Classical Gasp

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

One tries to imagine what it was like on that dark, cold, lonely Christmas Eve out at sea off Cape Cod 90 years ago. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, there was music! Faint, scratchy, ghostlike--the Largo from Handel's opera "Xerxes" came over the wireless. It had to seem like either a mystical Christmas happening or too much Christmas ale.

Transmitted from Brant Rock, Mass., and received mainly by wireless operators at sea, this was the first broadcast of music over radio waves. But though that sound of Handel at sea could be rightfully interpreted as the birth of broadcasting as we know it, little is being made of this momentous anniversary. And for understandable reasons.

Classical music may have started the biggest cultural revolution ever--namely the broadcasting of culture and entertainment into the home. It may even have once been the pride of American network radio, especially in the days when NBC maintained on its payroll an outstanding symphony orchestra with a conductor of Arturo Toscanini's stature. But classical music radio now is often spoken of in the somber tones of a doctor with the worst news.

"I wish I could find something to brighten the picture," says Robert Goldfarb, a New York-based classical music consultant who was vice president of the former Los Angeles classical music station KFAC. "But it is not commercially viable in the U.S. The old formulas aren't working."

Predicting the death of classical music radio is a pretty common pastime in the music business these days. Given the limited number of stations on the FM bandwidth, mildly profitable commercial classical stations are bought up and turned into much more profitable popular music, talk radio or all-news stations. In the past few years we've seen that happen to KKHI in San Francisco, KRTS in Houston and, just recently, KFSD in San Diego.

Noncommercial radio stations don't have it that much better, since they are generally underwritten by institutions that are hardly indifferent to the high prices of radio real estate.

For instance, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani three years ago suggested selling off WNYC, the noncommercial classical station run out of City Hall, to raise revenues (only the formation of a foundation to underwrite the station has kept it on the air). In San Francisco, public radio affiliate KQED went to an all-talk format in an attempt to attract more listeners. And here in Los Angeles, the recent firings and programming changes at KUSC, the largest classical station in this market and a USC affiliate of National Public Radio, are one more sign of a format in trouble.

The news is perhaps most dire on the commercial side of classical broadcasting. And the San Francisco market is just now providing doomsayers with an almost laboratory-perfect example of why. The Bay Area, with its strong subscriber backing for symphony, opera, new music and early music, has one of the most enthusiastic audiences for classical music in the country. Yet it retains only one full-strength classical station--KDFC-FM, which has been commercially broadcasting classical music since 1948. But two months ago, Evergreen Media Corp. announced that it was buying KDFC along with its smooth-jazz sister station, KKSF-FM, for $115 million.

This is a scenario familiar to Angelenos. In 1989, the same media conglomerate bought Los Angeles' venerable commercial classical station KFAC-FM for $55 million. After the new owners promised that the station would not change its format, KFAC soon enough switched to the more profitable urban beat music.

Media observers insist that the sale of KDFC precludes any possibility of it remaining classical, despite current protestations to the contrary from Evergreen, which operates no other classical station.

"At that price, you can't generate enough money to pay your debt service," says Saul Levine, who owns L.A.'s single commercial classical station, KKGO-FM, and serves as its general manager.

(When KFAC changed formats, it was Levine who bought its library and turned jazz station KKGO into a commercial classical station to replace the one L.A. had lost.)

This is a far cry from when "good" music was also good business. In radio's heyday, in the '20s, '30s and '40s, no one questioned the value of broadcasting traditional orchestral concerts and opera, along with chamber and solo recitals, to the masses. The prestige of the classics attracted the most desirable sponsors, and the programming even fulfilled the public service requirement imposed on broadcasters by the government.

NBC was the most ambitious of all, and on Christmas Day 1937, it launched the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which it established for Toscanini and maintained for 17 years. Through recordings,Toscanini and the NBC Symphony have entered the annals of musical legend; recordings transferred to CD still produce revenue for BMG, the company that now owns RCA, the record wing of NBC.

