Drawing on the recent travails of WGBH, Troubadour Joel Cohen has penned this lightly fictionalized, satirical commentary. He draws heavily on, and attempts to synthesize the audience comments from the BMInt’s sponsored panel discussion on January 5 at New Old South Church, blending these with his own experience in radio both in the States and abroad.
A VISIT FROM MADEMOISELLE DE LA BOËTIE.
A dark night in the big city of New Athens. Most of the good citizens of this vibrant metropolis are safely in bed, snuggled down for sleep with the covers pulled up to their chins as the chill winter wind howls down the avenues of the nearly-empty downtown and the streets of the leafy suburbs.
But on the fifth floor of a sagging office building in the gritty warehouse zone of New Athens, a lightbulb shines out from a grimy window. It’s me, Guy (né Gimpel) Schwartz, Private Ear, grimly at work in his office, in the wee hours, doing a job for some angry clients. You wouldn’t want to see me just now; you’d think I look silly. I’m not at my desk. Instead, I’m standing on a chair in a closet, my arms uncomfortably stretched forward to the molding on the ceiling’s edge, almost like in a praying gesture, you might say. In my hands, I extend to its maximum a long, indoor wire antenna, trying to pick up a distant and distorted FM station on the ancient, but still functioning, KLH table radio that sits on my desk. I’ve been in this closet, standing on this chair with my outstretched arms, for what seems like an eternity. Do you think this is fun?
You know how FM is. Size matters. It’s all about the watts, and who has the most moolah for the biggest transmitter. In the radio business, as elsewhere in life, alas, the guys with the biggest rule. In any case, the seemingly limp-weenies who put this particular station on the air must be real small fry. They appear to be doing it on a shoestring, with practically nonstop bland, canned music and only a bare minimum of live stuff and original programming. Too bad they can’t work out of that 80-gazillion-dollar media center that just went up across the river. Over there, there are world-class sound engineers and hip, creative producers. This thing sounds at times like a student operation, or a couple of nerds working out of their garage. They must be darned near broke, in spite of my angry clients and the money my clients have coughed up; I’ll get to that piece in a minute. Anyway, their radio signal sucks. There’s some crackle and pop, but after much trial and error I seem to have found the sweet spot in my office to capture the weak and elusive signal. If I just can keep on holding this rigid position, I can make out some music: wait a minute, it’s “La Primavera” from the Vivaldi Four Seasons. God, this is uncomfortable.
How did I get stuck doing this gig, listening to those freaking chirping violins for the 3,000th time in my life, miserably overextended in my closet, and wishing I could just sit the frick back down? Well, times are hard here in New Athens, as they are in the rest of the country. I had applied for some of that Obama stimulus money via my state arts council, but the panel that allocated funds wasn’t having any of it. Not a single Private Ear in our state got a penny, least of all yours truly. So when this consortium walked into my office, the first clients I had seen in weeks, I was in no position to turn their offer down. It was their way, or the highway.
They wanted me to listen to the radio. See, it seems this new FM station had started out by asking for listener-subscribers. For $81.50 (the equivalent of their assigned frequency, 81.5, get it?) the donors would be considered Founding Parents of an all-classical radio station. They would receive a special member’s card, a miniature plaster bust of the late Eric Kunzel, and an extra 10% discount for a year on all purchases of Brie from participating merchants. Lots of folks signed up. “Eighty-one five, get with the jive,” as the jingle ran. It worked for some. They gave.
So when this delegation of subscribers came in through the door, I listened, and listened hard. I needed the dough. Turns out the Founding Parents are, in their grand majority, not Kunzel fans at all. On the contrary, they are hardcore classical music mavens. You know, the kind that actually listens to all the movements of the Bruckner Seventh, start to finish, without going to the fridge between movements for a bagel. Hell, they’ll catch the live Friday afternoon broadcast of Bruckner by the New Athens Philharmonia and then listen to the second N.A.P. concert on Saturday night to see how the interpretation evolved! And then will tell you that the Eugen Jochum version that appeared on a private label in 19-umty-6 was a better one.
Listen to the station, Mr. Schwartz, they begged. See if you can tell us why the programming isn’t what we were expecting. Why it’s easy listening. Why it’s slice-and-dice. It’s like 3,000 syndicated radio shows all over this great country of ours, serving up pre-frozen, pre-shaped mini-portions of whatever musical genre the management has decreed must be pushed through the pipeline. Fix it, they said.
