Radio broadcasting syndicator Neil Currie was busy writing orders yesterday.
No, Currie does not specialize in the disco beat, Peaches & Herb or the Doobie Brothers.
Currie does have some talk shows among his wares, to mention another staple of radio stations today.
But the talk is about Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, or the exciting conductor of Baltimore's Symphony Orchestra, Sergiu Comissiona. And the music is by Gagner, Schumann, Strauss, Berlioz, Ravel and Barber-not to mention Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Despite all the surface noise of modern civilization, Richard Neil Currie has discovered a growing audience across the country for classical music; In the last decade, he has built a local company - Parkway Productions Inc. of Bethesda into one of the nation's largest radio syndicators for any type of programming.
Yesterday, station managers from many states were in town for a national conference on public radio, and Currie was kept busy with his order books. There was special interest in one of the talk-and-music programs that Parkway syndicates: "First Hearing," produced jointly with WQXR in New York and featuring important new classical records with immediate comments by critics.
Last night, for the first time, a broadcast of "First Hearing" was recorded before a live audience at the Hyatt Regency hotel. Moderator Lloyd Moss was to be joined by critics Edward Downes, Irving Kolodin and Paul Hume.
Of all radio program syndicators, Parkway is largest in number of separate program titles (30) and program hours (60,000 hours in circulation a year). The Bethesda company is fifth in number of station subscribers/customers with more than 300 - both commerical stations and non-commercial, public radio stations.
In the Washington area, Parkway productions are carried by WGMS ("First Hearing," Baltimore Symphony concerts), WETA-FM (music shows from the BBC, which Parkway represents in the U.S.) and WGTS-FM (a large variety of programs).
Radio syndication is a small business, with about a dozen firms packaging news, drama and interviews. Parkway literally is in a class by itself, and even Currie is surprised by the Bethesda firm's success story.
"It's bigger than I thought it would be," said Currie, reminiscing about Parkway's decade in business. "I thought we'd produce nine or 10 programs . . . but for more stations (than the 300-plus of today). I found there was not the width to the market but much greater depth."
In short, the people who love classical music have almost unlimited appetites, and the demand for more and more shows has made for Parkway's success. The Bethesda company gets the best announcers in the business, and pays attention to the fine points of fine music programming and broadcasting.
Currie boasts a 99 percent renewal rate for his programs, having been more successful at finding the right formula for his audience than even Norman Lear. "Once they sign on, they tend to stay . . . we have a high percentage of live music not available anywhere else," Currie notes.
The problem is that an apparently hungry audience often finds no classical music stations.
A decade ago, when Currie and some associates started Parkway, there were some 300 commercial radio stations in the U.S. that offered classical music. Today, less than two dozen of these stations carry classical music, a precipitous decline. Not all of the largest 20 markets have classical stations.
At the same time, there has been another trend: the development of public radio stations that do want classical music. And a number of non-classical but commercial radio stations have been experimenting. A station in Columbus, Ga., was astonished by strong listener response when it broadcast some classics, and it is adding more Bach to its diet.
Still another development is about to cause a revolution in all communications-use of domestic satellites to beam individual programs to various stations without the need of a network as intermediary or United Parcel Services (which now delivers tapes daily to stations who subscribe to Parkway programs). Currie sees a nationwide classical music network as a reality within a few years and hasn't ruled out selling advertising on such a program service.
For now, Parkway isn't big enough (annual sales topping $1 million, after a growth rate of 22 percent annually since 1974) to have a national sales structure.
The market is there, however. Currie says a high percentage of classical listeners are young married persons between the ages of 18 and 39-a period of heavy consumer purchases.
In Currie's view, most broadcasters today are making a mistake in offering listeners "shoddy stuff." Although the U.S. has an educated population-one with literary interests who put great demands on libraries-"the people who run radio and television think the average mental age is that of a sub-teen. The diet is pap. This company is living proof that's not true . . . but people in commercial braodcasting see it only as an advertising medium. They have confused the means with the end, and stations should recognize the diversity of audience."
Broadcasters only invite government intervention in such areas as programming by refusing to "address a literate audience," he adds. But then, the Small Business Administration laughed at Currie when he asked for loan guarantees to finance a classical music radio service.
Parkway now markets the San Francisco and St. Louis symphony orchestras, among others, and 40 orchestras from smaller American cities in a series called "America in Concert." Parkway has been profitable since 1974.
Although SBA didn't think much of the idea, First American Bank of Maryland, based in Silver Spring, paid attention.Currie said other banks also wouldn't listen to him but that First American sent loan executives to the firm, studied the books and its 24-hour-a-day production operation and asked lots of questions. The bank agreed to a loan and Parkway has become No. 1 in its field. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, from a Parkway Productions Inc. programs brochure.