Saturday, April 2, 2011

for what it's worth, part II

So I'm driving down the road the other day, and turn on the local classical station, and hear Pavarotti singing Una furtiva lagrima, and I know what this means: they're fund-raising.  How do I know this? Because they never play opera -- indeed, vocal music of any kind -- at any other time.

Well, okay, that is a slight exaggeration. They have a baroque hour where sometimes they throw a thin, marrowless bone to the Handelian crowd by playing Ombra mai fu sung by Jose Carreras. (And I love Jose Carreras, but I prefer my Handel sung by people who sing Handel for a living.)

Now, hereby hangs a tale from the dark days before worldwide internet streaming.  Once upon a time, the little classical station that time forgot had a slot for opera on Sundays, plus a slate of syndicated shows in the form of concert broadcasts and a few hours set aside for geeks with a fondness for early music (Harmonia) or organ recitals (Pipe Dreams). Then, like many others, they got on the bandwagon of this guy.  There went vast chunks of format, because in the understanding of those times, classical music stations couldn't afford to alienate their audiences by playing, y'know, classical music. At least not outside the realm of Bach and Mozart.  Beethoven became edgy again. Mahler-length symphonies? No.  Second Vienna School? God no! OPERA? Are you out of your desperate fund-raising little minds??

So, opera walked the plank. You could hear the crash of Met Opera Broadcasts all over the East as station after station toppled effigies of the Saturday afternoon-monopolizing, All Things Considered-infringing tyrant. And on Sunday afternoons at the little classical station that time forgot, opera went the way of all flesh, and the dj who played it went looking for another job.

Well, I thought at the time, having read about Mr Giovannoni's number-crunching, it's an arguable point. It is a niche audience, though tending to well-heeled and inclining to largesse. But still a niche. Maybe, I wrote to the then-station manager, you could move the opera to after midnight? I'd still listen.

The argument I expected was There aren't enough of you to make it feasible. That would have been fine, a hard reality in tough economic times (though not as tough as now, it should be said). But that wasn't the argument I got. What I got was essentially this:

a) Opera is boring. You need to see it to understand what's going on. We might play arias from time to time. People prefer that.

b) Lots of people don't like opera at all. Studies show that if listeners tune in and don't like what they hear, they tune out again and never come back. We can't afford to lose listenership.

c) We used to think it was our responsibility to serve these little interests nobody cares about. Then we woke up one day and decided it really wasn't.

If you are reading this blog, I don't need to tell you what's wrong with item A. But I will point out, vis a vis item B, that this station had no competition whatsoever in this market (remember this was before internet streaming), so where their listeners were going to defect to was something of a mystery. Item C speaks for itself (but did beg the question of how many people constitute one statistical Nobody).

So what happened to the little classical station that tried to Giovannonize?  They justified the axing of the syndicated shows by saying You told us you wanted to hear more from our own record collection, and we listened!  So they became effectively Radio Brandenburg, because apparently that was the only record they had.  Oh, plus some disc of the Coriolan Overture, to keep it edgy. But at some point, probably due to a marked increase in listenership suicides, they bought into Minnesota Public Radio's somewhat generic but not godawful syndicated classical programming.  We take what we can get.

The upshot is that for about the last ten years, vocal music has been almost entirely unrepresented on the little classical station that tried to etc.. Only during fund-raising do they actively try to offend their allegedly opera-hating listenership. Because if you dare to send them a hundred and fifty bucks, they will surely retaliate by sending you this Pavarotti CD, and, I assure you, your cries for mercy will fall on deaf ears.


  1. Do you live in Colorado? Cuz that sounds pretty much like what we get. Though we do get the Met and also they have been doing live broadcasts from Opera Colorado. But otherwise...on Sunday mornings there's "Sacred Classics" which is often (but not always) choral music, which is nice to listen to as I'm driving across town to church.

    On the other hand...we get an awful lot of reps of Elgar's pomp and circumstance, which boggles the mind.

    And there's this: this week they're promoting their "CD of the Week," which is opera arias (these are hit and miss...a few weeks ago it was John Williams movie scores...sigh). So yay, opera, except the announcer pronounced the upcoming aria thusly: "chay guhLEEduh muNEEnah."

    I mean, really.

  2. lol We get creative pronunciation, too, on those rare occasions when they are out of their comfort zone and tooling around in the operatic badlands.

    The Republic of WTF (as it is sometimes popularly known) lies about two timezones east of where you're at. But it seems to me public radio stations in the west did a better job of hanging on to their founding principles over the last decade than did their eastern counterparts. Why that is might be an interesting discussion.

    Though, of course, an academic one, if the govt cuts everybody's funding.

  3. i'm worried about a classical music radio announcer for whom a staple, monstrously popular, aria from a staple, monstrously popular opera is out of their comfort zone! ;-)

  4. Weeelllll, maybe they do better in French? Maybe they loathe Puccini and it's sort of a passive-aggressive thing to get more Messiaen on the schedule?