Throughout the succeeding decades, with the dominance of FM (a more localized signal and in stereo too), classical programming became separated from mainstream broadcasting, but it still developed into a cultivated and profitable niche market. Patrician announcers played recordings of the great classics, and stations found a market for a considerable amount of live broadcasting of symphony orchestras, a kind of programming that increased in the '70s and '80s.

The anticipated demise of for-profit classical music broadcasting, though, is mostly a post-'60s phenomenon--after popular music became a huge commercial force. And a consistent concern among broadcasters is that if the value of radio stations keeps escalating, two or three media giants will wind up owning all the major stations, perhaps eliminating classical formats altogether.

What commercial classical radio nowadays seems to require is an angel, and KKGO's Levine is one of them. Under Levine, KKGO is said to make in the neighborhood of $3 million annually in pretax profits. But one broadcaster estimates that the station could sell today for as much $175 million.

Still, Levine says, "I get a great deal of gratification from doing it that money won't buy."

Levine, moreover, has been attempting to save the day in both San Francisco and San Diego as well. Two years ago, he bought a small station in Marin, just north of San Francisco, which has a tiny signal and mainly repeats the KKGO programming. But Levine plans to strengthen the signal; if KDFC changes format, his will be the only classical show in town. And he is also at the ready to help out in San Diego by opening yet another KKGO repeater in Tijuana to be called KBACH.

But earthly angels can't be counted on forever. Observers wonder how long Levine or his heirs will hold out, or how long the stockholders of the New York Times, which owns New York City's last remaining commercial classical station, WQXR, will remain content knowing that they aren't getting the highest financial return on their investment.

The worth of radio stations is not the whole story, or maybe not even the most significant part of the troubles of classical music radio.

"Audience is," says Wallace A. Smith, who had been general manager of Los Angeles' largest noncommercial classical station, KUSC, until his resignation six weeks ago. The bare-fisted battle for ratings drives all media, however worthy its content. And the bottom line is that the radio audience for classical music seems to hover around a disappointingly low 3% of all radio listeners.

That figure is, however, deceptive. For one thing, it translates into a core listenership in the millions--and a listenership that tends to be better educated and more affluent than the norm. In addition, a 1995 survey of radio listeners identified 17% of the audience as having a "hidden appetite" for classical music.

The clout of this audience and its potential growth are watched just as closely in noncommercial as in commercial radio, since noncommercial radio relies greatly on fund-raising from its listeners.

When National Public Radio was formed 25 years ago, classical music played a significant role, and perhaps a more idealistic one, in its programming.

"I think the [public radio] people saw themselves as having an educational mission," consultant Goldfarb observes. "They were there not just to appeal to people but saw themselves as enriching the medium."

In addition to taking up the slack for declining commercial stations, NPR quickly became the favored medium for a great many music lovers. There were no commercials, and the programming was sometimes more sophisticated and more cosmopolitan than commercial classical fare. It featured more live broadcasts of concerts and had access to tapes from Europe as well. And thanks to many small college and community stations that became part of the network,NPR brought plentiful classical programming to parts of the country that had never had much exposure to it before.

"We hoped that it would be our BBC," says Jim Svejda, the respected longtime KUSC announcer.

But even for the noncommercial stations, times and broadcasting and the audience have very much changed. Sophisticated younger listeners who embrace classical music tend to do so in an egalitarian way, refusing to distinguish value between Beethoven, Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, Miles Davis and the whole panoply of traditions we call world music. An older, more mainstream classical crowd, on the other hand, turns to classical music precisely for its otherness, for being an island of art far from the shores of the commercial music industry.

There could hardly be a better example of this audience identity crisis than the situation at KUSC during the past three years.

