Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Class(ical)-less City

The big news in regional radio is the eminent demise of WGMS in Washington, DC. The station, which has been classical since 1948, is being sold to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Redskins who will surely flip the format to sports/talk. When that happens, our nation’s capital will have no classical music on the air.

Take a moment to think about that. Doesn’t a capital reflect the character of the nation? What would your reaction be if the last theater closed in Washington? Or the last art gallery?

The sad part is that classical music was not a money-losing format in the Washington area. Public radio station WETA did quite well with classical music for three decades. It changed to all news/talk only because it could make more money.

Part of the rationale with WETA’s switch was that, since there was a commercial classical station, broadcasting classical music no longer best served the public. WGMS saw a big rise in listenership after the format change. Although the music was watered down, and rarely did you heard anything outside the late romantic period (never mind complete works), for the classical listener, WGMS was better than nothing.

And now WGMS will be sold and changed. Did it make money? You bet. Healthy audience size? Yep, and unique, too. No danger of another station stealing the WGMS audience –- an enviable position for any radio station to be in. But as a sports station it will (in theory) make even more money.

I can’t fault commercial radio chasing the money. Like any other business, they’re supposed to make money, and as much of it as possible. But for public radio to abrogate their responsibility for the same reason is reprehensible.

Remember, classical music doesn’t necessarily mean dead white Europeans. With the format gone, the music of Americans George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are banished from the Washington airwaves. So too the works of living American composers, such as Libby Larson, Philip Glass, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, John Adams and Steve Reich. Marin Alsop, director of the Baltimore Symphony, may have been awarded a “genius grant,” but you won’t hear the recordings that won her that honor. Nor will you hear world-renowned American performers, such as Rene Fleming, Joshua Bell, John Williams (the guitarist) or Thomas Hampson.

I harken back to my October 11 post about WTJU’s fund drive. Whether you’re reading this in Charlottesville, Virginia or somewhere else in the US, your local public stations need your active –- and vocal –- support. Don’t assume that what you’re hearing today will be there tomorrow. WTJU celebrates its 50th anniversary on the air in 2007. Remain complacent, and by 2008 it could all be gone.

- Ralph

(I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decipher the image's reference and it's relevence to this entry.)

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