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Has classical music become a weapon against college radio?

Don't let "Le Snob" fool you!

I’m a classical music lover. I’m also a college radio fan. And I’m very worried that college administrations are developing a clever strategy for dumping their campus radio stations—sell them to public entities as classical music outlets, and pawn the exchange off as in the “public interest” because of the scarcity of classical signals and the alleged superiority of the genre.

I think this is a very bad idea. It will not only hurt college radio, but backfire on classical music as well.

Celebrate or mourn?

As Radio Survivor readers know, the college-to-classical switch is already in process on two campuses. Earlier this month Vanderbilt University announced that WRVU is in the process of being sold to Nashville Public Radio for $3.35 million for use as an all-classical radio station. And KUSF fans continue their campaign to prevent the University of San Francisco from selling the campus license to the Classical Public Radio Network, now the parent organization of local classical signal KDFC-FM.

Earlier this week The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by a former WRVU deejay titled “The Day the Music Died.”

“There’s a false but widespread image of college radio as a pointless, narcissistic exercise,” wrote Freddie O’Connell, “that it’s nothing more than a crew of campus oddballs who like playing D.J., even though no one is listening.”

WRVU demonstrated how wrong that image is. Not only did it command respect and interest on campus, but, thanks to a longstanding and farsighted policy, it allowed and encouraged members of the off-campus community to volunteer as D.J.’s — and so drew on the rich cultural heritage of Music City U.S.A. as well.

But the piece provoked a response from Jacob E. Goodman of the New York Composer’s Circle, published in the Times’ letter section:

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Freddie O’Connell, bemoaning the sale of WRVU, the Vanderbilt University radio station, to the local public radio station, writes in consternation: “Instead of rock, classical music was burbling out of my speakers.”

Classical music “burbling”? The thousands of radio stations spewing rock reduced by one?

In an era when classical music stations have tragically dwindled to the point of nearly vanishing, we should be celebrating, not mourning, the birth of a new one.

Rock is, unfortunately, ubiquitous on the airwaves. We should rejoice that a few more listeners will now have a chance to hear the music of Mozart, and Brahms, and—who knows—maybe even Stravinsky!

It is understandable that classical music fans (myself among them), see the launching of any classical radio music station as a hopeful sign. As we’ve reported, since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the consequent media consolidation, an entire generation of classical licenses have been sold off. And although Pandora and other streaming outlets have filled in the gap, they’re no substitute for live, personal radio—with deejay hosts who introduce listeners to new and interesting music.

But I think that this strategy will backfire on the classical genre. Why? For two big reasons.

1. These new classical stations aren’t going to be very good.

Since KDFC became a listener-supported public station, I’ve been tuning in on a regular basis, and results so far have been very disappointing. Sure, there are no commercials. But the signal is clearly going to stick to the easy listening format that it adopted after being sold to its previous owner in the late 1990s.

During the day it’s all light classics at KDFC—sunny side hits by Mozart, von Suppe, Purcell, Chopin, and, of course, Vivaldi. When the station ventures into the twentieth century, you get Copland and English composers like Walton and Vaughn Williams.

But that’s as far as it goes. Music with the human voice continues to be banned. I still can’t imagine KDFC airing anything even remotely challenging while the sun shines, say, a Palestrina Mass, a late Beethoven String Quartet, Bartok’s Bulgarian Suite for Piano, or anything Stravinsky wrote after his three big ballets (sorry Jacob).

Basically, this is still music for people in their cubicles. If the new KDFC is the new model, it’s hard to see how anyone who really loves classical fare in all its diverse forms would see these new stations as a significant development.

2. These new stations are creating a generation of classical music haters.

Beyond the “burbling” comment, I was alarmed to read these responses to the Vanderbilt story on our Radio Survivor Facebook page. “College students like classical music. Booo,” went one. Even worse: “Adolph Hitler was a big classical music fan.”

Sure, it’s juvenile stuff. I even saw some statement from a Save KUSF organizer cautioning supporters not to trash classical composers on their protest signs. But this bitterness is understandable, given some of the snooty responses we’ve gotten in response to the KUSF transfer.

“Shouldn’t a city body be supporting the MUSIC OF THE MASTERS played by properly-trained musicians that is true culture supported by the people who are devoted to the civic betterment of San Francisco instead of weirdo punk rock,” wrote ‘Realist’ in opposition to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voting to oppose the sale.

If the supporters of these transfers contend that they are somehow in the public interest because of the supposedly culturally superior nature of the classics, its going to provoke a grass roots backlash against classical music that the struggling genre does not need.

Classical music is wonderful, but it’s no better than rock or Jazz or any other genre. And while it’s true that there are far more rock stations than classical signals—college and community stations do something very different with popular music than commercial stations. They offer a much broader and more creative range of selection and commentary.

