Open Mic Spotlight: Mark Travis, New York Philharmonic

New York Festivals Radio Awards Open Mic Spotlight shares the inside story on some of 2017’s award-winning radio programs and the creative insights from the incredible men and women who create these inspiring programs. This week, NYF interviews Mark Travis, Associate Director of Media, Production for New York Philharmonic. This year the New York Philharmonic earned a Gold Trophy (Director) for “Celebrating the 175th Anniversary Season” as well as a Gold Trophy for Music and a Bronze Trophy for Best Director for “Zubin Mehta at 80.”  “The New York Philharmonic This Week” also took home the Silver Trophy for Best Regularly Scheduled Music Program.

Mark Travis and Alec Baldwin, Host of the New York Philharmonic

Mark shares his industry knowledge with NYF as both a New York Festivals Radio Awards Advisory Board Member and as a member of the Grand Jury. He has over 20 years of experience in the music industry as a writer, producer, broadcaster, lecturer, and audio engineer. Since 2011, Mark has been the Associate Director of Media, Production for the New York Philharmonic and he has produced the orchestra’s broadcasts since 2003. He has also served as a writer and producer for Chicago’s WFMT Radio Network where he wrote and produced over 800 nationally syndicated programs–notably the Bucksbaum Family Lyric Opera of Chicago broadcasts. 

The multiple Grammy-nominee and cancer survivor has been the recipient of over 25 medals and trophies for his broadcast work–including the 2015 Grand Jury Prize from the New York Festivals.

In the interview, below Mark shares insights on creating award-winning programming, how the New York Philharmonic first began broadcasting, his methodology for overcoming creative challenges, advice for future classical music enthusiasts who want to find a place in the industry, and much much more.

NYF Radio: How did your Gold Trophy winning program “Celebrating the 175th Anniversary Season” come to be produced? What was the inspiration for the creation of this celebratory program?

Mark Travis: The New York Philharmonic is the longest-running orchestra in the United States and one of the oldest in the world. I wanted to find a way to acknowledge the Philharmonic’s milestone 175th anniversary season and draw attention to the organization’s activities surrounding it, notably the New World Initiative (­)

NYF Radio: What creative challenges did you encounter during the production of this program and how did you overcome them?

Mark Travis: I suppose the biggest challenge was figuring out how to summarize 175 years and over 16,000 concerts within the show’s two-hour time-frame. My solution was to focus on two works that have figured prominently in the orchestra’s history.  One of these was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which was featured on the orchestra’s first program in December 1842.  The other work is a repertoire-staple that the Philharmonic premiered: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Rather than just zero in on one great performance of these two works, I instead decided to let the broadcast unfold by assigning a different conductor to each of the four movements that made up the two symphonies. So audiences heard Arturo Toscanini conduct the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, followed by Bruno Walter leading the second movement and from there to Zubin Mehta and Jaap Van Zweden for the third and fourth movements. I took a similar approach to the Dvořák.  Here, it started with Leonard Bernstein and went from Kurt Masur to Lorin Maazel’s historic broadcast from Pyongyang and concluded with Alan Gilbert. All of the conductors selected were Philharmonic Music Directors of the past, present or future, save for Bruno Walter, who was technically a “Musical Advisor.”  By showcasing recordings that spanned eighty years, it was easy to form a compelling narrative.

NYF Radio: As Director and Writer of the programs, what unique skills do you need to achieve the level of success that your programs have garnered?

Mark Travis: I don’t know if the skills I bring to the table are unique so much as my programming philosophy.  Each week I strive to produce a program that I’d want to hear. I’m not thinking about awards or ratings or magic formulas while in the studio.  I’m considering how to create the best possible show using the pieces available to me.  Sometimes I have hundreds of elements and hours of material at my disposal. Other weeks I have maybe four. So, what I think really sets The New York Philharmonic This Week apart from other concert programs is the resulting variety. I’m not just speaking about the repertoire, but the fact that any given week we might present a documentary-style profile of a great artist, a themed “playlist program” with less than three minutes of talk, or a concert program with didactic highly-produced intros.  I understand this makes our series a little challenging for some of the program directors out there and I’m grateful that so many of them have stuck with us for so long, despite certain criticisms. In the end, though, I craft this program with love and respect for the listeners—from one fan to another.

NYF Radio: Where did you first develop your passion for classical music? How did you come to share your passion on radio?