They handed me the station’s PR blurb, gleaned from an internet site:
You don’t need to know anything about our music to enjoy WWTF; the music is fresh but familiar, relaxing yet invigorating. Our program hosts are warm, friendly people, not the stodgy academics you may have heard on other stations.
We don’t need music for our mood, they complained. We are already relaxed, or invigorated, or whatever. From the station we helped to launch with our dollars we want real, substantive content, the kind that challenges our minds and our hearts. And what’s with their snide remark about stodgy academics? New Athens is a college and university town, and we who live here are proud to be on the cutting edge. It sounds to us as if the station management wants to put Sarah Palin in charge of the Académie Française, for Heaven’s sake.
One sweet lady was pounding her dainty fist on my desktop; she was that frustrated with WWTF.
I knew exactly what they were talking about. See, I had grown up, many aeons ago, in a cultural backwater of the East Coast, far indeed from the glitter and glitz of New York or London or Paris, but happily within rabbit-ears-antenna distance of an “educational” television station coming out of Boston, Massachusetts, called, as I seem to remember, WGBH.
There was some live classical music in my hometown, but not tons. So on many nights, during the years between my bar mitzvah and my freshman semester at college, instead of doing my homework, I’d go down to the basement (my parents refused to allow a TV in their living room). I’d turn on the black and white set, and see what was on. Well, on the literary side there was Charles Laughton reading aloud from English classics. There was world famous critic I.A. Richards reading, and explicating, “The Ecstasy” by John Donne. And on the music side, wow! There must have been several feeds a week, image and sound, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bach cantatas from the New England Conservatory. A six-part series on the Bartok String Quartets that, despite horrible kinescope image quality and crummy sound, got me and my high-school buddies fanatically involved with contemporary music. We’d get together once in a while, spin platters, and discuss the relative merits of the Fifth and Sixth Quartets. This was before video games, you understand.
It was also before public television got to be…. well, I’d better not go there, at least not in this particular short story.
Anyway, one of my chums from the Bartok Circle became an internationally recognized ethnomusicologist, largely because of the influence of circa-1958 WGBH-TV on his formative brain. And, partly thanks to WGBH and its music telecasts, I became Guy Schwartz, Private Ear. I’ve never made much money, but I’ve had a few good laughs.
Enough of nostalgic flashbacks. I need to focus my mind on the task at hand: standing on a chair in this closet, holding out the antenna as though I was some supplicant in a medieval religious painting, and trying to make out the music signal from the KLH radio on my desktop, said radio attached to this freaking wire I need to hold out and up in order to hear anything.
I must say, the results are not encouraging. It’s one medium-length piece after another, announced and then back-announced by a chatty but somehow impersonal on-air voice. Everything is instrumental, and so far I catch only major keys. Nothing too dramatic or taxing. NO SINGING. You would think, listening to this stuff, that composers began writing music in 1700 and gave up, exhausted by the effort, in 1900. What happened to music before this? They don’t say. What happened after? Well, we know that…. it was rock and roll, and country and western. Movie music, too, I guess. These are the genres that apparently superseded classical. At least, according to this station.
Bland. And damned boring. To judge from the music coming out of my radio, I am learning that, during the brief two-century run in which classical music existed, there was some kind of tribal taboo against the human voice, against really long pieces, against minor keys, against extremes of loud and soft, against drama, against dissonance, against intellectual challenge, against overt spirituality, against humor or satire, against extremes or envelope-pushing of any kind. No wonder they stopped doing it, listeners probably think. No wonder David Brooks of the New York Times, when he wanted to write a column a few weeks ago on the power of art to move the soul, settled on Bruce Springsteen. At least Springsteen is ABOUT something: peoples’ lives and struggles, urgency, community, communication, tension, and release. Not this bland classical stuff. Is it any wonder that most people in this great country of ours prefer Springsteen to this? I have to sympathize with my angry clients.
But I have to say, whatever the limits of this classical genre, so monotonous, colorless and anodine compared to today’s pop scene, it does have some sort of relaxing effect, just as the marketing blurb promised it would. I feel my mind starting to go blank, my outstretched arms begin falling to my side, the chair begins to teeter….
Luckily, before I collapse and fall, there is a knock on the door. Who could that be, at this late hour? “Come in,” I say, scrambling down from the chair, emerging from the closet, frantically coiling up the antenna wire and rushing back to my desk, where I hope to appear composed and in charge.
