More than 400 classical music aficionados filled the New Old South Church Tuesday night, January 5, to voice their concerns over elimination of classical music programming at WGBH Radio. On December 1, WGBH shifted all its concert music broadcasts to station WCRB, where it has established a 24-hour all-classical format and promptly announced the cancellation of Friday BSO broadcasts. Note: The Boston Phoenix is streaming the audio from the event here.
In the weeks since then, many listeners have complained that they cannot receive the WCRB signal clearly, or at all. Chronic static is a common complaint. Others have decried what they describe as a “dumbing down” of the programming on the new classical station. Of specific concern is the decision by the WGBH management to end the decades-long practice of broadcasting the Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concerts. (WCRB will continue expanded live broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts on Saturday evenings.)
A number of people feel defrauded that they were invited to become “founders” of the new station format, only to discover after contributing that they were disenfranchised.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer gathered a panel of public figures involved in broadcasting and the Boston classical music scene to lead a discussion of what might be done to remedy the situation. Led by former Massachusetts State Senate President William Bulger, the panel included WCRB’s former general manager Dave MacNeill, journalist and broadcaster Christopher Lydon, former Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer and WGBH’s general manger John Voci.
Respondents were BMInt reviewers Mark DeVoto, John Ehrlich, Brian Jones, Rebecca Marchand, David Patterson, and Tom Schnauber and Peter Van Zandt Lane.
Marchand asked Voci what the percentage of favorable to unfavorable comments were in the stations’s rumored in-house 75-page document. Voci responded that he have not seen it.
Not surprisingly, many of the comments from both the panel and the audience who were invited to ask questions were directed to Voci. He argued that if WGBH had not purchased WCRB when it recently had come up for sale, then Boston would have been left with no full-time classical music broadcasting. He challenged the suggestion that the quality of classical music had declined in the move from WGBH to WCRB, pointing to the “In Performance” slot at 1:00 p.m. weekdays, as well as special broadcasting of locally-recorded events on Sunday afternoons and Thursday at 7:00 p.m. He also noted that WCRB’s programming will include 61 broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts, as contrasted to 28 available separately on WGBH and WCRB heretofore. [Except for the 22 live BSO concets from Symphony hall and the weekend Tanglewood concerts, the balance will be from recordings] Voci said that WGBH does not have the funds to broadcast additional concerts, such as the BSO on Friday afternoon, which cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per season. [see note below] WGBH, he said, in the past year has had to lay off about 50 staff in an effort to reduce its operating budget by $10 million.
Despite Voci’s explanations, most of those present appeared to share a sentiment expressed by a Roslindale woman that as a result of the changes at WGBH/WCRB: “I feel forgotten.” Panelists and audience members strongly disputed Voci’s contention that that broadcasting the same BSO concerts was redundant. Several speakers pointed out how performances can change between Friday and Saturday, and both are worth hearing, especially for those interested in new compositions. Others noted that with the concerts being carried via the internet to world-wide audiences, different audiences tune in at different times.
“Boston is a wildly interesting city,” Lydon stated. “We should be telling the world about what is going on here.” Internet broadcasting of programs such as the live BSO concerts is one important way of doing that, he contended.
Several stated that if redundancy were really an issue, then why is WGBH broadcasting NPR’s Morning Edition and All things Considered, as well as Fresh Air and the Diane Rheem Show which are already being carried by WBUR?
Dyer told of growing up in small towns in Texas and Oklahoma where culture was limited. But, he noted, “no child in Boston today has [the exposure to classical music] that I had in Oklahoma a half-century ago.” Dyer won sustained applause when he stated “We have been told that the public is not interested in listening to classical music. That is just not true.”
Several participants expressed concern that WGBH had lost sight of its mission as an educational institution and is now being driven by Arbitron ratings which measure audience size. Others complained that classical music listeners were underrepresented in Arbitron research.
Leslie Warshaw, a WGBH producer for over 30 years and now retired, noted that the station constantly spoke in her day of “mission.” Gradually it changed from “mission” to “service” and then, she noted wistfully, became “business.”
The weak WCRB signal probably cannot be improved, as the 99.5 frequency on which the station broadcasts is shared by other broadcasters in the region. The location of the transmitter in Lowell is not going to change either.
Voci suggested that listeners outside the prime broadcasting area should invest in a HD radio and listened to a streamed version of WCRB via frequency 89.7. Audience members from Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Middleboro and several other communities stated at the meeting that they have limited or no reception from WCRB.
One woman described a shut-in sister in Attleboro who is “bereft without classical music” available from WGBH because she cannot receive the WCRB signal.
One speaker said the solution was simple, His suggestion that the classical music programming that was recently shifted to WCRB be returned to the WGBH frequency with its 100,000 watt transmitter on Great Blue Hill, and that the news programming on WGBH be moved to WCRB was greeted with warm, sustained applause.
Voci acknowledged that this had been considered at one point, but not implemented.
MacNeill, who spent more than 50 years at WCRB, provided an overview of classical music broadcasting in Boston and nationally, offering details on how technologies, audiences and managements have brought change to the amount and quality of what has been broadcast. He repeated several times that at drive-time people wanted “relaxing” music, and that it was not the time for complete broadcast of symphonies.
He explained that in recent years WCRB did have a music programmer who had little knowledge of classical music, hence a small number of familiar pieces were played frequently. That programmer is no longer part of WCRB.
Nonetheless, the quality of current programming was repeatedly skewered by many audience members who complained bitterly about WCRB’s practice of playing a single movement of a longer piece, or limiting the playlist to established favorites. “How many times can we hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” one questioner asked to loud applause. “In the past three days,” he claimed, “the programming has not included a minor key.” Others rued the fact that a Minneapolis syndicate is creating the playlist for a sophisticated Boston audience.
Several audience members spoke emotionally about the recent departure of announcer Richard Kniseley from WGBH, praising his skills at introducing listeners to unfamiliar music. He was described as “my teacher” by one speaker, and as offering “intelligent, informed commentary” now missing from the WCRB broadcasts by another. Knisely attended the event but did not speak publicly.
In a dramatic move at one point in the proceedings, Mr. Bulger asked the audience how many received good reception from WCRB. There was a scattering of hands raised. But when he asked how many had poor reception, about three-quarters of the members of the audience raised their hands.