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.
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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