April 20, 2002

Classical Radio's Fade-Out


When there was a plan, in 1960, to tear down Carnegie Hall and replace it with an office tower, Isaac Stern rallied the public and persuaded the city that it needed a great concert hall more than it needed another office building. Today a struggle is under way to preserve classical music's place on the radio at WYNC, the city's largest public radio station.

Many musicians and other New Yorkers are distressed by WNYC's decision to eliminate the classical music programs that were the mainstay of its daytime FM schedule. For the most part, classical music is now relegated to nighttime hours when fewer listeners are tuned in.

Those of us who care deeply about classical music fear that WNYC's action will do more than deprive local listeners of hours of extraordinary music; it will accelerate a national trend toward reducing the amount of great music broadcast on the radio.

In our travels as musicians, we hear the same story all too often: A city used to have classical music radio, but the station was bought or polled its listeners with an eye toward "better" demographics and has switched to talk or to popular music formats. Great music on the radio is in dangerously short supply these days; in some places it has been abandoned altogether.

Americans have always depended on public radio to educate, inform and enrich listeners. A radio station trying to do justice to the great art of classical music must take its mission seriously, programming with the integrity and intelligence of a serious arts institution. For public radio, this means putting to use a vast collective classical music library; broadcasting live events; exploring new kinds of compositions; and providing a stage for distinguished performers, composers and music scholars.

Great radio of all kinds has the power to enhance our lives by coming into our homes at almost no cost to us. But music needs hours of accessible air time to work its magic especially on young people, who may be new to classical compositions.

WNYC's schedule now includes two excellent classical music programs. But "St. Paul Sunday," which features studio performances and is produced by Minnesota Public Radio, now airs at 10 p.m. Sunday. And "From the Top," which profiles talented young musicians and is distributed by Public Radio International, is broadcast at 5 a.m. Saturday. It's hard to imagine a school-age audience tuning in before dawn on a Saturday or on Sunday night at an hour when they are usually asleep or getting ready for the coming week.

This is not just a loss for young people. Who knows how many of the uninitiated would discover the greatest music ever written if it were broadcast during a station's peak listening hours?

Nationwide, we hope to see public radio listeners encouraging station managers to look beyond numbers to embrace their lofty long-term missions. If WNYC takes the initiative, it will allow New York City to set an example for the rest of the nation.

David Finckel, the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, and Wu Han, a pianist, are founders of ArtistLed, an independent classical music label.

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