She’s tall and dark, with long eyelashes like the scribal flourishes in the corner of some illuminated manuscript. Despite the cold weather, she wears a sort of white cottony tunic thing-o, cut off just above the knees, showing off the best pair of legs I’ve seen since that Titian painting of Venus in the Louvre, or maybe, since Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe did their “Little Rock” song in Gentleman Prefer Blondes.
And yet, despite her smoldering beauty (more Jane than Marilyn), and her disregard for the season, the woman has a touch of class. She is carrying two items: a MacBook and a trumpet case. She seems like the intellectual type, somehow. “How are you, Miss?” I manage to blurt out. “Won’t you have a seat? May I have the honor of learning your name?” The radio, deprived of the boost it got from the extended antenna, is now going “Psssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I turn it off.
“Mr. Schwartz,” she announces, seating herself elegantly and folding those magnificent stems close to her body, “I’d like to offer you and your clients a little help.” She proffers a business card, nicely engraved, with only her name displayed: “Clio de la Boétie.”
“That’s a lovely name, Mademoiselle de la Boétie. I can’t quite place your accent. Are you French?”
“Call me Clio,” she coos. “Well, yes, there is a French branch to our clan, although we are originally Greek. I’m part of what you might call a family business, and actually we are kind of all over the place, Athens, Paris, Peoria, whatever. We used to specialize in individualized personal assistance to artists, musicians, and writers, helping them achieve better results in their work. There’s a bunch of us in the family doing this. I was assigned to historians and archivists, and occasionally, when I got bored with library work (you know, historians are not always as sexy and attractive as painters and musicians), I would take out my trumpet and play a blast when somebody really famous was passing by. My job in assisting creative people also had on occasion more intimate and tender functions, but I really can’t go into that.”
“So wait a minute,” I come back, drawing on the mythology stuff I learned at Classical High School and its big, chipped plaster statues in the hallway, “ This is all ringing a bell. Are you, by any chance, lemme see, Clio the Muse?”
“Oh, Mr. Schwartz,” she answers, “that is a lovely way to put it, but you know, times have changed, and we all need to adapt. I’ve been back to school, there’s a really fine graduate program at New Athens University, honing my skill set and reshaping it for this modern world we now live in. I now call myself a Consultant in Communications and New Media. I prefer to work with institutions, especially IRS-approved nonprofits.”
“Uh-huh,” I say. “And you think you can help my clients? How did you hear about us?”
“Well, as they say in French, I and all my sisters are definitely branchées. It’s our business to know what’s going on in the creative world, always up on the latest. We have, as always, our quasi-mythical powers, and our gift of ubiquity, and on top of that each of us has recently acquired a snazzy laptop, an iPhone and a really fast internet connection. Whoosh!”
“Well then, Clio, what’s your take on WWTF? Is there hope for the listeners of New Athens?”
“Hope! Well of course, without hope there would be no creative change, right? And that’s what my sisters and I specialize in bringing about. We are audacious,” she adds, winking.
“But here’s the catch: we can assist the inspiration, but mortals like you have to wield the actual paintbrush, or sculptor’s chisel, or nonprofit mission statement, or what have you. I’d be delighted to give you some ideas,” she continues, opening up her MacBook and placing it across from me, on my desk, “but the actual implementation will depend on you and your New Athens community of music supporters.” She presses the computer’s “on” button and a beautiful mountain view comes up on the screen.
“O.K., I understand. You’re a consultant. Give me some good ideas, Clio. I’d be truly grateful for your help.”
“Glad to, Mr. Schwartz. First of all WWTF has to completely rethink its paradigm, and to exit from Simon Geller mode.”
“Simon Geller mode?”
“That’s a name that all of us on Helicon have given to a certain style of radio programming. We giggle about it at family get-togethers. See, a few years ago, there was this eccentric but enterprising individual named Simon Geller who lived alone and ran a classical music station out of his basement in Gloucester. Somehow or other he had a license to broadcast on the FM band. He had all his classical LPs copied onto reel-to-reel tape. He’d announce a piece, or group of pieces, then play the tape. He’d rewind, put on a new reel, announce the content of the tape, and play that one. Sometimes the station would go dead for a stretch while Mr. Geller needed to go shop for something, or while he took a bathroom break. And his tapes got stretched over the years from countless repeated playings and rewindings; their pitch could be unsteady. But don’t get me wrong. He provided a service to his community, and we remember his spirit during priestly ceremonies on our mountain.
