Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bostonians v. WGBH/WCRB

On Tuesday night, I served as a respondent for the forum on the future of Classical Music radio in Boston. Organized by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, the forum saw an audience of roughly 400 people in Old South Church in Copley Square, some of whom arrived an hour early to “get a good seat.” The main attraction was billed as a panel comprised of broadcast journalist Chris Lydon; the fiery announcer and former general manager of WCRB, Dave MacNeill; music critic emeritus for the Boston Globe, Richard Dyer; and John Voci, general manager of WGBH radio. The gavel-wielder was none other than former Massachusetts Senate president and current president of the University of Massachusetts, William Bulger.

Long before questions were posed from the audience, the room was vibrating with the anger, frustration, and sense of injustice felt by a great many Bostonians who felt their music had been “taken away” by WGBH’s latest business decisions, most notably the cancellation of the Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the move of all classical programming to 99.5 WCRB, recently acquired by WGBH.

My question for Mr. Voci, which received encouraging applause, was in regard to a rumored 75-page document in WGBH’s possession, full of listener comments regarding the recent changes. I asked what percentage of those comments were positive, and to my surprise, Mr. Voci replied that he had not seen it. I was assigned this question by the BMInt and was originally uncomfortable asking a question about a document only rumored to exist. But now I’m glad the question was asked because it opened the door for two more: 1) if the document does exist, why HASN’T Mr. Voci, as general manager, seen it? And 2) if the document doesn’t exist, WHY NOT? As one audience member opined, there needs to be a better feedback mechanism on the WCRB and WGBH websites. Facebook pages, while a crucial and important venue for commentary, are exclusionary to a good portion of GBH/CRB listeners whose internet involvement may be limited and who don’t wish to join Facebook in order to comment. We know that people have written comments on their donation cards and I’d be willing to bet some people have even written…*gasp*…letters! “Listener-supported radio” needs to have…well, listener support. So, it does seem that the comments from said listeners would be the primary resource for assessing that level of support, much more so than the spurious Arbitron ratings.

After asking my question, I sat back and watched and listened. Unlike many of those present, I’m a fairly recent transplant to Boston. I don’t listen to the radio much as I don’t drive very often and I listen to music for a living (class prep, program notes, pre-concert lectures), which leaves very little time to tune in to the radio. But I lived in a place for ten years where Vivaldi and Massenet’s "Meditation from Tha├»s" (two of Tuesday night's audience’s favorite signifiers of mediocrity in programming) were popular programming choices for the local classical music radio station. In that city, relative populations aside, it would be hard for me to imagine that 40 people would have shown up to “defend” classical music radio, much less 400. Chris Lydon did attempt to drive home the point that Boston is a “wildly interesting” place, culturally and intellectually, and that “we should demand the best from our public institutions.” And on Tuesday night, those demands were made, with varying levels of eloquence, but almost uniform sincerity. That those demands were not MET on the spot, should come as no surprise. But a gathering of 400 people is hard to ignore.

From some of the comments I’ve read at various other fora, I gather there was definitely a wide range of expectations for the evening. Laments that the hour and a half event “solved nothing” seem to me to have missed the greater point. Some Bostonians, armed with the heritage of the Boston Tea Party, expected too much (from Mr. Voci, in particular). While I am not interested in defending the actions of WGBH, Mr. Voci behaved exactly in the manner I expected. He is but one person in an organization—he responded to questions with businesslike diplomacy, dutifully took notes, and made no promises. What many of these commenters fail to see is that the evening was not really meant to be about Mr. Voci or any of the other panelists. Nor was it about the reviewers from the Intelligencer who served as respondents. It was in fact about the four hundred people who filled the seats of that church.

There is great cause for concern here because the issues at hand are indicative of a growing trend in dismissing classical music from the cultural scene. Unlike painting, sculpture and many of the visual arts, music is not static art. Classical music radio is a museum of ever-changing and completely temporal exhibits…it should never be satisfied with a limited permanent collection. Unlike the Louvre, which has the luxury of having people come to it in order to see the Mona Lisa, classical music radio must bring its museum to the people. As an FM broadcaster, WGBH has signed on to that mode of transport. Telling people to listen in HD, or to use the internet, or to buy new stereo equipment, is tantamount to blocking off the ramps and stairways to the museum and asking folks to rappel through the skylights. If WGBH had started an internet radio station in addition to current offerings, this would be a completely different situation. But the fact of the matter is that people feel robbed. Bruce Mittman, president of Mittcom, and member of WGBH Coporate Executive Council, used the word “offload” in referring to moving the classical music programming to 99.5, going on to say that the move would “make the station [WGBH] more pure.” (1) If purity is what we are after in the way we establish cultural and artistic legacies, then the situation is more dire than I imagine.

What Tuesday night’s forum DID accomplish, is that WGBH has been put on notice. People ARE listening and watching. I’m an optimist so I’d like to believe that there will be more changes to come that will put this situation back on track, and I’m even willing to wait a bit. I don’t envy WGBH one bit. Arbitrating aesthetics is awfully difficult. There are a great many people whose idea of good classical music IS Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Meditation from Thais, etc and they shouldn’t be excluded from this conversation either. I’m sure many who sat in the church would be aghast at my personal idea of “good” classical music (which is why the internet is my listening source of choice). But what WGBH must realize is that IS the task before them. It isn’t just about business decisions…art never is. As a business, WGBH made a decision. How much that decision will compromise the organization’s role as a guardian of culture will be measured in the coming months.

(1) Greater Boston, September 21, 2009

READ/HEAR/SEE MORE (Links included below represent a variety of opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of this blogger :-)):


notloB said...

I applaud the Boston Musical Intelligencer for orchestrating this forum and empathize with classical music community. But at least classical music is still broadcast by WCRB. Look what WGBH did to "Folk on WGBH" and "Blues on WGBH" - both were terminated on 12/1/09. Together they totaled SEVEN hours per week.

Boston-area folk and blues organizations - BACHA, FSSGB, BBU, Boston Blues Socitey - take note, consider producing a similar forum to put WGBH on notice for the disservice performed to our community.

Re facebook, "Supporters of folk and blues on WGBH was created 12/7/09, the day the announcement was made on the WGBH website. Current membership stands at 1250+

RichardMitnick said...

Here I am again from New Jersey, a WQXR member, asking why there is no discussion mentioned about "...the Minneapolis syndicate..." supplying so much for the WCRB music?

Repeating again, this is Minnesota Public Radio's "Classical24", musical pabulum aimed at the lowest common denominator, described by one noted Classical music critic as "musical wallpaper", designed not to intrude.

Boston deserves better.

dsearls said...

Just some helpful fodder: Ratings. Here's the latest for Boston. WBUR with a 4.5 share in December. WCRB with a 2.9 (excellent for a classical station, by the way), and WGBH with an 0.9 -- terrible for a public station that also has the biggest signal in town. I am sure GBH was tired of eating BUR's dust for years.

Also, that "pablum" from MPR is still better than the ad-filled small portions of longer classical "hits" that CRB had been running before the change. And the lost heavy advertising load finally makes the station (at least for me) listenable.

But true: Boston deserves something less canned.

- Doc


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea