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Opinion | Keeping up with classical competition on the airwaves, internet

How does Classical IPR, a small local radio station in the woods of northern Michigan, compete against an entire world of other music services?

Note: this piece originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the "Tuning In" series.

When Interlochen Public Radio (or WIAA as it was known at the time) went on the air 59 years ago, its main competitors were other FM stations in northern Michigan.

Now, in the third decade of the 21st century, the list of competitors is endless thanks to online streaming services and commercial downloads.

With a couple of clicks, listeners can have just about any recording they want at their fingertips, thanks to streaming services like Spotify and YouTube.

People can also download recordings of any music they want with iTunes, Amazon Music, Bandcamp, and dozens of other purveyors.

Plus, with internet streaming, people can listen to just about any radio station in the world at any time of the day or night. (My husband and I are particularly fond of a station based in Italy that plays funk B-sides.)

Once in a while, a listener will critique IPR’s hosts or programming, advising us to emulate other stations and hosts. A recent example: “Tell Amanda Sewell to listen to WFMT’s Lisa Flynn if she wants to know how a real host sounds.”

Except in reality, that listener can simply stream WFMT instead of telling me that I need to sound more like a WFMT host.

So how does a small local radio station in the woods of northern Michigan compete against an entire world of other music services?

First, we’ve had to come to terms with who we are and who we aren’t. We definitely aren’t a huge global powerhouse like WFMT, WQXR, YourClassical, or Classic FM. Those are massive operations with massive budgets: in fiscal year 2020, WFMT’s revenue was more than 40 times that of Interlochen Public Radio.

Those operations can afford live in-studio hosts 24 hours a day, a full bench of back-up hosts, dozens of syndicated programs, and multiple in-house podcasts and online features. We can’t.

We also have chosen not to try to be a globally-reaching station with universal appeal. It’s not realistic for us with our resources.

Instead, we’ve chosen to lean into our local identity here in northern Michigan. My hope is that when you listen to Classical IPR, you hear a station that sounds like it’s coming from the land of the stately pines on the campus of Interlochen.

We certainly play the major classical hits conducted and performed by the most famous artists in the world. But we also include lots of local and regional music, such as the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, Manitou Winds, the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra, and, of course, students, faculty, and guest artists from right here at Interlochen Center for the Arts.

We can’t be a New York or Chicago or London station, and that’s okay because we’re an Interlochen station.

Amanda Sewell can be reached by emailing amanda.sewell@interlochen.org.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.