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Classical radio’s allergy to the human voice: the case of KDFC

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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9 Responses to Classical radio’s allergy to the human voice: the case of KDFC

  1. Matthew Lasar May 21, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    Another footnote: I tuned into KUSF in exile this morning, and they’re playing that Donna Summer tune based on a Chopin’s c minor prelude! Go Donna!

  2. brian July 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    I love most instrumental classical music and listen to classical music every day except I do not like vocal classical music or violin concerto’s either. So I am glad there is not much vocal music on classical stations. I turn the radio off when vocal classical music comes on. I hate opera’s as well.

  3. Matthew Lasar July 3, 2012 at 5:00 am #


    Thank you for your comments. Would you please indulge me by listening to these three YouTube clips.

    1. The first movement from Faure’s Requiem.

    2. Ewa Podles singing the “Maiden’s Song” from Alexander Nevsky.

    3. Kiri Te Kanawa singing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca.

    Would it really be such an ordeal for you to listen to these songs on KDFC? Your reactions on this comment thread would be welcome.

  4. brian July 3, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    Matthew thanks for the questions. I will just be honest. I just listened to each piece all the way through even though I had an urge to stop. I do not like them and would turn the radio off if they came on.

    I just do not like opera its boring and kind of hurts my ears. The first choral song was the least bad. That being said I really am at 44 y/o trying to be more open then I have in my past. At least I listened. I would however prefer listening to choral music or opera than most of what is on the radio now.

    I have almost always preferred instrumental music. For example I used to love smooth jazz until it got ruined by more and more vocals. That is when I switched to classical music because it is the only instrumental music on the radio.

  5. Matthew Lasar July 3, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    Thanks for listening to those tunes and giving your honest reaction, Brian.

  6. Tom October 1, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    I think part of the issue is that many in the classical radio audience don’t listen very intently to the music. The music plays in the background, functioning like sonic air freshener or wallpaper, often while other tasks are being performed. For this type of listener, most classical solo vocal music is distracting and, if your primary focus is on something else (driving, working, eating a meal), hearing even the most sublime soprano voice warbling away in a strange language can be annoying.

    The qualities that make classical vocal music so riveting to you and me (words, characters, the thrilling sound of a human voice) are the same qualities that can make it such a turnoff to someone who wants a mellower experience when they turn on the radio.

  7. Matthew Lasar October 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Tom: I think that you are absolutely right about this, but what I find so perplexing is that almost every other music format on the radio, with the possible exception of jazz, is dominated by vocal music. So why don’t those audiences find vocal music distracting?

  8. Bamboo November 17, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    The voice in not classical music- is closer to a speaking voice and doesn’t take the same attunement of the ear. It took me a very long time to enjoy choral music (esp opera). I don’t know what switched in my head or ear, but it just became more pleasing over all. It is an aquired taste like dark chocolate. Choral music and opera require a training of the voice that is not in the world at large. Classical Chinese Opera most likely in its contrived form can be equally challenging to an ear unfamiliar with the form.

  9. Matthew Lasar November 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Bamboo: Please explain to me how "not-classical" songs like Nina Hagen singing "New York/NY", Minnie Ripperton singing “Loving You,” Joe Cocker singing “With a little help from my friends,” or the Bee Gees singing “More than a Woman,” are "closer to a speaking voice" than classical vocal music. Thanks.

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