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Radio Waves: Interference Patterns

Responding to some comments about yesterday’s news about WNYC buying WQXR (and preparing, of course, for my long-promised piece on classical radio): I’ve already said that I can’t be completely objective about WNYC since I regularly appear on the station, but I think they have a pretty good track record in terms of their commitment to classical music. I believe they are the only station in the country with a daily talk show devoted to musical topics. (Tell me if I’m wrong, WFMT (Chicago), King FM (Seattle), and anyone else who may be reading.) WNYC's regular shows “Evening Music” and “New Sounds” both also offer a good amount of unusual, challenging, even genre-defying fare. (Though the composer Charles Wuorinen, in a comment published in the New York Times when the station abandoned its former classical format in 2002, denigrated the station's new-music aesthetic as “pop avant-garde that really is just commercially unsuccessful rock and roll garnished with a dollop of John Cage.”)

So I don’t see WNYC as representing dumbing down. On the other hand, they will have to find a new formula for WQXR as they transform it into a public, member-supported entity rather than the private entity it’s been for so long. For my money, some shaking up isn’t a terrible thing; WQXR had, I think, become fairly conservative in its musical approach. It does preserve the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and, more recently, regular broadcasts from the New York Philharmonic, and those are scheduled to continue.

The larger concern about classical radio, among its fans, is clearly the ongoing debate between listeners who find stations too conservative, always playing the same fairly limited repertory, and the stations which know all too well how fast the majority of listeners turn the dial as soon as something unfamiliar comes on. When WNYC moved away from classical programming in 2002, there was a hue and cry among musicians and classical music fans. But none of them addressed the station’s basic problem: as soon as the format switched from the morning news to losers classical music, the listenership dropped precipitately.

I know this is a topic close to the heart of many readers, and I would be really interested to hear what people think about classical radio and its future.

Edited to fix a particularly unfortunate typo (marked with strikethrough, above). I believe (or hope) the error was the software's and not a mental transposition of my own.

By Anne Midgette  |  July 15, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  news , random musings  
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I am a lifelong Washingtonian; I have listened to WGMS, WETA, and the late, lamented WGTS for the better part of 40 years.

There was a time, particularly on WETA, when one could hear live or live-on-tape concert broadcasts from all over the world on virtually every night of the week. These were not limited to orchestral concerts, but included chamber music and recital programs, both instrumental and vocal. Those days are gone. Today, with the exception of the occasional piece aired on their Wolf Trap program, I must wait until WETA features a "Chamber Music Weekend" to hear any chamber music at all. It has been decades since any vocal music was heard at any time during the WETA broadcast week other than on the Saturday opera broadcast.

I can remember the days when I heard the nationally syndicated hour-long program called "Music Of Our Time" with Martin Bookspan, featuring a real live composer in the studio each week. I didn't always like the music, but my theory about music is that I won't know if I like it if I don't hear it. Today, it's an even-money bet that the next music one hears on WETA will be one of about 200 basic orchestral warhorses, the same music which one heard a few days previous. I confess that the only time I ever listen to WETA with any regularity is on the 15-minute ride to/from my commuter train and on weekend errands in my car; other than that, I go with Sirius/XM in my home for far more interesting programming.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | July 15, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Anne, the truth probably is going to be something like the shameful sale of WBEZ in Chicago which soon abandoned its varied format and left WFMT alone to play "all the latest classical hits" programmed for "drive time" and becoming a classical station "lite."

But I "fixed 'em!" I subscribed to XM satellite radio and there was Martin Goldsmith! As good as it gets.

Then came the Sirius merger and they gave more prominence to someone less knowledgeable (IMHO) and I said good-bye to satellite radio.

Now, I've got an iPhone and have access to the best of the best classical music from around the world -- and a darn nice way to freshen up my French verb conjugations as an additional perq, to boot.

Terrestrial radio has utterly failed, regardless of the format, because they decided to put lucre over their original FCC charge: To serve the public's interest, necessity and convenience.

Now that Europe, Canada, Australia and other classical sites are no more than a flic of my finger away, I say: good riddance to those whose goals were anything but service; and I'll mourn those who tried hard like WFMT, WOI, WBEZ, and KSUI of old.