“The problem is, with your WWTF, and let’s admit it, with countless stations like it, they are all in Geller mode. Announce the piece, play it, back announce, announce the next piece, play it, back announce. By Jove! That’s about as uninspiring as humanly possible. And talk about expensive!! The cost multiplier when some corporation does this kind of radio programming, compared to what Geller did all alone in Gloucester, is enormous, but the end result is not all that different. Sure, more announcers, and a bigger playlist, but WTF, to cite your station’s call letters. What do your Founding Parents get for their startup money? Freedom from Mr. Geller’s bathroom breaks, but really, when you get right down to it, not all that much more.”
“Wait a minute, Clio. Aren’t you being a little harsh? Isn’t that what radio does in our contemporary lifestyle? You pick a genre, you tune a knob or click on a link, and the product comes pouring out at you.”
“Of course, Mr. Schwartz, that’s how it mostly works in your country, so isolated it is culturally from places like Kabul, or Sana’a, or London, or Berlin. But, as occasional intrepid travelers from your country to some of these other very remote areas, that’s not the only way you could possibly make a radio station work. Thing is, that WWTF/Geller formula can be copied, at trivial expense, by any pale, atrophied nerd with a few hundred dollars spare change to buy some computer equipment, and a with hard drive full of his favorite Mp3s. A more imaginative approach to programming would surely surely cost more in terms of human resources, but, as the saying goes on Montparnasse, you get what you pay for, except those times when you don’t get what you’ve paid for.”
Hard drive, I think to myself Mp3! For a classical demi-goddess, Clio knows all the current lingo. I guess that UCLA course must have really helped her get up to speed.
“A real, music inspired radio station could do something so very much better,” Clio continues. “Now I’ll tell you something surprising, Mr. Schwartz. Contrary to what you seem to believe, your WWTF isn’t really run out of somebody’s spare bedroom, like so much nearly-identical programming easily captured on the internet. It actually comes from that new big, 80-gazillion-dollar media center across the river. That production and broadcasting center is quite a hefty operation, it’s nonprofit and listener supported, and in theory at least they have means way beyond that of Mr. Geller, or the current crop of internet amateurs.
“Great radio music programming requires a few things, right off the bat. The first is commitment to varied programming, not to straitjacketed, corporate monotony. The audience for classical music is a small country, geographically dispersed among your much larger one. It is not unlike Afghanistan, with ornery, opinionated people and many, fragmented tribal constituencies. Well, just deal with it. Better than that, revel in it!
“Serve the constituents! And make the constituency grow through your ingenuity! You need programs devoted just to chamber music. Others featuring local composers with interesting ideas. A few choice hours set aside for the opera lovers. A regular forum for the early-music crowd; I hear there are many, many of these in New Athens, and it appears that they are currently getting the shaft. And for Minerva’s sake, where’s the Indian classical music, the Arabic, the Persian, the beautifully produced jazz hour celebrating America’s own, original classical music form? Isn’t there someone interested in the rapidly evolving relation between music and digital technology, and willing to make a radio feature about that? Are those station programmers still living in the Back Bay of New Athens circa 1900, sipping tea while some well bred young lady plays minuets and galops at the piano? We are in 2010, let’s get with the program! Or so to speak….”
The color is rising in her cheeks as she grows more intense. The rosy tint makes a lovely contrast with the white of her tunic. My goodness, she is cute.
“How about a young performers’ showcase, minus the dumb teenage jokes?” she goes on. “A regular weekend segment devoted to programming by young listeners, not just for or about them? Why not a sunrise semester, between six and seven, with a topnotch music history course, available for credit, taught by one of your town’s famous academics? Wouldn’t it be great to have a daily half-hour bulletin board feature highlighting all the live music that’s going on in your town? Where’s the regular feature on cabaret music and chanson in Europe? How about a critics’ forum, where different versions of the same piece get played, without attribution, for all the self-styled experts you’ve got hanging around in New Athens? Let them give their opinions before they know who is performing.” She giggles. My heart is melting.
“And of course, live music. Feature lots and lots of live music on WWTF, mostly by local artists, but you will need feeds from other places as well to give that global perspective. Start with your world class orchestra, of course, that’s how WGBH began in Boston, way back when. Then just look at all the interesting, smaller outfits you’ve got in town: early music, chamber music, choral, non-Western, avant-garde, my heavens, do you folks know how lucky you are in New Athens? I spent a few weeks consulting in Knoxville, Tennessee a couple of years back and I can tell you that they have a great university football team and some excellent mountain music, but not much of a live, local classical music scene to capture and rebroadcast. It’s dullsville down there if you are hot for Gesualdo, or Phrygian odes sung to the lyre, like my sisters know how to do. It’s even a struggle just to scare up some half-decent Mozart.
