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Hybrid Highbrow: the history of a forgotten radio format

@hybridhighbrowMany years ago I invented a phrase for a peculiar kind of radio format: “Hybrid Highbrow.” I cooked up the term to describe listener supported KPFA in Berkeley, California, which in the 1950s broadcast classical music, opera, jazz, and folk music in the spirit with which Matthew Arnold understood “culture” in his book Culture and Anarchy. “The best that has been thought and said,” Arnold famously elaborated—a blending of many “high” cultures.

The Journal of Radio Studies (now The Journal of Radio and Audio Media) published my meditation on this subject in 1998, titled “Hybrid Highbrow: The Pacifica Foundation and KPFA’s Reconstruction of Elite Culture, 1946-1960.” I gave a talk at a radio conference in Maine shortly after that in which I mentioned the concept. Not long after that Jack W. Mitchell summarized it in his book Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio:

“[KPFA founder Lewis Hill’s] station sounded erudite and academic, notparticularly different from certain programming on the BBC orfromprogramming that emerged on educational radio’s FM stations at about that time. Lasar coined the phrase “hybrid highbrow” to describe the sound. Hybrid highbrow included a lot of classical music, particularly new or seldom-heard compostions; liberal amounts of jazz and folk music; ‘talk’ features emphasizing lectures, discussions, and interviews with academics, writers, and public intellectuals; and both classic and contemporary poetry and drama.”

KPFA and the rest of Pacifica dumped the Hybrid Highbrow concept in the late 1960s. I periodically scan the radio landscape for updated versions of Hybrid Highbrow, but do not find many. Probably the closest to the concept is Temple Universty’s WRTI, which broadcasts both classical music and jazz (interestingly, it was Temple University Press that published my doctoral dissertation about KPFA).

I’ve been trying to set up a Hybrid Highbrow radio station myself. I’ve got one on Radionomy, but I find the radionomy system difficult to master, and the company doesn’t provide a lot of technical support. Now I’m trying one out on It is called, not surprisingly, Hybrid Highbrow, and a whole lot of folks showed up when I premiered it last week. Since then it’s been slower going, but you are welcome to drop by. Just login to with your Twitter, Facebook, or Google account, and you are there.

Here are the rules for the room (also below). They may change, but the core of the idea every nation and culture has its learned music, very much worthy of sharing. If you would like to help me staff the room, drop me an email here. The twitter account is, guess what?, @hybridhighbrow.

Welcome to the Hybrid-Highbrow room.

This room and its community is dedicated to the sharing of Classical Music from around the globe. Classical Music is tricky to define, but it is understood here as music that has been carefully developed and defined over long periods of time, requires formal study and skill to create and perform, and is recognized by individual nations and the international community as such.

I. At Hybrid-Highbrow, we share five kinds of music: national Classical Music, Jazz, Opera, Broadway/Vaudeville, and performed soundtracks.

1. Classical Music. All nations have their Classical Music. In Europe and western Asia it is the music that we associate with the Common Practice Period of around 1600 to 1900, from Palestrina through Tchaikovsky. Today many Asian nations, particularly China, South Korea, and Japan, excel in performing this music. The United States shares in that tradition, but also pioneered the classical form known as Jazz.  Argentina has Tango. Indonesia has Gamelan. Northern India has Shāstriya Sangīt. Beijing has Chinese Opera. Japan has the music of its national instrument, the Koto. Across Northern Africa and the Middle East national Classical Musics center around the Oud. All these kinds of music are welcome in this room.

2. Jazz. All improvisational forms associated with Jazz are welcome in this room. Popular pieces that integrate Jazz-like elements into their sound but include no formal improvisation are not.

3. Opera. European and Asian Operatic forms are welcome in this room, either in the form of individual solos or scene excerpts.

4. Broadway musical and Vaudeville performances are welcome in this room.

5. Performed soundtracks. Soundtracks that come from acoustic instrument performances (orchestras; small ensembles) and derive from categories one through four are welcome in this room. Soundtracks based on popular music and digital software are not.

Hybridity is encouraged here. Chinese Euro-classical symphonic pieces,  the Jazz/Classical fusion experiments of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, it’s all good. BUT:

II. The following kinds of music are not welcome  here:

1. Popular music is not allowed in this room. I have great love and respect for all forms of popular music, but that is not what Hybrid-Highbrow is about. Please do not come here with a Led Zepplin or Elvis Presley tune and insist that it is a “classic.” You will receive The Boot quickly and without apology.

2. Folk music is not allowed in this room. Most classical forms derive from folk music, but they add a highly formalized structure to the experience. So Classical Music forms that draw from Blues, Bluegrass, Irish Jigs, or Sea Shanties, just to give a few examples, are welcome here. Folks music itself is not.

3. Pseudo Classical Music is not welcome in this room. Popular artists who imitate classical sounds to produce easy listening tunes are not welcome here. Examples: Yanni, Yiruma, and Carter Burwell.

III. Behavior:

1. No abusive language please. Do not use foul words here. Do not use sexist, homophobic, or racist words here. Do not insult anyone. Do not threaten anyone. Do not bully anyone. Disagree respectfully when necessary. Bottom line: BE NICE or The Boot will arrive quickly.

2. You may promote artists or musical events that relate to the kind of music heard on Hybrid-Highbrow. You may not promote anything else.

3. Please respect our time limit of no more than 20 minutes per selection.

4. Don’t argue with me about the rules. I am happy to consider modifications of these parameters, which are, after all, subjective. Contact me at with your thoughts. But please respect the fact that I am the founder and maintainer of this room, and must draw lines somewhere. There are many other venues for music listening in cyberspace.

IV. Resources:

This room has a twitter account: @hybridhighbrow. Other social media venues will emerge as needed.

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0 Responses to Hybrid Highbrow: the history of a forgotten radio format

  1. Sharon Scott September 17, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Hey Matthew ~ have you checked out ARTxFM ? While the term “Highbrow Hybrid” is new to us, the concept is not. Just now marking our first anniversary of broadcasting, ARTxFM has a highly diverse schedule that includes every kind of music you can imagine — from classical to jazz to country to hip hop to punk rock. We are also interested in radio-art experimentation and host daily arts news programs that bring in some of the best composers, authors, and performers the great city of Louisville has to offer. The response has been incredible among local and international listeners. It seems folks truly are interested in a station that is rich in diversity.

    We are currently online only but applying for an LPFM this fall.
    Stream in!

  2. Stan September 18, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    I’d love to see this room come back! In my past experience on plug I found it best if the hosts scheduled semi-regular events and made the announcement ahead of time. It really keeps the room running smoothly and builds up a solid community of regulars that give back 10x over! Hope that helps and you’ll get this room going again!


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