Yesterday, classical musical lit the way

Diana West
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Posted: Mar 07, 2005 12:00 AM

When Paul McCartney, songster of the '60s Revolution, wins one for the zipper at the Super Bowl, it's evidence, or, rather, confirmation of a sea change. What was once a countercultural wave has subsided into a gentle current of the mainstream. This week, with the abrupt end of classical music on WETA-FM (90.9), Washington, D.C.'s public radio station, I guess you could say a gentle current of the mainstream has just plain subsided.

"It is painful, but my job is to steward this public radio station in the best possible way," Daniel C. DeVany, WETA's vice president and general manager, told The Washington Times. This was a new one: The general manager was making it sound as if it were in the public interest for public radio to "steward" classical music right down the drain. Glug, glug. Airtime once filled with timeless music will now carry the day's events, which, of course, we in The Public don't ever get enough of.

This format switcheroo is not an isolated event. The Times reports that the number of all-classical public radio stations in the nation has held steady at 42. Over the past five years, however, between 40 and 50 stations that once featured a mix of news and classical music have either totally cut the Bach, or drastically reduced it -- no doubt, as in D.C., to "steward" public radio in the best possible way. It is true, as public broadcasters point out, that the all-news audience is bigger than the part-classical audience. But should that factor be public radio's decisive criterion?

I don't think so. That is, I always thought "public" radio -- which, of course, receives "public" support -- was supposed to do something more edifying than just chase the almighty market share. Otherwise, why the "public" support? WETA's decision may reflect a dwindling classical music audience, but what's more troubling is that it suggests our stewards of the airwaves no longer consider classical music worthy of their public mission -- or at least not as worthy as an all-talk format.

This is a cultural about-face worth marking. Once upon a time and long ago, bringing classical music to the airwaves was an image-enhancing operation, a programming decision, in the words of music historian Russell Sanjek, to "win over the custodians of public taste and appease the Federal Communications Commission." These days, it's bad taste even to mention public taste, and the FCC is appeased just by keeping a wardrobe functioning. But in the pre-television era, radio networks didn't just spin classical disks; they routinely featured live symphony orchestras -- "partly for the sake of prestige, partly to convince the people who wanted radio to be more educational that the radio companies themselves were hot for culture," as social historian Frederick Lewis Allen put it.

The effect, Allen wrote, was unprecedented gains in the public's appreciation of classical music, the high-water of which probably came in 1937 when NBC sent a representative to Milan, Italy, to invite Arturo Toscanini to lead a new radio orchestra. And not just any radio orchestra. As music historian Sanjek wrote, NBC "(raided) European and American orchestras to obtain the best first-chair players." Another airwave institution was The NBC Music Appreciation Hour, a show produced between 1928 and 1942 that was heard by as many as 7 million children in some 70,000 schools every week -- "children" who likely make up a sizable chunk of today's aging symphony-going audience.

With the advent of television, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein took up the educational baton, producing 53 installments of "Young People's Concerts." As one chronicler noted, however, "his 'young people' have not musically inculcated their young." Nor have they considered it important to do so. MTV culture aside, the fringe status of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms shouldn't surprise a society that always chooses to teach, say, recycling education over music appreciation. Sure, our kids will know how to dispose of old records and CDs, but they'll never know what's on them. After all, the less you hear, the less you hear. Call it decline, call it a trend -- but don't call it stewardship. Because what the classical fade-out tells us more than anything is that the "custodians of public taste" have left the building.

News, traffic and weather, anyone?