Saturday, December 25, 2004

Classical Radio? In the Bay Area?

If you're reading this blog from outside the San Francisco Bay Area, you might not know how desperate the classical radio situation is here.

Despite a significant audience for classical music and the existence of institutions such as the S. F. Symphony, S. F. Opera, Philharmonia Baroque, Santa Rosa Symphony, Oakland East Bay Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, and dozens of smaller performing groups, there is one and only full-time classical music station, KDFC.

A decade ago, even five years ago, KDFC was a much different station from what it is now. It used to carry the Metropoolitan Opera broadcasts, but stopped because the Met does not allow time-shifting of the broadcasts, and KDFC felt that its core audience didn't want a multi-hour interruption of the usual programming. It used to have a marvelous show, Saturday Night at the Opera, that would play a complete recorded opera or focus on a particular singer or subject. Paul Thomason, whom you may have read in Opera News, was the regular host; I remember shows about basses, great Rossini recordings, a two-hour special devoted to great Mozart recordings, a special tribute to Leontyne Price on her 70th birthday.

KDFC used to play a much more varied repertory than now. I remember listenening to 20 minutes of selections from a particular CD of 17th century Spanish music; I owned the CD within 24 hours of hearing it.

It's hard to imagine that happening today. Over the last few years, KDFC has become a station dedicated to gimmicks and to providing a pleasant, homogenous, soothing experience to its listeners. Never mind that classical music is often provocative, exciting, disturbing, passionate. Turn on KDFC, and what you're most likely to hear is 18th, 19, or 20th century orchestral music, often doled out one movement at a time. (They must have frequent commercial breaks, you see.) If it's 20th century music, it will be tonal. You will hear Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughn Williams more often than, say, Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Britten. If it's 18th century, it's more likely to be Telemann than J. S. Bach, and more likely to be Vivaldi than either. There is no opera or Lieder and virtually no vocal music. (Right now, during their Christmas music marathon, you can hear some vocal music! And also most Sunday mornings for an hour at 9 a.m. or so.) A recent survey of its listeners by KDFC itself showed that one-third of its listeners wanted "no vocal music," so they were undecided about how to treat it. Apparently they missed the fact that this means 2/3 of their listeners want to hear the human voice on their local classical music station. I can't remember the last time I heard a string quartet, though there's plenty of crossover - I heard an announcer saying the other week that "...classical works composed by rock musicians are becoming more common," just before he played something very bad by someone I'd never heard of.

About the only exception to the general dumbing-down comes during the weekly San Francisco Symphony broadcasts. It's almost the only time you might hear nontonal 20th century music and music by living composers. They sometimes run ads for these and the station with SFS music director Michael Tilson Thomas - I cringe when I heard them, for he surely knows how limited the repertory played by KDFC is, and how little they do to promote serious listening to classical music.

It's a sad situation. There is some classical programming on KCSM and KUSF (for example, "Classics Without Walls," by Mark Theodoropoulos). KPFA has a couple of classical shows. KMZT had a full schedule of classical music until recently and now has none. KQED has no music, period, and its classical recordings collection was destroyed some 20 years ago.

I doubt that anything can be done about KDFC. I've sent complaints on and off and been told that they play what their audience likes. (That's a sad, sad thought.) I know they got a barrage of complaints when they dropped the Met broadcasts.

I joined their mailing list just so I could participate in surveys and tilt the opinions they collect the tiniest bit toward more interesting and varied music. (You should see their "favorite composer" survey! I don't really have one, but I took pleasure in writing in Wagner anyway.)

But, really, if you want good classical music on the radio, your best bet is those stations that stream to the Internet. There are dozens of these, from KUSC to WFMET to WQXR to many, many stations in Europe. A great collection, with details about the software required, can be found at Operacast. Yes, the focus is on stations that play opera, but....stations that play opera usually play lots of other classical music. So, play a visit to Operacast, and you can escape from KDFC's awful programming and the crumbs strewn by other Bay Area stations.


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