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Civilization returns to the Bay Area

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | April 18, 2011

Many years ago, the typical public radio station played classical music and some jazz all day, news like Morning Edition and All Things Considered at drive time, some public affairs or newsy features in the early evening, and more music at night.  About the time I moved to Berkeley in 1991, public stations started doing actual research on their audiences and found that listeners would tune away from music to one or another kind of talk in droves, and (for example) KQED switched to an all news and discussion format, all day, with most programs repeated at least once.  This left us KALW with a talk all day, music in the evening format; Pacifica Radio which seems to be a sui generis operation lost in 60′s leftiness; KCSM, a good jazz station with a varied, exploratory playlist; and a rather odd fish, KDFC: a commercial classical music station.  This last, in order to broadcast commercials, programmed disembodied single movements of larger works and seemed stuck in the easiest-listening familiar warhorse zone of the 19th century; I found it unlistenable.

Recently, KDFC moved to two different frequencies plus a web stream and became listener-supported!   At the same time, something very similar is happening in Boston.  Does any of this matter? Bathing in talk and news all the time is a little worrying; of course us public radio listeners are getting smarter while we do, not like those people who turn on Fox news in the morning and have it playing on the TV until they go to bed, and the content reassures us of our superiority and discernment.  Right? Actually I am not at all sure that I am better off having Morning Edition murmuring away while I read the newspaper and make coffee and reply to emails than I was when my parents would turn on WQXR and have classical music playing more or less all day (I didn’t have a TV until I was 13).

What about the music? With all the streaming music available on the web, including custom “stations” you can tailor to what you already know you like, and the ability to play exactly what you want from Napster or from your iPod, what’s a radio station good for?  As Arthur Brooks once observed disparagingly, “…if you’re the kind of person who wants someone else to choose your music…”

Well, that offhand remark may mark the time Arthur started to be mistaken in everything he utters, as he pretty much has.  I absolutely want someone to choose a lot of my music; someone who has time to keep on top of new stuff and outré stuff and will put before me things I don’t know enough to ask for and don’t know exists.  I wish more of my friends would send me links and mp3s.  I love being able to drop in on a station, whether broadcast or streaming, and hear something I didn’t have to pick out myself, sometimes familiar and sometimes pushing my envelope. And I like the idea that others I know might have met the same piece at the same time.

On this score, the new KDFC has a ways to go; Ive been listening to it a lot over the past week or two and I have not heard a piece by anyone alive now; in fact, no more than two pieces I did not recognize. They are apparently using the library of  those classical-through-romantic bromides from their commercial period; at least we get a whole symphony at one go.  I sent them some money, but I hope they get off that kick and start mixing it up.  What they’re offering now I can brew up for myself on LastFM or Napster.

Cross-posted from Michael O’Hare’s blog The Reality-based Community.

Comment to “Civilization returns to the Bay Area

  1. KDFC had a much stronger signal at 102.1 FM; the commercials were annoying but tolerable. At 90.3 FM, there’s time for a bit more music, all to the good, but as before, the warhorse programming seems to depend on iTunes or Naxos statistics for who buys and listens to what. When the announcers comment on the compositions or performers, they seem to be reading liner notes, not speaking from memory or deep comprehension of music.

    Now that it’s listener supported, perhaps KDFC should accept program proposals from volunteers knowledgeable about classical music trivia who are enthusiastic about sharing their iPod libraries.

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