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Relevant Tones Now Reaches a Whole Lot More Music Lovers

The contemporary classical program on WFMT branches out to 120 new stations worldwide in syndication this year.

Photo: Courtesy of Seth Bousted

“It’s the only contemporary-classical show on a classically formatted station in the country,” says Seth Boustead of his WFMT show, Relevant Tones, a weekly showcase for music, composers, and trends carrying the tradition of classical music into the present day.

Starting in the new year, Relevant Tones began to carry that showcase to a broader audience, branching out from WFMT to about 120 other stations in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines, as it enters syndication.

Boustead, also a composer and the head of the multipronged organization Access Contemporary Music, selects themes for the shows and, whenever possible, interviews the composers whose music he’s playing. He describes the strategy as “humanizing the music.” Past shows have featured internationally renowned musicians such as Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Corigliano as they visited Chicago. The first 13 syndicated shows, obviously new to the non-Chicago stations, will rerun programs that Boustead hopes will interest a broad audience, such as this past summer’s program about the influence of Radiohead on new music.

Despite the three-digit number of stations picking up the show, including large markets such as Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix, Boustead says it wasn’t an easy sell everywhere. Classical stations in other large markets said no way; their audiences are too conservative. “People aren’t even thinking about new audiences,” he says. “They’re scared to death of losing the one they already have.” Any sense of engaging with a living art form lies dormant. “It’s music to relax to. This is what classical music radio has become,” he says. Given the marginal position of new music even in cosmopolitan places, Boustead faces the challenge of building an audience rather than feeding eager listeners slavering for more John Luther Adams.

As listening habits change based on technology and connectivity, though, radio’s niche may change. “I think that if [conservative listeners] have all the nation’s classical-music stations to choose from,” Boustead says, “they’re going to listen to the Mozart-only station. If I want to hear the same things all the time, I’ll play my CDs.” Because someone other than the often-unadventurous listener is deciding what to play, radio can open doors. “I listen to the radio to hear new stuff,” he says.

Up next: Boustead is joined by the London composer and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev on January 8 at 5 p.m.

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