According to officials at WGBH, the station has always looked at opportunities to expand and extend its programming, so when it learned that WCRB was going to be for sale, it became the successful bidder. As radio listeners now know, WGBH has become a news station and spawned WCRB (now at 99.5 FM) as its all-classical arm. This is the first of two articles that will deal with the arrangements between the two stations.
Boston Musical Intelligencer learned this morning that the broadcast schedule for Boston Symphony Orchestra live broadcasts was to be cut in half with the dropping of the Friday afternoon concerts; however, the Saturday evening live broadcast will continue with the same personnel that has been bringing it to the radio audience on Friday afternoons since October, 1991.
The Friday afternoon broadcasts were part of the original format of the station and have been running continuously for 58 years. Indeed, the stations’s first broadcast was the Saturday night BSO concert on October 6, 1951, followed by broadcast of the concert the next Friday afternoon. The relationship was even stronger; for the first two years, WGBH’s office and studios were actually located in Symphony Hall, and the symphony programs listed the station’s complete programming.
The voice of no less a figure than American composer Aaron Copland was heard during intermission of that first historic broadcast on October 6 (published in the program book for the following week): “It is particularly heartening to be able to take part in the first broadcast of WGBH. I wish I had known about the plan to establish it when I was in Europe for the first six months of this year, because whenever the question [of American radio broadcasts of classical music] came up, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sheepish.… It is particularly heartening that there is a station of great interest to an adult mind. The field is wide open and I cannot think of an area better equipped than Boston for the carrying out of an adventurous project of this kind.
“As a composer, I am particularly pleased that listeners to WGBH will be able to listen to live broadcasts of BSO concerts. Since each Friday afternoon program will be repeated on Saturday night, listeners will have the opportunity of hearing a new work twice. We contemporary composers like that idea. For the second hearing often tells more about a work than the first. When second impression of a new work may be more or less favorable, it is seldom is exactly the same.”
WGBH got its start through the auspices of the Lowell Institute Broadcasting Council, which founded the radio station in 1951 out of frustration from the lack of broadcast opportunities for classical music. The president of the Lowell Institute still sits on the board of WBGH, although it is not clear how these changes are in accord with the mission of the Lowell Institute.
A second concern to emerge is that a number of former listeners to classical music in the greater Boston area — indeed, even within downtown Boston, where large areas of Back Bay, for example, do not have good reception — are being disenfranchised. The WCRB signal does not reach them.
WBGH has a 100,000-watt signal, from its tower on Great Blue Hill in Milton, and WCRB runs on 27,000 watts, from its tower in Lowell. So the arc of listeners to the new WCRB basically excludes a good deal of area south of Boston.
Many former listeners are angry and have said they will no longer contribute to a station they cannot hear. The 32 responses to the change among readers of the Boston Globe, after its article in early November, almost all communicated dismay. One reader ‘s letter, published on November 18, succinctly noted, “Congratulations, ‘GBH. You’ve just found the perfect way to drive listeners away.”
The Providence Journal, in an article posted on November 29, quoted a longtime local radio personality, Norm Jagolinzer: “A huge area will be cut off. That’s really amazing. Maybe they know what they’re doing, but it’s a disappointment to a lot of people.”
The article, published before the change went into effect, also quoted Richard Taylor, the retired minister of Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence: “I heard them the other day on WGBH trying to raise money, saying give, give, give. I just think they want people to give before they pull the rug out from under them.”
Jeanne Hopkins, vice president of communications for WGBH, said the potential lack of support is “of concern.” She also noted that the audience for the Folk and Blues program is “universally unhappy” that it is being discontinued, but said of the the general reaction to the changes, “We had kind of a mixture, and not an overwhelming number of responses.”
Others have cited reports that belie this, that there is significant dissatisfaction.
John Voci and Jon Solins, respectively general manager for radio and program director of WGBH, said there will be a regular “Saturday presence” of the Boston Symphony, whether or not there is a live concert. They plan to fill in with tapes from previous concerts by both the BSO and the Boston Pops when no live content is available. And all three Tanglewood concerts during the summer weekends will be broadcast by WCRB.
To be sure, the Saturday evening BSO broadcast will be a much expanded program. At 7 p.m., there will be a pre-concert feature, and after the concert, related programming until 11 p.m. For example, two Pops performances from this coming weekend will be aired, Saturday’s a week later on December 19th at 8 pm., and one of the children’s performances will be aired on Christmas Eve.
Jon Solin also mentioned that much of the WCRB content is now from a syndication supplied by American Public Media, and that they hope in time to have their entire playlist developed locally.
Several questions are still out there: It is not known by the general public what is the relative increment in cost of doing both Friday afternoon and Saturday evening BSO programming, when reports are that it is minimal. Also, listener responses will be better known when Arbitron ratings are available, in about three months.
No matter what gloss the WGBH staff puts on its actions, there will be a daily net loss of almost eight hours of classical music in Boston, and the change will result in the loss of coverage to a large portion of its former audience. The changes also will deprive thousands of people of the opportunity to hear the BSO on Friday afternoons [without which a second hearing is impossible], or to, as Copland noted, to enjoy “the second hearing [which] often tells more about a work than the first.”
When asked whether WGBH was gunning for WBUR listeners when switching to an all-talk and jazz format John Voci replied that the Boston radio market has the smallest percentage of college educated public radio listeners of any metropolitan area. He is looking to those non-listeners for growth as his station cedes 100,000 classical music lovers to WCRB.
On the other hand, complaints about WGBH’s motives in acquiring WCRB and moving classical music there must be tempered by the fact that, had they not done so, 300,000 classical music listeners to WCRB would have been abandoned. Not a single bidder for WCRB, other than WGBH, intended to operate it as a classical music station.
“WCRB will be presenting a lot,” Voci told the Intelligencer, “It is important to remember that had we not stepped in, full-time classical service would have gone away.”