in: News & Features

January 11, 2010

BSO Strives to Maintain Live Friday Broadcasts

by

Interview with Jonathan Menkis, Chair of BSO Players’ Committee

The Boston Symphony Orchestra management feels the loss of the Friday afternoon broadcasts represents a significant rupture with a loyal subscriber base.

Further, both the BSO management and the players committee agree that it is very important for the BSO to have broadcast exposure. They feel that as media exposure has been drying up, it has become harder for the BSO to maintain its position on the world stage. And what the BSO gains from those broadcasts is immense.

Likewise, the prestige of offering live performances of a world-class symphony orchestra that happens to live “down the street” is a huge positive for the radio station that broadcasts it.

The live, local radio broadcasts of the BSO have always been uncompensated. The players are donating their services, (though for years the BSO Transcription Trust distributed concert recordings to national and international broadcasters for a fee which was shared with the players).

So the management and players are considering newer ways of disseminating BSO concerts. For instance, Tanglewood concerts are broadcast by the WAMC (Albany) consortium which reaches Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, and Canada; and those concerts are streamed over the internet. WGBH also streams BSO Saturday night concerts. So why shouldn’t BSO do the streaming itself? In order to be most effective as artistic dissemination as well as institutional promotion, the concerts must truly reach local, national, and international audiences.

The Friday afternoon audiences at Symphony Hall are perhaps the oldest subscribers. As they become incapable of attending in person, many maintain their connections with the BSO through the Friday broadcasts. This is a very generous group of contributors which the BSO does not wish to disappoint, and are likely to show their appreciation with similar generosity to the radio station that allows them to retain BSO audience participation as listeners from home.

The official comment from Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO:

We know that there are many people who are understandably disappointed about the fact that WGBH’s all-classical station, 99.5, will no longer be broadcasting the BSO’s Friday afternoon concerts. Though it is always difficult to lose such a long-standing and much beloved tradition, we are pleased that WGBH will maintain the many activities that were previously carried on WCRB.  We look forward to working closely with WGBH to present the very best of the Boston Symphony to a wide listening audience.

Note: WGBH Public Relations director, Lucy Sholley has maintained to BMInt that the figure of $25,000 to $30,000  is the marginal cost for live broadcast of the Friday BSO concerts for one year. We apologize for the our misunderstanding of John Voci’s earlier confusing and/or obfuscatory email. Ms. Sholley declined to elaborate on a breakdown of the costs.

21 Comments

  1. BMInt has confirmed that the figure of $20,000 to $30,000 for live broadcasts, stated by WGBH General Manager John Voci at the recent panel discussion, is for the season and not individual broadcasts.

    Might I ask what BMInt has confirmed:

    1) The fact that Mr. Voci took out of thin air the numbers of $20K-$30K of ADDITIONAL COST for live FRIDAY broadcasts? We all know that it was his defensive ad-hog fiction and that there are no ADDITIONAL production expenses.

    2) The fact that ALL BSO live broadcasts cost to WGBH $20K-$30K, including the Saturday and Tanglewood?

    3) Was the BMInt confirmation include any itemization where those mythical $20K-$30K come from if we were talking about the ADDITIONAL FRIDAY broadcasts to the existing Saturday broadcasts?

    To Jonathan Menkis: Mr Menkis, when your people will have further conversation with WGBH management then would be so kind to instruct them to EXPLAIN to WGBH management what is a HUGE difference between spinning of dead studio-recorded records on air vs. broadcasting live events. The WGBH management are not necessary bad people, they are just uninformed. They are not familiar with vividness, value and fragility of live musical events and therefore they do not understand that their entire station is needed mostly to support live and live-to-tape broadcast. We, the audiences, would be very welcome if when the stage of the Symphony Hall is not empty (why only Symphony Hall?) then WGBH broadcast live. THAT is what a local station shall be for…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

  2. Now Lucy Sholley, WGBH Public Relations Director, has corrected Mr.Voci’s earlier confusing correction. The official word is that the marginal cost of presenting all the Friday afternoon concerts on live broadcasts is $25,000 – $30,000. I apologize for adding to the confusion. We will also endeavor to get a full cost breakdown but I am not optimistic that official sources will be helpful.

    Lee Eiseman, BMInt. Publisher

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm

  3. Re: Symphony Broadcasts. Leave the cost aside and focus on sound quality. We left Saturday night after Yo-Yo Ma and the Hadyn so I might get home to Jamaica Plain to hear the Schubert on WCRB/WGBH 2 HD. The tuner I use is the much publicized and modestly priced Sony.

    HD is problematic. The compression of the sound is quite severe. I do not know if a Digital to Analog Converter would help.