One final observation in the Midwest I've noted that Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa have combined their superior classical college stations into statewide networks. Available as an FM signal, but also online.

Michael Scott

Posted by: scottmp | July 15, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Just in case there was any doubt about what WETA *says* it is up to, here's a quote from their website (covering TV as well as radio): "WETA's mission is to produce and broadcast programs of intellectual integrity and cultural merit that recognize viewers' and listeners' intelligence, curiosity and interest in the world around them." But as we all know, WETA-FM is just another dumbed-down top-100 classical station. As was WGMS when it abandoned classical. As was WNCN. As were and are so many others.

Like it or not, classical stations have to compete for money in the marketplace, and they do it by trying to satisfy the greatest number of listeners they can without totally abandoning their format. I don't like it, but that's now their niche. The glories of the WGMS of the sixties and seventies are now just memories for a bunch of old fuds like me who remember them as we do the days of Studio One and Playhouse 90.

Even within the narrow compass of current classical FM broadcasting, there are differences of degree, and I find much more satisfying listening when online by streaming other stations. Even in the car I can get WBJC throughout most of the DC metro area, and head-to-head WBJC is much more to my liking. (And I must add a plug for streaming Contemporary Classical at 365, which unfortunately is blocked at my office -- I don't know why.) At the office I am able to play my iPod, which currently holds more than seven weeks of uninterrupted music and will hold roughly ten when completely full (160 gb; it's no longer on the market new, but you can buy one refurbished from Apple). My car has SiriusXM, but I only tune it in on long trips; I listen to NPR news programs during my morning and evening commutes, each of which takes about 20 minutes. At home I often play some of the thousand or so CDs that I seem to have accumulated without really trying. (I donated most of my 7,000 LPs to charity a few years ago. Nice tax deduction.)

If you consider the competition, in different venues, from TV, Web streaming, SiriusXM, MP3 players and downloads, CDs, and even (for those who can afford it) live performance, it's a miracle there's any FM classical broadcasting left. If the only way for it to survive is to turn into a pale shadow of its former self, that will have to suffice. We don't have to like it, and I certainly don't, but again, the premise is that nothing else will afford us any such broadcasting at all. And, as I said before, there are some differences of degree. WETA is pretty low, but it's hardly the bottom.

So "classical radio and its future" isn't quite an oxymoron yet. But hanging on by the thumbs ain't much of a future. I almost never listen to WETA, very rarely to WBJC, and infrequently to other stations' online streams. I read WETA's playlists mostly to sneer (for a while they were playing so much Arthur Foote that I accused them of a "Foote fetish"). The future of such stations lies with people who use them as high-class Muzak. Good luck to them, but they can write me off as lost.

Posted by: BobL | July 16, 2009 7:43 AM | Report abuse

The big thing that radio did for me at least was force me to listen to things that I likely otherwise would not have heard. That's how I found the Schubert second piano trio, Bizet's Symphony in C, Gottschalk's piano music, Rimsky-Korsakov's wind quintet, and, I am pretty sure, the Mendelssohn Octet. Those are examples, of course. My impression is that now that people are able to carry their music around with them, they listen less to the radio and thus may tend to have narrower horizons. I would also have to say that at least in Washington I don't have the impression that classical radio has the quality and the breadth that it used to. While I was delighted when WETA went back to the classical format, it is rare that I hear anything I like when I turn it on.

Posted by: danjose | July 16, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Excellent comment, Mr Scott. Thank you.

And thank you too, UMgrad, for your insightful comment.

I hope you both (and danjose) follow-up repeatedly.

Perhaps like you, UMgrad, I discovered classical radio through WGMS in the late 1960s, and each night would close at midnight with the lush ending of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

However, at that time and before the duties were shifted without an apparent problem to the lower wattage WTGS in Takoma Park, WGMS would broadcast the Sunday evening concerts from the National Gallery of Art. I recall my piano theory teacher Ylda Novik,
who died prematurely, premiering a new Hungarian piano work from the National Gallery on WGMS, and then turning around and announcing to the audience and microphone that new music was so important to a true cultural life, that she was going to repeat the world premiere as an encore. No one at WGMS pulled the plug on her, as they would have done ten or fifteen years later.

