To begin, two propositions. first, you know you have reached curmudgeonhood when small things annoy you. Second, Americans are becoming dumber (as well as fatter). And they prefer it that way.
When I wake up in the morning, I get a quick fix on the news to make sure that no major explosions took place overnight and that no famous person has died. I do this by catching some minutes of NPR’s Morning Edition on KERA and reading the New York Times. I then like to dive into some music or, rather, have the music dive into me. For more than a decade after it got its start in the 1970s, KERA 90.1 satisfied both needs. How many people remember when the station played what is foolishly called “classical” music? Those days have gone by the wayside; very few public broadcasting stations have anything other than all-talk-all-day formats. Where does that leave you? With WRR 101.1.
And this is not a happy choice. I may be slow to register change, but it has finally struck me: this commercial station, owned by the city and in possession of an interesting history, has been going down the tubes for a long time. Through the daylight hours, you will hear nothing dissonant, nothing vocal, nothing difficult, heavy, or lugubrious. Most of all, nothing long. Seldom do you get whole symphonies, concertos, suites, or sonatas. Instead, single movements. Nothing before Bach or after Rachmaninoff. And nothing that lasts longer than 10 minutes. Why do we now have Music Lite?
I asked Gregory Davis, station manager since 1993. Davis is an educated, pleasant fellow, committed to music, to the station, and to his civic responsibility. “We need to fit the station to the lifestyle of the average citizen,” he says. What this means, first of all, is automobiles. From 6 to 9:30 am, and then for another three hours in the afternoon, WRR plays short pieces. How come? Commercials are one reason. The station must raise income, and it does so primarily through advertising. Some of the advertisers give one a modest shock: salvos from weight-loss programs, credit card debt services, and guaranteed investment opportunities. Well, caveat emptor. But these pay the station’s bills, and since the city owns the station, we taxpayers ought to rejoice that the station operates in the black (but more on that in a minute).
The more interesting reason for today’s programming is that people’s attention spans have shrunk. So musical selections become condensed.
The announcers mostly skip over important facts about the pieces they play, forgoing modest descriptions, key signatures, even opus numbers or, in the case of Mozart, the Köchel listings. “People don’t want to feel like they need a Ph.D. to listen to the station,” Davis says. Since when has a little knowledge become a threat or a danger? Audiences are now “intimidated” by information. They must be spoon-fed, not given anything too hard to digest. Like an opus number? Go figure.
During the day, when many people listen to the station at work, they need the equivalent of elevator music from an easy listening station. That’s the reason for nothing too difficult or dissonant. Music must be melodic and either peppy (fast and bouncy) or romantic (slow and schmaltzy). After 8 pm, things improve during the evening concert and afterward when everyone is asleep, or whenever the station plays full-length orchestral programs by the Dallas or Fort Worth orchestras. Otherwise, there is nothing new, difficult, or dangerous on the radio. Davis says that he has tried to “shorten the rotation,” radio programming parlance for repeating music more frequently. People want the music they hear to be “familiar and comfortable,” but they don’t want “to hear the same thing too often.” So, within very narrow confines, the goal is variety, even if everything ends up sounding more or less the same.
For many people, music is not mere background; it commands our full attention. The pianist Alfred Brendel refuses to go to a restaurant where music is playing, even or especially his beloved Mozart, because he makes his living playing Mozart. Listening to him in the background would distract from conversation. You’re supposed to attend to what you are hearing, not just let it wash over you.
In one way, at least, WRR has improved. The late Karl Haas, whose Adventures in Good Music must have been the most watered-down music appreciation course of all time (and therefore one of the most popular), has been replaced by the infinitely more intelligent Bill McGlaughlin, whose Exploring Music offers something for experts and beginners alike. These programs are both syndicated, though Davis is quick to point out that 93 percent of the weekday programming is local.
And about those local announcers: Davis says they are a hot-button issue. He prefers to hire people who don’t know about classical music, but who have good pipes. “Our listeners are vocal and opinionated,” he says. “I tell our announcers they need to have thick skins.”
Some of them are pretty good, but we also have the annoyingly chirpy ones who say things like “We’ve just heard the fabulous George Szell in a wonderful performance of the exciting last movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.” Why do we need so many adjectives? The ones who don’t sound like cheerleaders can sound instead like seductresses, whispering in your ear and nibbling on it at the same time. A few of the men sound as though they’re heading for the bar; their whiskey baritone voices are meant to be as comforting as an old armchair. And regardless of the voice, many of them mispronounce names.
Am I too curmudgeonly? I always have the option—which I increasingly choose—of popping discs in my CD player. I can listen for hours without any annoying human interruptions. I suppose I could spring, too, for satellite radio.
Which brings me back to the matter of finances. As I say, since the station is owned by the city, we taxpayers should thank Davis for his efforts to bring as large an audience to the station as possible. To give you some idea of how the station performs, The Ticket 1310, a popular sports station that a friend told me about, garnered a 4.4 share with people ages 25 to 49 in the most recent Arbitron ratings book—meaning it captures 4.4 percent of the adult radio-listening audience. KERA pulls a 2 share. And WRR? Just 0.8. It is no easy task to capture an audience with classical programming (and City Council meetings, let’s not forget).
Every other year, the city of Dallas’ Citizens’ Survey asks our citizens what they like and don’t like about the city’s various services. WRR always turns up at the top in the “Best Public Information Services” category. So it’s doing lots of things right. It lets us in on what is happening in North Texas. It provides an introduction to music to people who might otherwise never get a chance to hear it. Davis says, “We must take down social barriers for this art form to survive.”
And WRR is not alone in its programming decisions. There are about 180 classical stations in the country (compared to about 2,000 country stations). Of those classical stations, only about 20 are commercial, like WRR. Most are nonprofit PBS affiliates; many of these are on university campuses. Others, like Connecticut’s small, mostly volunteer-run WMNR, are labors of love. And although a handful still keeps a stable of serious announcers playing serious music, many are in the same dumbing-down process as WRR. Boston’s venerable WGBH, for example, welcomes listeners with this relieving good news: “Our program hosts are warm, friendly people, not the stodgy academics you may have heard on other stations.” I am not heartened.
WRR receives no money from the city. But this year, the station made—that is, was required to make—a one-time contribution to the city’s arts endowment fund of $4 million. This helps to keep the libraries open, to lessen the dangerous negative impact of the current fiscal crisis. It also sounds like a version of socialism, according to one classic formulation: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, WRR expects a shortfall of $200,882. Their cash balance will cover the deficit. “We are part of the economic solution,” says Davis with justified pride. Still, if WRR has made money, why can’t it keep it and use it to improve programming? No good deed goes unpunished.
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