Colleges and universities have an obligation to serve the broader public. That means reaching out to the public, and that’s what college radio stations are for. If campus administrations want to cannibalize these crucial resources for cash, that’s a shame. But classical music lovers should think twice before supporting these sales. Bad karma. Meager results. These deals won’t help us.


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9 Responses to Has classical music become a weapon against college radio?

  1. Scott Hayes June 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Insightful analysis as always. I agree the genre of music doesn’t matter. In the case of KUSF the argument is really about community control of the airwave resource instead of distant corporate control. The volunteers at KUSF have sweat equity, and USF shouldn’t be able to make $3.8m from selling a public resource for which they paid nothing.

  2. Tracy Rosenberg June 16, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Hi Matthew,

    It’s nice to see you weighing on on the growing controversy surrounding these college station license transfers. Your colleague Jennifer Waits has been providing stellar coverage for some time, and a number of major media outlets are starting (finally) to pay attention to the disturbing trend.

    A few things worth noting (especially on the local KUSF-KFDC-CPRN-Entercom transfer in the Bay Area.

    — With the sale to Classical Public Radio Network LLC (and the LLC part is important), we are looking at a chain of robo-programmed top 10 classical stations ringing the state of California. Not local, not unique, and not taking on the task of redefining the classical genre to include new and serious music as must happen to avoid the musty Vivaldi-every-day style KDFC specialized in.

    — While not yet victims of a similar license sale, the move of the former KUSF transmitter is eroding the signals of Berkeley’s KALX and Stanford’s KSZU. The search for a South Bay frequency for KDFC will eventually take down yet another local outlet in this ill-conceived deal.

    — Whatever one thought of KDFC (and as noted, I think they were not the strongest expression of vital classical programming), they were the 7th-highest rated station in the Bay Area market. The real outcome of the deal will be yet another classical rock colossus playing a repetitive format for Entercom on prime radio real estate at 102.1, while KDFC struggles to get a workable signal. This is a loss for fans of college radio, and fans of classical music. It’s a loss for the entire noncommercial educational (NCE) sector. It is commercial radio that is making out like a bandit here.

    We should all be able to unite that this is a bad deal for anyone that cares about radio and support the petition to deny filed by Friends of KUSF.

    More information at:

    http://www.savekusf.org/

    http://www.facebook.com/SaveKUSF?ref=ts

    http://www.media-alliance.org/article.php?id=1967

  3. Andrew Ó Baoill June 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    In terms of the ‘broader … selection’ you mention, it’s worth noting (as some at KUSF and elsewhere have) that some college radio programmers are drawing from material in the classical tradition in building their set-lists. It may be a small proportion of the content played on college radio – and a small sub-section of the DJs – but it brings the classical tradition into dialog with other forms of music, and brings it to the attention of broader audiences, and that has to be a good thing for classical music (and for popular culture). Unless you’re thinking of classical only in the self-satisfied, middle-brow manner you suggest some stations are implementing it, or in the elitist vein of ‘Realist.’

  4. Richard in PA June 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    One of the fundamental challenges of any radio station, no matter its format or musical genre, is that it must find and serve a relevant audience. Any station that is so eclectic in its choices that it resonates with very few listeners is potentially not using its assets (i.e. its broadcast license) to its full potential. Terrestrial radio – no matter the format – should serve as a jumping off point for those who find a particular artist / composer / genre to their liking. In these days of fat-bandwidth streaming radio on increasingly portable devices, All-avant-garde-all-the-time is just as useless as top-40-all-the-time.

  5. Matthew Lasar June 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Andrew and others have correctly noted that many college radio stations include programmers who incorporate classical music into their playlists, or who even host classical music programs. These programs are usually very good—always deejay-ed by talented evangelists of the genre. But speaking personally, I experience them as token shows. They constitute a very small portion of the station’s air sound, and are usually relegated to the evenings and weekends, when I don’t listen to radio much.

    Bottom line: I don’t look to college or community radio for my classical music needs. I don’t know anyone who does.

    “Richard in PA” lectures us on the evils of “all-avant-garde-all-the-time” radio. This is a straw man argument. I never suggested that I wanted KDFC or any FM signal to go that route. It would be nice, however, to have a live, local classical music signal in this area that offers a broader and more diverse selection of genres, rather than the saccharine fare that KDFC currently broadcasts.

    In any event, nothing KDFC does or will do will compensate for the wrong-headed and crude shutdown of KUSF. Again—classical music fans should not be snookered by this mean-spirited strategy for expanding the genre.

  6. Richard Friedman June 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Matthew: Classical music is dead on the radio. If KDFC is the only successful model, we’re doomed. All the music they play is “safe” for drive time. Nothing too depressing, and nothing unexpected. It’s merely a pleasant tasting medium for advertising. And what they’re selling is some mythical lifestyle that includes Boursin cheese and Bizet. And they completely ignore living composers.

