but feared backlash from disenfranchised opera lovers. Now that the fans can get their fix in another, arguably better, way, once-tentative programmers won't hold back any longer. Could the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Met's Saturday radio broadcast be its last? It wouldn't surprise me.

Comments (1)

Good points, Don. I think in the long run this will be beneficial for the opera fan. A couple of years ago the critic Terry Teachout predicted something like this would eventually happen.

However, a couple of questions pop to mind: 1) My first reaction is that the opera will be less accessible to the general public (i.e. non-opera buffs who might get their first exposure through the public airwaves), because it won't be on the public airwaves. But is that really the case? Do we know how many people surf the dial anymore in search of something to listen to? And if they do, are they apt to look to satellite radio, rather than broadcast radio, as their first source?

2) How will public radio, in particular, react to this? I think this gives programmers something to think about, especially when trying to sell public broadcasting as something you can't get anywhere else. Too many times the playlists are shallower and less eclectic than they are on the classical stations of XM and Sirius. Now, with the potential of losing the Met completely to satellite, will some people be more apt to take that money that they previously contributed to MPR and purchase Sirius instead? And, frankly, will they be getting a better bargain for their money?

We still listen to MPR classical in the morning and when we're in the car, but frankly we do get tired of hearing the same pieces over and over. I do understand that most radio stations have their playlists, but again it begs the question: is the future of classical music on satellite rather than broadcast? And if so, is that a bad thing? Or is the Met going to where the people are?

P.S. Too bad they're omitting the original commentary. I'm too young to have heard him on anything but old recordings, but I'd much rather listen to Milton Cross than Margaret Juntwait anytime. (Nothing personal, Margaret!)

Posted by Our Word | September 21, 2006 1:28 PM