    Our seats at Symphony are 1st Balcony left, just at the curve. The sound I got from the HD broadcast was foreign to the sound I’d heard a mere hour ago. Of course, I recognize that live vs. broadcast is a tough comparison , but having listened to the BSO both live and in broadcast for many years, the HD broadcast does it no justice.

    So, while BSO management and musicians may want the Friday broadcasts reinstated, as do we all, attention must be paid to the lousy signal and damage HD does to the sound.

    Comment by David Curtis — January 11, 2010 at 2:57 pm

  4. I will miss the BSo broadcasts on Friday afternoons. Can you ask them to restore this wonderful service- thanks Marjorie Fleischmann mbookmobile@yahoo.com

    Comment by marjorie fleischmann — January 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm

  5. David Curtis, the HD Radio is a fraudulent format that shall not use for serious music. The quality of 99.5 sound (aside from it reception) is totally a different subject. The WCRB sound was horrible. When WGBH took over it was a superb change and nowadays 99.5 broadcast very good FM signal, if one can receive it. What is truly horrible is the BSO live mix. The last time WCRB broadcasted a good orchestral mix it was April 2006. Believe you or not but there was no single proper BSO mix since then. I got sick trying to find at WGBH a single person who would care how BSO is mixed. The microphones above the BSO are handled by BSO local people and by team from Soundmirror. They both generally know what they do and do not make mistakes. The WGBH has a feed from BSO mixing and they mix the BSO signal with own mixing board and send it to broadcasting. Somewhere there, after BSO own mixing but before sound hit the GBH modulators and MPX coders somebody or something screws a LOT with BSO sound. They can broadcast inverted channels, channels in opposite phase, left channel that would be 3-6dB hotter then left and many-many other problems we have during the last 8 month. There is a feeling that no one sound professional person at GBH ever heard the broadcast or no one ever among them cares. The BSO broadcasts are not Car Talk Shows and they do not broadcast sounds of telephone… Before the last week first broadcasts I made a series of calls to different GBH people asking them to check the GBH’s BSO mixing console before the season start. The result was disaster – last week WGBH broadcast music from CD before live event with proper portioning of R and L channel and live event with reversed R and L channels. The WGBH “mixing” put the leading cello to the very right side of the stage – who the hell do thighs like this!? As far as I concern this is some kind sonic terrorism… but I do not see anybody care about it at WGBH.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 11, 2010 at 6:28 pm

  6. I called WGBH today to cancel my sustaining membership, with pointed reference to the short shrift that serious classical listeners have gotten from the station.

    I agree with the chap from Boston Camerata that it’s time to move on and find a better broadcasting solution, in terms of quality and quantity, than the crumbs (or digital shreds) being fed us by GBH. Would Emerson or NEC be interested in helping out? I for one offer the $ I used to give to public radio to anyone who can get such a venture rolling. Evidently WGBH doesn’t need folks like us anymore, so my funds have been freed up.

    Comment by Robin in Somerville — January 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

  7. Robin, I’m not entirely sure that we need to give up totally on WGBH, at least just now. They have a good new facility for recording live music, some top of the line tech people, and some musically aware and committed production staff. There is also a listener base, for the time being, though that base is in danger of trickling away without some urgent rethinking of the station’s mission with regard to music. Personally I don’t think the talk format is going to work for 89.7 — it’s too much of a monkey-see, monkey-do mirror of WBUR.

    It would be better, if possible, to work with the good things and good people already in place there on the music side, and build forward from that. The obstacle, of course, is upper management with only very limited awareness of, and commitment to, good music and to creative arts programming in general. The falling ratings of 89.7 may, however, encourage them to listen to listeners like us.

    On the other hand, if it’s just impossible, because of the corporate mindset upstairs, for the station to rethink its priorities, it may indeed be necessary to move on. We need, while maintaining our pressure on the station, to see how the situation evolves.

    Joel Cohen

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 13, 2010 at 10:48 am

  8. Joel Cohen, you are certainly right about no need totally to give up on WGBH but I think you also wrong. Under current circumstances ccanceling sustaining membership is not giving up on WGBH but it is a vote to preserve classical music on WGBH. I do not think that it was Robin’s intention to restrict cash flow to 99.5, nor it was an intention of few other people I know who did the same. Canceling membership is one of the ways for us, the public, to vote the direction the 99.5 goes. Also, as I understand in this country since 60s of 18th century we have a concept of taxation and representation combined. Where was the Robin’s, your or my representation when WGBH decided to cancel Friday broadcasts with no other reason than the fact that WGBH administration’s lack of understanding the differences between BSO live concerts and the WTKK’s on-air intellectual worming?

