Civilization returns to the Bay Area

Many years ago, the typical public radio station played classical music and some jazz all day, news like Morning Edition and All Things Considered at drive time, some public affairs or newsy features in the early evening, and more music at night.  About the time I moved to Berkeley in 1991, public stations started doing actual research on their audiences and found that listeners would tune away from music to one or another kind of talk in droves, and (for example) KQED switched to an all news and discussion format, all day, with most programs repeated at least once.  This left us KALW with a talk all day, music in the evening format; Pacifica Radio which seems to be a sui generis operation lost in 60’s leftiness; KCSM, a good jazz station with a varied, exploratory playlist; and a rather odd fish, KDFC: a commercial classical music station.  This last, in order to broadcast commercials, programmed disembodied single movements of larger works and seemed stuck in the easiest-listening familiar warhorse zone of the 19th century; I found it unlistenable.

Recently, KDFC moved to two different frequencies plus a web stream and became listener-supported!   At the same time, something very similar is happening in Boston.  Does any of this matter? Bathing in talk and news all the time is a little worrying; of course us public radio listeners are getting smarter while we do, not like those people who turn on Fox news in the morning and have it playing on the TV until they go to bed, and the content reassures us of our superiority and discernment.  Right? Actually I am not at all sure that I am better off having Morning Edition murmuring away while I read the newspaper and make coffee and reply to emails than I was when my parents would turn on WQXR and have classical music playing more or less all day (I didn’t have a TV until I was 13).

What about the music? With all the streaming music available on the web, including custom “stations” you can tailor to what you already know you like, and the ability to play exactly what you want from Napster or from your iPod, what’s a radio station good for?  As Arthur Brooks once observed disparagingly, “…if you’re the kind of person who wants someone else to choose your music…”

Well, that offhand remark may mark the time Arthur started to be mistaken in everything he utters, as he pretty much has.  I absolutely want someone to choose a lot of my music; someone who has time to keep on top of new stuff and outré stuff and will put before me things I don’t know enough to ask for and don’t know exists.  I wish more of my friends would send me links and mp3s.  I love being able to drop in on a station, whether broadcast or streaming, and hear something I didn’t have to pick out myself, sometimes familiar and sometimes pushing my envelope. And I like the idea that others I know might have met the same piece at the same time.

On this score, the new KDFC has a ways to go; Ive been listening to it a lot over the past week or two and I have not heard a piece by anyone alive now; in fact, no more than two pieces I did not recognize. They are apparently using the library of  those classical-through-romantic bromides from their commercial period; at least we get a whole symphony at one go.  I sent them some money, but I hope they get off that kick and start mixing it up.  What they’re offering now I can brew up for myself on LastFM or Napster.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

18 thoughts on “Civilization returns to the Bay Area”

  1. Seattle’s King FM, a commercial all-classical station for as long as I can remember (certainly a quarter century) is also going listener-supported next month.

    RE your desire for more modern works: I can cryainly understand it, and I don’t think classical music will fare well as a pure museum piece – but you have to realize that many of the people providing the mobey and the dedication to keep these stations alive see themselves as archivists and conservators, not celebrants of a vital musical form. I predict a great many more dusty recordings for you.

  2. Michael & Warren,
    Are you talking about for-profit listener-supported? Or not-for-profit? The former would be an interesting duck, indeed.

  3. About 4 or 5 years ago, WETA — one of Washington’s two main public radio stations — reverted to mostly classical music format aftera couple unsuccessful years of trying to be the second public-news-radio station.

  4. Get the Radio Sure app for your laptop. I’ve been surfing from KALX to KCRW to WFMU to FIP. It’s easy.

  5. I have to agree with Warren that classical music as a museum piece isn’t really going to work all that well.

    A lot of classical music, especially opera, was the pop music of its time. “Di quella pira” and “Non più andrai” were sung in streets and taverns, not just in opera houses by the stars of the day. That aspect is, sadly, somewhat lost these days, and classical music has become less accessible and more distant as a result.

    A different example of how it can be done is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa-3vxxftQQ (start at roughly the three minute mark). It’s a fun-filled interpretation of “Largo al factotum” that Prey, his host, and the audience seem to be enjoying the heck out of (you don’t have to understand either Italian or German to see that). Mixed in with a lot of more, umm, contemporary music (seen earlier in the video), not of the high brow kind, and nobody cared. But that was almost 40 years ago. I haven’t really seen much in the same vein since then, even though I think Rossini would have approved. 🙂

    As another example, I got interested in opera as a teenage girl. We were living in Germany back then, and my parents took me to a Christmas performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel”. It was very accessible for kids (and was performed in a way that preserved that accessibility, unlike certain more recent British productions), had beautiful, enchanting music and in the end was simply good entertainment. I doubt I would have appreciated, say, a performance of “La clemenza di Tito” such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od4cSCItjNU at the same age in the same way, even though it is a superb production with great singers.