In the 1980s, classical radio flourished in the Nation’s Capital. WTGS broadcast National Gallery of Art concerts on Sunday nights at 7 PM, and the new bright player WETA, then with chops for programming and public education, would broadcast the Friday Library of Congress concerts at 8 PM. This was especially helpful because the Nations Capital’s classical music community could, in effect, telecommute to weekly
Library of Congress concerts if need be, or even follow up on attendance at the Thursday evening concert of, lets say, the Juilliard String Quartet performing a work by Walter Piston or Roger Sessions, by listening to the program again the following evening. No one complained that either WTGS or WETA included some modern music or even world premieres on their local classical music broadcasts.

At about the same general time if not a little earlier (1979?), Robert Aubry Davis launched his intelligent WETA Millennium of Music exploration of music from 700 to 1700, and for a quarter of a century no one complained. He garnered a national listenership, and made the Nation’s Capital feel that it was part of an international world of early music revival. Yes, he even joined arm in arm with Deb Lamberton and others to fundraise constantly for WETA. And we as listeners responded, reaching deep into our pockets at appeal time, as well as tax-time. (We also learned to explain to our bosses why we were a little late on Monday mornings.)

Equally important, WETA, the Library of Congress, and NPR partnered with the superbly organized European Broadcasting Union to bring the weekly orchestral and chamber music concerts to public classical radio in the Nation’s Capital that were mentioned by UMgrad above. ...

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 16, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Today, Anne Midgette and the Washington Post, might tell readers about musical events in Munich and England, but twenty-five years ago, WETA, NPR, and the Library of Congress worked seamlessly together as public media executives in the public interest to bring twice or thrice weekly taped concerts from such venues as the Amsterdam Concertgabouw, the London Barbican, the Berlin Philharmonie, and the Vienna Musikverein. These public classical music media executives in the public interest also brought to the pre-merger WETA, carefully curated broadcasts from the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony. Intermission features were excellent and enlightening to a broad listenership looking to Elizabeth Campbell’s WETA-FM for public education and not just stress-relief for those having “one of those days”

Washington Post writer Marc Fisher mentioned earlier this year that contracting for these delayed broadcasts from Europe was probably very expensive (with the severe fall of the dollar over the past decade and generation) and beyond the imagination or ability of the merged WGMS/WETA station to find private, corporate, or foundation underwriting. WGMS/WETA has, though, managed to find underwriting for its currently less internationally nor culturally relevant delayed broadcasts of the National Symphony Orchestra which are generally dumbed down to match the lowered quality of the new Classical WETA.

I propose that Congress set-up a Corporation for Public Classical Music Broadcasting in order to allow funding for public radio stations in the Nations Capital and across America to serve their listeners as intelligently as public radio stations served their listeners a generation ago. It is time to revive for future generations Elizabeth Campbell’s idealist, yet workable, spirit which was able to sustain public television for over 40 years, but, sadly, not public classical radio.

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 16, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Just wondering why the comment I attempted to post at about 8:00 this morning didn't make it. I did get an aknowledgment after (I thought) posting it, but it seems to have landed in the bit bucket. It wasn't exactly deathless prose, and the other comments have covered much of the same ground, but still ...

Posted by: BobL | July 16, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

BobL: Your comment's up now. The spam folder seems to detain only particularly long and thoughtful comments, and I didn't check it until now.

All: I feel I'm getting a whole history of classical radio from these great comments. Thanks, and keep them coming.

Posted by: MidgetteA | July 16, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Here in San Francisco we're stuck with the insufferable KDFC, which goes out of its way to make people feel okay about listening to classical music. It also reminds me that for all of our avant-garde pretensions, we can still be a fairly provincial city when it comes to our tastes in the performing arts.

KDFC plays exactly two types of music: seventeenth-century oboe concertos and the overture to Schubert's "Friends from Salamanca." I just stopped listening after I started being able to predict what they would play next (literally).

I now listen to BBC Radio 3 and avoid American commercial radio altogether since it will always put profit ahead of artistic interest. The mix of styles/periods on BBC 3 is fantastic. While they don't dumb it down they also manage to make it inviting and informative for both novice listeners and aficionados. Plus the "Composer of the Week" program is close to an obsession of mine.