    If WGBH is “listeners-supported radio” as the love to say, then our support is our vote and canceling this vote is a declaration of will. Well, canceling of listeners might hardly affect the color of the WGBH’s books or the WGBH administration intentions, but is it how shall it be? Try to open a pizza or a bagel shop in any of Boston’s neighborhoods and to demonstrate the same disrespect and complete neglect to your clientele – I would like to see how successful you will be…

    There is another thing that bothers me. I am not overly exuberant what WGBH TV does nowadays. I like the Prairie Home Companion, Says You, Wait Wait, BBC and few other 87.9 programs. However, I do not feel that 87.9 is self-contained station after classical music and live broadcasts were removed from there and I predict a fiasco for 87.9FM. So, if you, Joel, me or Robin donate money to WGBH then to which station the money goes: to 99.5 or to 87.9? I think it is a reasonable question as you might not like to feed 87.9 and would like to contribute explicitly to 99.5.

    Anyhow, I can go on and on about it but this whole situation in my view is huge referendum about WGBH upper management incompetence. Probably I need to buy a book “Management for Dummies” as send to WGBH management instead of donations… Perhaps the WGBH upper management need to go for a week training to any local privately owned roast beef shop as they demonstrate too much attitude of the Burger King’s clerks…

    Comment by Romy The CaT — January 13, 2010 at 11:54 am

  9. With regards to Romy the Cat’s just above, I agree with him completely on sonic disaster of the BSO broadcasts. What I hear is a stereo mix LR always close with center orchestra woods to strong. The acoustics of the hall are barely audible too. I can easily refer to examples of the distant past when the connection was made from Symphony Hall to WGBH and WCRB by class A telephone lines (50 to 15K) and the overall sound and mix was far better than it is now. There were high standards back then with Bill Busiek engineering the microphone placement and audio feeds to the two stations. If presnt day enigneers could only go back and listen to old stereo tapes and search out any tech info set down by Bill Busiek….. But alas, the Busiek engineering era was in the past and the present day mindset these days cares not listen or abide by any set standard of excellence. WGBH suffers from fear of the past, whatever that phobia is. All this is not at all a glorification of nostaligia, but the result of A-B assessments, listening to past broadcasts (40+ year’s ago) and listening to today’s broadcasts. I can only conclude with one question: What in the hell is going on now? As for the complete loss of the BSO’s sonic signature, well that is another sorrowful area I care not talk about at this time. If the Philadelphia Orchestra were to substitute for the BSO today unannounced, damn few would know the difference nor would they care.

    Comment by Pierre Paquin — January 13, 2010 at 12:14 pm

  10. Hey, Pierre, do you think that WGBH is potent today to do LIVE telecasts as they did in 60s? I wonder how many people would “cancel subscriptions” if the see today something like this and how many sponsors would love to take credit for it.

    Comment by Romy The CaT — January 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm

  11. In my last about the LIVE telecasts the imbedded video was eaten… Here is the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfD8Hh8l4fk

    The Cat

    Comment by Romy The CaT — January 13, 2010 at 12:55 pm

  12. The live BSO telecasts I listened to while in high school in Providence, Rhode Island had an enormous and positive impact on my life and career choices. On WGBH-TV I saw Münch and Monteux direct, got to know and identify with the styles and personalities of the first chair players, learned repertoire, heard repertoire evolve from telecast to telecast, all of this and more for free…that kind of excellence is still possible, if the will is there to make it happen.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 13, 2010 at 9:28 pm

  13. I wasn’t in Boston in that time and at my 45 I am too young to remember it. What I do however know is that current WGBH is completely does not understand the advantage and power of broadcasting LIVE classical music events. LIVE broadcasts are a completely different category and shall be cherished and cultivated as they are the best that audio media is able to offer. A few bars of listening give a very recognizable indication if an orchestra performing LIVE for people or if it plays for microphones in studio. A LIVE performance has always that psychosomatic danger and that exoteric immediacy of listening attention that very seldom exist in studio-made, brushed up recordings. I do not want to go into details of this mechanism as it is a VERY loaded subject (not to mention my specialty). What I do know is that WGBH looks like does not recognize that LIVE transmission of classical music evens is the ONLY truly worthy WGBH programming, the programming where no one can compete with WGBH in Boston. If I run WGBH I would capitalize on it. I would wire each concert stage in city for live broadcast (technically it costs literally nothing nowadays) and I would make musicians and sponsors to actually compete for the opportunity to be in the WGBH broadcasts. Meanwhile WGBH cancel the Friday live broadcasts… Oh, wey, do not let me start again…

    You do not need to go to far. No later than today I turned radio and heard Kreisler’s short pieces. The play was very nice and from the very first notes it was very apparent that it was LIVE play in air. I looked at the 99.5 web site and there was no indication of LIVE event of any kind. It turned out that it was Cathy Fuller’s LIVE interview with Nikolaj Znaider. I can’t imagine that WGBH allow broadcasting LIVE event like this without any former announcement. I called to WGBH told them that it is not acceptable. If I were Mr. Znaider then I would be pissed by the fact that my live performance was equated by WGBH to an ordinary CD spinning….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 14, 2010 at 12:59 am

  14. Three things. First, for the first time in my life I find myself agreeing with everything Romy writes. “They [GBH management] are not familiar with vividness, value and fragility of live musical events.” Oh indeed.