  6. The so-called classical music stations make me crazy. If you’re going to play the second movement of the Beethoven 7th (the allegretto), you owe me the other three movements, too. Beethoven’s symphonies were *very* through-composed, and the other movements also discuss the ideas. Perhaps the worst, though, is when they play a section of a complete work. The usual victim of this is Rossini’s William Tell Overture being abridged to the “Lone Ranger Overture.”

    But I’m not the only person made crazy by this stuff. Baltimore trombonist and composer David Fetter wrote a piece for unaccompanied bass trombone called Split Personality. The first section, called Profile is a serious work in three movements (Lyric, Blues March, Comforting). The second section is called Insomnia at Pops. The composer wrote:

    “… one evening his local Baltimore top ten all hits-all day-all- night-they-just-keep-on-a-comin’ classical music station was playing “Poet and Peasant Overture” for the 99th time, which created a dyspeptic gnawing for revenge in Fetter’s gut – himself a veteran of years of pops concerts (Fetter closed a 26-year performance career in 1986 with 16 years in the trombone section of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, some of this time spent in rehearsals yakking about politics with Yeo). “This stuff cries out for parody,” he thought. Then the radio announcer repeated the station’s call letters over and over for those who were not listening, and on came the Shostakovich Festival Overture for the 99th time. “Arggggh,” said Fetter.

    “Thus, as the summer went on, Fetter cut, stretched, twisted, pasted, disfigured, shredded, gutted various innocent themes, songs, tunes until Insomnia at Pops was born. 20-year pops veterans will understand it best.”

  7. Until the advent of streaming content on the web, college radio stations were a major reason I would not consider leaving Cambridge were WUMB (UMass-Boston), WHRB (Harvard), WMBR (MIT) and WERS (Emerson). Diverse, provocative, unpredictable and sometimes absurd, these stations keep me engaged with contemporary performances and current music across a broad range.

    I’ve intently followed music since the mid-1950s. At no time in my listening has there been so much interesting, new material to sample — from rock to folk to classical. It’s a great time to be a listener.

  8. Certainly I would echo Peter in praise of the eclectic music programming available from WERS and WUMB. And until there are good internet streaming options in your car, the ability to stream those stations and those like them over the web doesn’t make them or their peers widely available outside the upscale college towns that have them.

  9. Look for local college stations.

    WERS (Emerson College) and WUNH (Univ NH) where I live. Both worthwhile.

    KEXP and WFMU for independent listener supported non-college.

    None are NPR or any station affiliates (in fact almost no news or talk) and each one has an iTunes streamable format.

  10. The thing that I find to be the biggest help in staying abreast of contemporary classical music is my subscription to Gramophone. KUSC isn’t getting it done.

  11. I honestly don’t understand this obsession with radio, especially when it is then coupled to laments about local radio in particular cities. Michael, are you unfamiliar with the concept of podcasts?
    If you want to hear intelligent conversation, subscribe to some of the many many university podcasts, and listen to people who actually, you know, have a brain, discussing issues, rather than jack of all trade and very conspicuously master of none “pundits”.
    I’m not much interested in hearing a variety of music, but my understanding is that a variety of the more intelligent music types like Brian Eno and David Byrne have podcasts in which they share with the world their most recent opinions and finds.

    I’ve no idea who Arthur Brooks is, but he strikes me as absolutely on the money in this case. With a WORLD of listening material available on the internet, which you can fairly easily structure to your interests and intelligence level, WTF would anyone want to listen to material that, even in the most charitable cases, is seriously dumbed down? Why, for example, listen to some pinhead explaining to you that once upon a time there was this thing called the Reformation when you can have a Tudor scholar, speaking to his peers, give you a discussion of the effect of Erasmus on the thinking of Henry VIII?

  12. Michael — to start a slightly different question — what music by living musicians do you like? Arvo Pärt? TV on the Radio?

  13. WETA in Washington went all-classical in response to the demise of WGMS, the commercial classical station.

  14. I can’t find a long enough piece of Cat-6 to cover my commute.

    Satellite radio has two and a half classical channels.

    Please advise.

  15. @Davis X. Machine:

    Googling “classical music podcast” got over three million hits. Knock yourself out.

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