Mark Travis: I really can’t remember a time when music wasn’t a part of my life, but my formal training began in third grade with classical guitar lessons. I also flirted with the French horn for a short time before eventually discovering in junior high school that I could carry a tune reasonably well. I attended Northern Illinois University on a full-tuition scholarship for voice and while I never finished my degree, I landed my first radio job at Northern Public Radio at age 21. WNIU and WNIJ proved to be an amazing training ground for me with lots of practical hands-on experience. I’ve occupied numerous roles since then, but fine arts broadcasting is still a very important part of my professional life 22 years later.

NYF Radio: How did the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts first come about?

Mark Travis: The orchestra has been on the air in one form or another since 1930.  The current edition came about in 2004 and it was largely the brainchild of my former boss at the WFMT Radio Network, Steve Robinson, and then-Philharmonic President, Zarin Mehta. Steve knew that live broadcasts were becoming an increasingly hard sell to the Network’s affiliates.  He argued that for a similar investment, the Philharmonic could present a wider snapshot of the orchestra’s season and everyone would win. The musicians could relax knowing that any imperfections on a given night could be cleaned up and member stations now had a show that could reliably occupy and fill a 2-hour time slot. Listenership almost doubled when we went to that format, so Zarin encouraged us to increase the number of broadcasts from 39 to 52 for the 2005/06 season. Listenership doubled again when we better stabilized a hard running time for the program with judicious use of fill music and it jumped considerably again when Alec Baldwin signed on to host the series in 2009.

NYF Radio: The program “Celebrating the 175 Anniversary Season” also earned a Bronze Trophy for Best Radio Special, to what do you attribute the success of this program and its wide spread appeal?

Mark Travis:  It probably doesn’t hurt that the two symphonies featured on this program occupy spots on most anyone’s “top 10” list for classical music.  I also think there’s a point of pride when it comes to the New York Philharmonic.  It’s been a cultural institution in this country for 175 years. Even people that have never studied music know of the Philharmonic,  so I think there’s a natural curiosity about its history and evolution. That’s, of course, to say nothing of the big personalities who have contributed to its success.  In any case, I’m thrilled that this show was so well-received.

NYF Radio: The New York Philharmonic earned a Gold (Music) and a Bronze Trophy (Best Director) for “Zubin Mehta at 80” and a Silver Trophy for “The New York Philharmonic This Week” for Best Regularly Scheduled Music Program, what are the common elements that make up these trophy-winning programs?

Mark Travis: Central to the success of the programs you mentioned (and really every episode of the series to date) is the orchestra. There would be no show without the engaging and imaginative performances the orchestra gives us week in and week out.  They are the foundation for everything we do and their excellence inspires everyone on the staff to also be excellent. As mentioned earlier, though, I think we present the story of this orchestra and this music in a very complete and unique way and I’m so very pleased that this has seemed to resonate with both critics and audiences.

NYF Radio:  As a judge for the 2017 Radio Awards and as an award-winner yourself, what advice do you have for future entrants into the NYF Radio Awards?

Mark Travis: I feel we are a little over-saturated by programs attempting to replicate a handful of firmly established shows. I’d encourage future entrants to take pride in their original voice and to take a few more risks.  As one of my mentors used to say to me, “Fail boldly and settle for perfect.”

NYF Radio: Do you have any advice for classical music enthusiasts who want to find their place in the radio industry?

Mark Travis: Musicians often make terrific radio producers and personalities as they can offer anecdotes from their personal experience and their well-tuned ears, natural sense of timing and knack for precision is often quite welcome in the studio.   But whether you’re a former musician or a music-lover looking for a possible career change, I’d suggest that you volunteer or look for part-time work at a local station so you can see firsthand what the job looks like. I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of listening to new music and new recordings on a daily basis.

NYF Radio: What is your personal dream project that you’d like to create? Or have you already created it and if so, what was it?

Mark Travis: I have a series in the works that explores the contributions of African-American singers to the world of art-song and opera.  It will profile not only trailblazers like Marian Anderson, George Shirley, and William Warfield, but also singers of the current generation like Eric Owens and Morris Robinson…plus many voices and personalities in between. I’m still searching for the right host, but I’m very excited to share some of the stories, interviews, and recordings I’ve collected. I’ve also always wanted to produce a program or series comparing and contrasting the development of heavy metal music to classical music. Oh and if Disney, ever decided to do radio adaptations of the Star Wars films again, I’d be first in line to offer my services.

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