“ Well, back to New Athens. I know, since we get every radio station on the planet in Helicon, that some of those WWTF audio engineers are truly Parnassian. Fabulous sound! Give those tech guys a raise, and hire more like them. Give them lots and lots to do, instead of cutting back their already-modest budgets. Maybe even, someday, New Athens will be able to pay their live radio performers, the way they do as a matter of course in Europe. That system keeps everybody healthy and happy.
“And of course, have many feeds and live concert recordings from festivals and major concert halls all over the planet. Keep the mix alive, day in and day out, with plenty of surprises but also definite rendezvous times to serve definite tastes. Why not begin every day, at 7 am, with five minutes of music, vocal or instrumental, especially suited for meditation? On the other end, why not a live, or live-from-tape main-stage concert every night at 8 pm? Put your most hip, avant garde programming on just after midnight, for the younger night owls. Those are just a few examples.
She was really wound up.
“See, if people who tune in to the station get the sense that there is a wide, wide world of music making, with all kinds of exciting and stimulating sounds and styles happening in all kinds of places, and all kinds of interesting on-air personalities, each one authoritatively knowledgeable and passionate about sharing the music he or she loves, and all or most of it happening right now, you’ll be doing more than just creating a marketing image for the WWTF. You will actually begin to capture the incredible, diverse reality of the music world as it exists in 2010! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Gosh, I’m getting excited … gotta pull myself together.”
She has risen up during these last few sentences, leaving her MacBook in the desk, doing a little in-place dance, and as her speech pattern accelerates her accent has grown thicker. I’d say she was almost outside of herself, transported by her enthusiasm into another dimension. Oh, how I wish she would go on. But she sits down, brushing her rich black hair back from her forehead. She pats down her tunic, picks up her computer, and resumes talking.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Schwartz, I do tend to get carried away when I do these brainstorming sessions. I’m afraid we’ll have to stop very soon, I need to play the trumpet for some senator or other from Vermont. I do hope I was able to give you some useful ideas.”
She pulls some paperwork out of her trumpet case.
“Would you mind terribly signing this form in triplicate? And to further validate this consulting session, could I possible see the letter from the IRS certifying that you and the Founding Parents are a certified 501(c)(3) organization according to the Federal tax code?”
The tax code is about the farthest possible thing from my mind right now. “Well, I’m terribly sorry, Miss Clio,” I gulp, “ but my clients are just an informal group of music lovers. And I, alas, am only a Private Ear. No more, no less.”
“O drat, Mr. Schwartz, really, I wonder if I am any good at this new, institutional way of doing things. In the old days, I’d just show up at some epic poet’s ramshackle hut on the shore of the Aegean sea, and things would start to happen between him and me. Well, let’s chalk this session up to nostalgia. I just won’t tell corporate. It will be our little secret.”
“Clio,” I gasp, “I really like your description of the way things used to work. Makes me long for the good old days. Don’t you have time for a nice glass of wine down by my place?”
“Sorry, Mr. Schwartz,” she replies, closing her trumpet case and laptop, standing up, preparing to leave. “It really was kind of fun to have this session with you, but I need to respect company rules about socializing with clients.”
“I’m not a client, Clio! I’m just a lonesome Private Ear. And there’s no address of any kind on the card you handed me.”
“That’s on purpose, Mr. Schwartz. I’m not even on Facebook. But we muses, though unpredictable, do like to pay unannounced visits to the people we find congenial. So don’t give up hope that we’ll meet again… and meanwhile, get to work with all those clients. I’m the idea gal, you have to figure out a way to make the suits at the station see it from our perspective.
“Or maybe, just maybe, but this will be harder, you will need to start from scratch, with a new institute and a new vision. I wish you the best of luck!”
And with that, she was out of the door, leaving me with my desk, a desktop KLH radio, and about 20 feet of coiled antenna wire. OK, Schwartz, time to go home and get some sleep. I was both excited and exhausted from the encounter with Clio, but modestly optimistic that I could put some of her ideas over in the New Athens context. That my subscriber clients would be happy. That I would get paid. And that, one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, Clio would walk into my office once again.
acknowledgements to Dashiel Hammett and Garrison Keillor, and with fond memories of Robert J.