Believing that his audience, loyal though it was, wasn't being renewed with young blood, Smith began a controversial mission in the early '90s to attract a new audience to KUSC by giving it what he perceived it wanted: the New Sound of Classical Music. The station's programming became increasingly eclectic: Jazz, pop, folk and classical were mixed with postmodern abandon. Crossover became a great favorite. Smith, not convinced that the music spoke for itself to a musically undereducated new generation, hired announcers with vivid on-air personalities, though he also saw the value of a popular and outspoken traditionalist like Svejda.

It didn't work, although the reasons for its failure at KUSC are murky. One of the announcers that Smith hired (and later married), Bonnie Grice, was such a striking radio personality--chatty, indefatigably upbeat, irreverent and responsible mainly to her own eclectic tastes--that she proved a lightning rod.

She accomplished exactly what Smith had hoped: She brought in the new, unschooled listener.

But the new sound of KUSC also profoundly alienated old-school subscribers. Grice, especially, generated hate mail to The Times and to the station of a quantity and viciousness usually reserved for an extremist political figure.

Citing a $500,000 deficit, USC pulled the plug on the new sound late in September. Smith was forced to resign; Grice handed in her resignation as well. A month or so later, Rene Engel, another personality deejay with eclectic tastes, though more moderate than Grice, was summarily dismissed.

Smith vigorously questions whether there is any evidence that the experiment failed.

"What I saw in our mail," he says, "is that in fact people were saying that they had really thought that classical music was inaccessible. But now they could feel validated, they could feel that it was OK to say that they might not like a Brahms symphony after hearing someone that they respected say this isn't the best symphony that Brahms ever wrote, or that it was it was perfectly acceptable to like Ellington and Sting and go on to classical music."

Smith says the policy wasn't fully implemented until early this year, with the hiring of announcers Engel and Martin Perlich. And Smith notes that the deficit could be explained by the fact that the university had cut the station's financial support, by charging for rent, for example.

"Last year, we had the largest subscriber revenue year ever, almost $3 million," Smith says, "and the largest subscriber base, 24,000. The number of listeners remained stable at the 350,000 to 400,000 range, which is actually quite a bit larger than in, say, 1989, when we had 280,000."

Smith also cites a record fund-raising drive last summer of $27,000 in one day. But the new acting general manager of the station, Steven Lama, says he has already topped that. A recent fund-raising drive during the Saturday opera show, Lama says, broke the record with $30,000.

Lama welcomes the old listeners, who he says are returning in droves. And if the letters to The Times are any indication, he is right: The tone to the mail about KUSC's return to a traditional format is that of a musical diaspora returning to its homeland. They seem to agree with Svejda, who compares the old, eclectic mix to "putting whipped cream on a hot dog--it's just not very appetizing."

But a new trend at NPR makes the Smiths and the Svejdas equally uneasy. The network, having gradually lost its sense of cultural mission and much of its government sponsorship through the years, has become increasingly suspicious of classical music as it too now pores over Arbitron ratings.

In hopes of appealing to the largest and widest-ranging musical audiences, NPR has begun to make us of ratings experts. Most notably, it has begun to explore what it calls modal music, whereby the psychic needs and emotions of people during the workday are analyzed and then paralleled with music.

In an attempt to have music that soothes rather than draws attention to itself, modal programming puts emphasis on, say, the segue of pieces with similar chord structures. Vocal music, and particularly opera, is to be avoided. And, above all, announcers are kept well in the background.

So far, only a few NPR stations are using the approach, and only in a limited way. Svejda, for example, dismisses all research-driven approaches as readily as he dismisses KUSC's new sound. They're the product, he says, of "a bunch of guys who meet once in awhile and come up with formats that are catastrophic and just don't work."

He may be right. Something similar to modal programming was begun a year ago by Sony when it launched its nationwide SW Network. With an eye on the lucrative American radio market, the Japanese electronics giant hoped to include in its network of talk and popular music stations classical stations that played easily accessible, upbeat classics, mainly single movements from pieces, programmed in New York and piped throughout the country.

Although Sony, with its deep pockets, promised it would quickly blanket the country, SW Network has few classical affiliates--it hopes to have acquired 10 by early next year. Thus far, the network poses little threat to more industrious classical programming, a fact that Svejda, Smith and Levine all consider good news.