    On the other hand, check out Q2 (http://q2live.org) which is a side effect of New York’s major NPR outlet WNYC’s purchase of WQXR, at one time the finest classical music station ever (I’m talking about my childhood in NY in the 50’s when I learned everything about classical music from WQXR and WBAI).

    Q2 is only online, 24 hours of music by 20th and 21st century composers, most living. The feed is curated by some excellent people, including violist Nadia Sirota, and composer feenom Nico Muhly among others. The feed is also on iTunes, but you have to watch the website to tell what’s on.

    Each day between 12-4 pm and am Eastern Time, Nadia Sirota does an excellent show of music with interviews. And there’s live performances occasionally in the evenings.

    This is what radio should be. I want to hear things I’m not familiar with, not soothing remembrances of things past.

    As far as I’m concerned, the only worthwhile music program on the radio these days is Music From Other Minds on KALW in San Francisco, and it’s only on for an hour a week. http://otherminds.org/mfom. (Oh, that’s my program. Sorry.)

  7. Roger Coryell December 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Just to clear up a misstatement, KDFC *is* locally programmed, with a veteran local PD and MD, and local staff of real announcers. And whatever you may think of their selections, they are dedicated to the genre.

    It’s a shame that Entercom decided to flush classical from 102.1 . . . and shortsighted from a revenue perspective. One CAN make money from commercial classical. There’s no market for another third rate classic rock outlet. You can’t blame KDFC or the classical community for this lame scheme.

    I do worry about this trend. I also see corporate NPR-affiliated behemoths gobbling up small independent stations to rebroadcast Fresh Air and such. Do we need this? These land grabs mean less voices, less outlets for creative independent radio. College radio and community radio are important, and should be protected.

  8. Anthony Sacco January 3, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    College radio isn’t the only victim of the NPR – Classical Public Radio Network (KDFC) juggernaut. KUSP (Santa Cruz) has effectively abandoned the Santa Clara Valley listening audience with the sale of its translator, K212AA, to KDFC and the so called Classical Public Radio Network in October, 2011.

    For those that don’t know, KUSP is (was?) an independent FM radio station serving the Santa Cruz area. It has translators serving the Big Sur area and other areas of the “Central Coast” that help get its signal beyond the Santa Cruz beach. Up until December 20, 2011 the KUSP service area included a large part of Santa Clara County, especially Los Gatos, Saratoga, San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, via the 6 watt translator, K212AA, operating at 90.3 Mhz.

    On New Year’s Day (2012) I returned from two weeks in the Midwest and discovered that I can no longer get the KUSP signal here in San Jose. After an extensive Google search I discovered that KDFC is the new owner of the translator station. Goodbye KUSP, hello classical-light KDFC. Jennifer Waits details the transaction in her December 20, 2011 blog on Radio Survivor.

    Not everyone is thrilled to have KDFC taking the place of KUSP in the South Bay. Our household has really enjoyed the unique programming on KUSP. We eagerly tuned in every Saturday morning to hear Dr. Dawn (Motyka) and the Geek Speak show. I also loved Music Della Serra. It is was true classical music, including opera, and much better than the classical-light fluff on KDFC.

    When I went to the KUSP website (KUSP.org) I discovered a revamped website that looks like the NPR website, no mention of the translator sale, and a reworked schedule that goes very heavy on NPR programming, especially with Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Only the Saturday morning schedule has much resemblance to the old, community-based programming.

    Has KUSP given up on local programming and gone NPR? We already get far too much of NPR with non-stop repetition of All Things Considered and Morning edition on KQED (San Francisco). Regrettably, the alternative, KALW (San Francisco), has added ATC to its afternoon line up. It seems that there is no escape from NPR blandness and ubiquity.

    What is happening with local community radio going all NPR, all the time? Is it a funding issue? Matthew, if you have a clue, please let us know.

    What was KUSP thinking in giving up the South Bay audience? They’ve really betrayed their Santa Clara county listeners, and contributed to the serious decline in local community radio.

    Sorry I made a contribution to KUSP last year. (Or, maybe I should have donated $205,000 – the selling price of the translator).

  9. Lucas McCallister January 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    In response to Mr. Goodman,

    The very critique that classical means culture, whereas rock is some kind of plebeian underart is just as short-sighted as those moan at the drollness of classical music saying that it is only played for aging geriatrics and waiting rooms.

    As many have already pointed out, classical music on the radio is indeed a dead art – very rarely does it take advantage of the wide berth of opportunities that classical and orchestral music really has. College radio is the challenger to commercial rock radio! Since when has your local college station played the same things that the local rock station does? I know back in the day, our alumni would immediately take a song out of rotation should they have heard it in the mainstream.

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