    Speaking of live performance, I am able myself about 90% of the time to identify a performance as live when I tune in after it starts. I am not talking about audience noise here. Live, is not only different but better, more (for lack of a better word) musical.

    Finally, one must wonder where that putative $20-30K goes. The lines are in place. The broadcast booth is always there. The mics are permanently hung. All that’s needed is an on-site announcer. Aha! Maybe that’s it. When GBH/CRB plays hours of CDs put on hard drive (?) at Minnesota Public Radio they can just press a button and leave, letting the computer insert the occasional station ID.
    On Fridays they’d have to send Ron della Chiesa over to Symphony Hall, perhaps with an actual engineer, and so the hours do accumulate. But $20-30K? Those fellows must be pretty well paid!

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — January 14, 2010 at 1:58 pm

  15. BMInt is working on getting answers as to additional costs of the Friday broadcasts. Our contacts at the station tell us that there are charges for an engineer, an announcer, and on some occasions, a board operator. These could conceivably add up to $400 per broadcast or $8,000 for twenty broadcasts.

    To put this in perspective: according to their Annual Report, the total WGBH budget is $262 million, the radio budget is $13 million. If you take John Voci’s $25,000 per season for the Friday broadcasts, the portion of the total radio expenses would be approximately .19%(19 hundredths of one percent). At the dissidents’ calculation of $8,000 for the season, the number would be .06% (six one hundredths of one percent).

    Is it possible that cost is not the basis for the discontinuance?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm

  16. Maybe the slogan for us quality-program enthusiasts then needs to be “Ten percent is the increment.” With 26.2 million, unless management spends the extra on lavish dinner parties, the station could afford to hire a creative program director for 99.5, a slew of part-time but gifted special-topics music producers, modest honoraria for the live chamber music performers, etc etc etc. I think 10% of the WGBH budget for the radio operation would be fair and balanced, as it were. Right now BOTH the talk side and the music side feel starved. Unloved. Dreary.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 14, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  17. This evening’s BSO concert live broadcast was a sonic disaster. Serious distortion anytime they got over mezzo forte. Even Ron’s voice was badly distorted. As soon as they switched back to the studios after the broadcast, music at the same level (I hooked up my HP 403B dB meter) was clean and undistorted.

    I didn’t think much of the artistic choices in the mixing, way over-spotlighted. Zero taste.

    But the distortion on the live broadcast was almost bad enough to get a “ticket” from the FCC. (Well, back when the FCC wasn’t a lap dog.)

    But, we know well that WGBH measures “success” by the size of their budget. Not by civic or social or artistic responsibility. It’s not really “public radio” any more, it’s “money radio”. If broadcasting the same music as KISS-108 would maximize their budget, they would do it. If we want to make them change, our voice is indeed our wallets. Give nothing, and tell them why.

    At this point, the only thing I want to support on WGBH/WCRB is the “Jazz Decades.”

    Comment by John Shriver — January 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm

  18. Yes, John, you are correct. There were a lot of problems with today broadcast, with very strangely distorting limiting compressor. I recognized as well the Ron’s voice was distorted but I felt that he just was unhealthy as he was talking “in noise” and sounded like from an empty barrel. Also, I concur that immediately before and after the broadcast the Sound was fine. I wonder how the hell their engineers would be able to debug the problems if in Symphony Hall location they are not able to receive the CRB signal. I do feel that when they monitor sound at line-lever (not the modulations over air) then the problems do not exist.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 17, 2010 at 12:02 am

  19. AN INTERIM SOLUTION: Record and air at a later time.

    Comment by Pierre Paquin — January 19, 2010 at 8:19 am

  20. Pierre wrote: AN INTERIM SOLUTION: Record and air at a later time.

    Pierre, it is not an interim solution but a horrible solution, and it is horrible from so many perspectives!!! There are VERY many technical, “political”, esoteric, artistic and even “cosmic” reasons why it would be a VERY bad idea…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm

  21. Public TV is now a travesty, and WGBH seems well on the way. And yet live broadcasts of the Met in movie houses are sold out all over the country weeks in advance. And they are exciting. Bravo Peter Gelb.

    WGBH should wake up and lead. Live broadcasts are live. There is no substitute except to be there – and, pace, engineers, even a poor sounding live broadcast is better than none.

    Comment by Patricia Minot — January 31, 2010 at 8:55 pm

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