Posted by: knightstale | July 16, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm tired of San Franciscans claiming that their dumbed-down pseudo-classical outlet KDFC represents the bottom of the barrel for such station! In the Boston-area (Boston!) WCRB makes KDFC look Promethean. If the day of the week has a vowel in it, WCRB is almso certainly scheduled to play several obscure-and-forgotten 18th Century dreck by a deservedly obscure and forgotten 18th Century composer; a lush orchestration of a Viennese waltz; a lush orchestration of a Puccini aria; a single movement from a longer pieces; or something that's NOT classical at all: the Warsaw Concerto. Some pieces occasionally air twice in a single day...but often three or four times a week. (How do you know if you don't listen to WCRB? Because they display a retrospective playlist going back weeks.)

Posted by: lglavin | July 16, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Oh, really lglavin? Did WCRB play an symphonic rhapsody on Webber's "Phantom of the Opera?" KDFC did, in the slot they reserve for playing a piece in its entirety. That was they day I really started to question my belief in a benevolent creator.

Posted by: knightstale | July 16, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I live in a small town outside Fort Worth, TX and subscribe to WNYC Radio newsletter,it's Great NPR station. I love their mission statement. "To make the mind more curious, the heart more tolerant and the spirit more joyful through excellent radio programming that is deeply rooted in New York."

We are truly blessed with great radio listing of 'Serious music'...sorry folks Classical is a period of time from about 1750 to in the DFW area.

Posted by: dontbebitterbebetter | July 16, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I attended high school in San Antonio, Texas, back in the Eisenhower era, and we had an all-classical station, KONO-FM, that I remember fondly. This was a long time ago, and the family's only FM radio was in the same "console" as the AM radio, phonograph, and TV set, so my listening was rationed. But I got my two hours a day, and I valued them. If there is one single source of my addiction to classical music, it's KONO-FM. God knows what's on that frequency now. San Antonio has a classical station (or had one the last time I checked), but I have no idea of its quality.

For college I went to UC Berkeley, so long ago that it wasn't yet known as a hotbed of radicalism. From across the Bay we could pick up KSFR-FM. It says everything you need to know about KSFR that every weeknight from 11:00 p.m. to midnight they broadcast a program called "Music not for Everyone." Many of my favorites I first heard on that program: for example, Poulenc's Organ Concerto, Vaughan Williams's Antarctic Symphony (the first Boult recording, with Gielgud reading the epigraphs), and yes, Le Sacre. Eat your hearts out, San Franciscans of today.

WCRB in Boston was an excellent station when I lived there in the Sixties. It actually had a competitor for a while, but the other guys gutted their programming in one swell foop, keeping the "classical" label but dumbing way down. I finally reassigned the button in the car to some other station because I couldn't bear hearing them even accidentally.

If I hadn't lived through it all, I'd find it hard to believe how imaginative and even inspiring much of classical radio was during the Fifties and Sixties and even into the Seventies. What we have now doesn't even deserve to be called "decadent." It's as if the program directors of the nation's classical stations, one by one, were subjected to lobotomies. Today's classical FM stations are mostly a bunch of zombies, simulating life. When in our lifetime will WETA play something by, say, Thea Musgrave, or Dutilleux, or Malipiero, or even something by Shostakovich that lasts longer than five minutes?

Fortunately, technology has spared us from dependence on the likes of WETA. And WETA, knowing this -- and having failed at an all-talk format that WAMU does much better -- is now spared from having to try to attract those of us who are spared from having to depend on them.

A couple of years ago, as the future of WETA was becoming clear, I sent them an e-mail offering to help them dispose of the thousands of CDs cluttering their record library that they obviously were never going to play. I promised to do it without charge to them and to make sure that none of their listeners would miss a single one of those I took. So non-plused were they that no one replied. (Imagine!) Perhaps I should have gone totally Swiftian on them and promised to feed the CDs to the starving. Oh, well.

I'm at the office (I get here well before working hours) and about to start some Musgrave on the iPod. Who needs FM?

