Controversy continues to swirl around San Francisco Bay Area classical radio station KDFC, reinvented as a listener supported outlet. The Federal Communications Commission still hasn’t ruled on its parent organization’s acquisition of an FM frequency from the University of San Francisco. No need to remind Radio Survivor readers about the crude way in which KUSF staff were ejected from their studios over a year ago to make way for the proposed license transfer. KUSF supporters continue to challenge the move.
But as a classical music radio lover, I can’t resist checking into KDFC from time to time to see if anything’s changed now that the station has gone the public route. Although the frequency still largely hones to the easy listening format it embraced a decade ago as a commercial signal, I hear improvements in two areas.
First, KDFC staff now play longer pieces more often during the day. For example, the other afternoon while driving around San Francisco I noticed that the station aired a performance of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto. When most classical stations these days broadcast that piece, they usually just play the popular third movement. But KFDC ran the whole concerto, even though the first two movements are more challenging for the listener, and require some patience. I’m hearing more of that sort of approach.
Second, the on air talk has improved. It’s less superficial; much more focused on history of the piece about to be played, or some upcoming concert in the Bay Area.
But there are still central aspects of the station that drive me to despair. The most important of these is the almost complete banning of selections including the human voice during the weekday hours. Art songs, opera arias, choral pieces, symphonies with solo vocal sections—you almost never hear them on KDFC during the work week. I wrote to Bill Lueth, President of KDFC and its operator, the Classical Public Radio Network, to get an explanation for this.
“Does KDFC ever intend to broadcast vocal music during the weekday?” I asked in an e-mail message. “There doesn’t seem to be any of that on the schedule at this point. I was wondering why. Any plans to expose KDFC weekday listeners to art songs, choral pieces, opera arias, and such?”
Here was Lueth’s reply:
“As a former opera singer I share the passion for this music. We’re happy to have brought back the Met, which airs in a highly listened-to timeslot for radio on late Saturday mornings. We air the SF Opera broadcasts, as you know, and we will have some special broadcasts that feature vocals coming in the future. We also air the Sacred Concert of choral music on Sunday mornings now hosted by a local choral expert. That’s a sizable number of hours of vocal music in a given week. The human voice is a special instrument, and we want to help our culture better appreciate its beauty in classical settings. We will also be working to add the right vocal music to our programming during the day. The question for us is always playing pieces when we can best do justice to the music on the radio. We are spending time re-evaluating this now that we are a public classical station.”
I appreciate the detailed response, but it is beyond me why playing Monseratt Caballe singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” at ten AM on a Tuesday wouldn’t do the aria justice; or the Introit et Kyrie chorus from the Faure Requiem; or the contralto song from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. These are hauntingly beautiful pieces that any audience should appreciate.
To some degree, I sympathize with KDFC’s dilemma, if I understand it correctly. One of the problems with much classical music education is that it omits or glosses over vocal classical content. Back when I worked at a New York City record store in the 1970s, I often helped newbies taking their first classical music appreciation course find appropriate albums. They displayed something close to an allergy to vocal music.
My most amusing encounter took place when I helped a man who claimed he wanted to purchase an album of Gregorian Chants. I led him to the appropriate bin, but after thumbing through the selections, he insisted that he was looking for something else.
“I’m looking for Gregorian Chants,” he explained, “but without the vocals, just the orchestral parts.”
A funny story, but I was reminded of it on Friday, when KDFC played a selection from Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the the Auvergne). Instead of airing the selection with an actual singer, like the marvelous soprano Victoria de Los Angeles, the station broadcast a version of it with a cello playing the solo part. After a decade of eschewing vocal music during the weekday, KDFC now has to contend with an audience that, like my Gregorian Chants customer, bristles at the sound of the human voice.
This situation is so strange and contrived. Every other format on the FM dial is about vocal music: rock, folk, country, jazz, hip hop. Only classical radio suppresses this most human aspect of the musical experience during the hours when most people listen to radio.
A footnote to this story: shortly after our e-mail conversation, I heard KDFC announce the news that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had died at the age of 86. Following the disclosure, the station broadcast the great baritone singing a selection from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn suite. It was the first time I could remember the signal streaming a vocal piece during the weekday.
“Well, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau croaked, so you just played him,” I wrote to Lueth. “That wasn’t so painful, was it?”
“It was great,” he wrote back. “I was a big fan of his when I was working on my masters in opera. What a legend. Like I promised. We’re evolving.”
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