But at WETA-FM, the large public radio affiliate in Washington, station manager Tom Livingston defends a limited use of the approach as a way to better understand the station's listeners.

"It's another way of thinking about how music sounds and how every piece of music needs to relate to every other one," he contends, "and it is just one approach of many that we use."

Livingston says listener support continues to improve at WETA, where the audience has nearly doubled in the eight years he's been there, to around 400,000.

And then there is the sheer power of radio. Radio has always been an exciting medium--Marshall McLuhan called it "hot" because it stimulates the listener's imagination in a way that television (which the media guru labeled "cold") never can.

It is no coincidence that the phenomenal popularity of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony and that of works by Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, to name three contemporary composers with a large commercial following, have been fueled almost entirely by radio. The groundbreaking Nonesuch recording of the Gorecki has sold more than 1 million copies since it was released in 1992, and it is, thanks to continued radio support, still going strong. Classical record publicists particularly fight for spots on "All Things Considered," exposure that inevitably translates into major sales.

The question is: How do you spark this kind of reaction on a regular basis? Most observers agree, and the KUSC experiment proves, that there is no easy answer.

"You don't mess around with these things unless you know what you are doing," cautions Ruth Dreier, a former producer for public radio in America but who now produces classical broadcasts of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Holland for Radio Netherlands.

"We've knocked down the straw men, we've all criticized the stuffy presentation and endless repetition of the same repertoire," she says, "but what we haven't done is to establish a real standard of quality that can replace it. And within that failure is the failure to grasp what a truly competent classical music programmer or executive is."

Consultant Goldfarb has a vision: "If I had a radio station to play with, I would attempt to create a format that would be palatable to that traditional audience but that would also be alive, that could be of interest to younger audiences. I am thinking along the lines of 'Fresh Air,' the public radio talk show that deals with old-line culture, new fiction, painters, record producers, pop stars.

"What we need is a musical analogue to art films as compared to Hollywood movies, something deeper than explosions and chases."

Much of what Goldfarb fantasizes about exists in Europe, where state-supported classical music radio thrives as a proud and vibrant part of the culture. European stations seem to be at every festival, at every premiere, at every orchestral concert and opera that matters. British, Dutch, French, German and Italian stations support first-class orchestras. And some stations, most notably WDR in Cologne, Germany, commission radio art, programs created by visual artists, performance artists and musicians that treat radio as its own distinct art form.

I know because I happen to be listening to one of European broadcasts as I type on my computer. It's an impressive live performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony performed by the Berlin Philharmonic at a Mahler festival in Amsterdam last year, in a program excellently produced by Dreier for Radio Netherlands.

The program was picked up by KING-FM in Seattle, generally thought to be one of the finest American commercial stations. Like KKGO here, KING exists because of an angel--in this case, Dorothy S. Bullitt, who founded it 46 years ago because she loved classical music. In 1994, the Bullitt family donated the station to a consortium of Seattle cultural groups that split its profits.

I am listening, moreover, to the broadcast on my computer, over the Internet, as I continue to write with the word processor.

The sound isn't good. It is mono and choppy, and it breaks off altogether for a few seconds every minute or two. But like that first old acoustic recording of music to be heard over the airwaves in 1906, it seems magical.

KING is the first classical station to attempt 'round-the-clock real-time classical programming on the Internet, and it warns us that its Web page (http://www.king.org) is still in the experimental stages. But does anyone doubt that the audio signal will rapidly improve and that other stations will follow?

So it may be that Goldfarb's vision isn't as unreachable as it sounds. The programming may have to come from Europe, but at least it can, with the promise of the Internet, come. And just as home video machines helped keep alive art films when a handful of corporations took over almost all the movie houses, the home computer now has the potential to serve classical music radio.

And not, as big business continues to gobble stations as fast as it can, a minute too soon.

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