Posted by: BobL | July 17, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I sympathize fully with all of the comments about the dumbed down programing of classical stations, etc. I spent many years as the Manager of public radio stations devoted primarily to classical music, and I know something about the challenges such stations face, even while acknowledging that their problems today are different from the ones I dealt with. I don't think the differences justify the total lack of imagination stations today show in solving the problems. They do need to attract as many listeners as possible because they must rely on donations to survive and all costs have gone up, but they don't need to produce a steady diet of classical gruel as WETA does now.
I used to tell my music directors, "We know that some people use us as aural wallpaper, but we don't have to program that way." I think that is still true.
Programing has to pay some attention to what people are doing at various times of the day. I doubt that many people want to hear a Mahler symphony or "Gotterdaemerung" while starting their day or commuting. At the same time, there is no need to dismember symphonies or concertos and play only single movements during those times. Such a practice is inexcusable and a sad misrepresentation of the composer's work and intent.
Short, more or less familiar works (or pieces that sound as though they should be familiar -- Sullivan's music for "The Merchant of Venice," for example) during commuter time; the full range of "familiar classics" during dinner time; and the full range of the classical music repertoire at other times.
The syndicated concert broadcasts were no longer produced by the major orchestras for some years, but a lot of them are coming back. Not being in the field now, I don't know what they cost or what terms may be imposed for their use. Certainly if I were now running a station, I would be trying to get some of them back on its air.
This has gone on so long it will probably end up the "spam bucket," but maybe it will be rescued.

Posted by: wsheppard | July 17, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Two points: It is not exactly correct to call WETA/WGMS a Top 100 (or even Top 200) classical music station. Perhaps they were for the first two years as Classical WETA, but since the beginning of this year they have been pretending to lead the national Lite-classical public radio pack by expanding their repertoire within strictly conservative parameters set down by the commercial classical music executives inexplicably brought over from WGMS to WETA/WGMS. WETA/WGMS now features more chamber music selections, some choral classics that in WETA's earlier life were on Wednesday evenings, and an occasional short fairly tonal new work by a living composer on “Front Row Washington/Music from Wolf Trap.” They are also providing their announcers with more insightful and helpful snippets of music appreciation information to read. This is important, because I do not believe that this is something that Sirius or XM do/did. I believe that the executives believe that this is their value-added, along with playing the same works several times each week and month so that everyone becomes familiar with what these commercial-hearted executives see as being a marketable canon.

Second, it is not exactly true that the station relies only on listener donations (and some grants). The commercial-hearted executives behind the new WGMS/WETA have organized the Classical WETA playlists so that they get an undisclosed cut from the CDs they broadcast, by co-marketing with Archiv Music. This marketing venture even allows WETA/WGMS to maintain an in-house blogger (based in Germany), whose purpose is to promote the purchase of CDs from commercial marketers (but not from non-profit U.S. organizations, such as New World Records; which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller and other foundations.) Hence, a root of WETA/WGMS's conservatism is its partial reliance on a quasi-private sector commercial marketplace. In large part, the station cannot broadcast classical music that cannot be sold in large quantities. Similarly, expensive CDs are preferred over lower cost (and hence share of profit) CDs such as those from the Naxos Group, which features a large catalogue of excellent and fairly conservative and listener friendly American works (these works are ghettoized to a single month of the year). ...

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 18, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Where I see the commercial-hearted WETA/WGMS public-private model breaking down is that it does not prepare listeners for the real world of 21st century classical concert music, which involves live performance and some risk. Listeners aren’t properly prepared for National Endowment for the Arts-funded "NPR World of Opera," on Saturday afternoons, when it features John Harbison's “The Great Gatsby”, Tobias Picker's “An American Tragedy”, Nicholas Maw's “Sophie's Choice”, or the upcoming MET broadcast, in two year's time, of Thomas Ades's “The Tempest,” because the commercial-hearted executives at WETA/WGMS have scrubbed all Harbison, Picker, Maw, and Ades from their playlists.

WETA/WGMS listeners also aren’t prepared for the majority of live chamber or orchestral concerts given at Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, Strathmore, or the Virginia venues in WETA/WGMS's backyard. Again, public radio needs a new Corporation for Classical Music Broadcasting to allow public classical radio to match the expected high quality of WETA television (and public classical radio in Continental Europe). Public classical radio stations should be national cultural assets similar to -- and funded similarly to -- our great national Museums of Fine Arts.

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 18, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

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