New music director Joe Goetz keeps listeners' wants in mind, with the 'occasional jolt'

Joe Goetz is the classical music director of Classical MPR and American Public Media.WFIU

November 19, 2020

Programming the music for a large classical radio station is already a major undertaking. Doing it at the same time for a national service that reaches more than 1.5 million listeners a week — plus curating more than a dozen streams and other digital products — takes the endeavor to new dynamic levels. That's the challenge facing Joe Goetz, the new classical music director for Classical Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media.

It's a charge he doesn't take lightly.

"Classical music listeners very generally look to their radio stations as a source for relaxation and comfort. It's often an accompaniment to their work or study, a means of falling asleep at night, or a way to stay sane while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. These are all activities I envision when I'm programming music," he says.

"At the same time, though, we also know that classical music listeners are intellectually curious and don't mind an occasional challenge. My job is to strike that balance between the familiar and the surprising, to create a sound that is unobtrusive but can also give the occasional jolt."

Goetz is experienced at providing jolts — in a good way. He joins MPR/APM after six years as music director at WFIU, the public radio station associated with Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where he revamped the music library, launched nationally syndicated programming and produced broadcasts from the Jacobs School of Music. He also partnered with Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair to produce a weekly music show.

For seven years before that, he hosted classical music programming at Vermont Public Radio, where he promoted the work of local grade-school composers and interviewed internationally recognized classical artists. He also has an extensive performance background as a choral singer and chamber music pianist.

One of Goetz's first goals in his new gig is to answer the clarion call to diversify programming as part of the dismantling of systemic racism in classical music, which remains firmly rooted in the Western European tradition. MPR/APM's classical services actually have been working on that for a few years, recently revealing publicly for the first time that 24 percent of the music they play features a woman and/or a Black person, Indigenous person or person of color.

Goetz appreciates that effort but aims to redefine what "diverse programming" means.

"Right now, we define it as any piece of music that features a woman or person of color who is either the composer, conductor or performer (or some combination thereof)," he explains. "That means that Hilary Hahn playing Bach or Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart qualify as 'diverse.'"

He admires that they are both women thriving in what has been a male-dominated arena for centuries, but he thinks the approach can be better.

"These recordings have been on classical radio for decades," he says. "Just because we are using them to check a box that qualifies them as 'diverse,' doesn't mean they are adding true diversity to our playlists. I want to make sure that our commitment to diversity includes new voices performing new music, not just new voices performing the same pieces we've heard for years."

That means partnering with diversity-focused institutions such as the well-respected Sphinx Organization and historically black colleges and universities to help spot promising talent and content.

"It's going to take creativity and a commitment to look beyond the traditional recording industry, which still hasn't quite caught up with where we need to be," he says.

Besides programming the national and regional radio services, Goetz and his team — which includes associate music director Jennifer Allen — curate all of the music for the dozen streams hosted on YourClassical and available on platforms such as TuneIn and Alexa. They feature a wide variety of themed content, including lullabies, concert band music and even comfy selections for the concept of hygge.

Given his druthers for a new addition to the options there, Goetz says the first candidate that comes to mind is a guitar stream.

"The guitar (and its ancestors like the lute, theorbo and vihuela) has been a mainstay of classical music for half a millennium," he says. "There's so much to enjoy, from the late Renaissance lute music of Dowland and Vallet to the new concerto Affinity, by Chris Brubeck. We could launch a guitar stream and refresh it with completely new material many, many times and still only scratch the surface of this incredible repertoire."

His experience at Indiana University, with its prestigious school of music, also makes launching a conservatory-focused stream an intriguing idea for him.

"I witnessed firsthand the monster talents these young musicians have," he said. "Wouldn't it be great to give some of them a national platform to show off their skills?"

For now, Goetz will oversee music programming from Indiana, where he is working remotely during these COVID-19 times. But he says his family — wife Meghann and young kids William and Allison — are "extremely excited" about relocating eventually to the arts-driven Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where MPR/APM is based.

"I'm pumped to dive into the music scene, both classical and otherwise. I want to check out the clubs where Prince used to play. I'm going to do a lot of listening to The Current. I just can't wait to soak it all in — when it's finally safe to do so."