Saturday, June 14, 2008

Back to the Classics

"If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."

Like many others in Miami I grieved over the loss of WTMI, our only classical radio station, when it got sold and transformed into something ugly back in 2006. There was a glimmer of hope afterwards when someone tried to transform an AM news station into a classical music one, but this was doomed to fail. Few of the advertisers who had kept TMI afloat were interested in the wasteland of the AM dial, and the poor sound quality of AM was one of the reasons for inventing FM in the first place--not to mention stereo.

I'm old enough to remember our first classical station, WVCG, "The Voice of Coral Gables," that dates back to the 1950's. That's where my parents whiled away Sunday afternoons with the Metropolitan Opera, and where our family launched into mornings with the program deliciously titled "Burnt Toast and Coffee." Quite likely my lifelong addiction to caffeine can be traced back to this childhood first impression.

WVCG abandoned the classical format in 1967, though I have to say I didn't notice because I was too caught up with rock and folk at the time. Hey, it was the sixties. There was a 4-year hiatus until WTMI started up in 1971, just in time to feed my renewed interest in building my own collection of classical recordings.

For 30 years they served us faithfully, even as cities like Chicago and New York lost their classical stations. The program quality was always excellent, with the hosts dishing up as much information as music and serving as a resource both educational and entertaining. The format focused on complete works instead of fragments -- you were more likely to get the full symphony instead of just the adagio, which would leave the knowledgeable listener waiting for a climax that never came.

WTMI was also the home of Alan Corbett, who added his own light touch as a DJ. Following a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Night on Bald Mountain for example, he once came on to announce, "That was Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra" -- but in the voice of Mickey Mouse, a nod to its appearance in Disney's Fantasia. "Thank you, Mickey," he then added in his own voice.

Alas, Corbett is no longer with us, nor is WTMI, which was sold in 2006 and converted first to a pulverizing techno-rap format, then Caribbean, and now, with new call letters, "black talk." Talk about an identity crisis!

But this time we only had to wait less than two years for a replacement, thanks to the good people of American Public Media, who also bring us things like A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio.

Classical South Florida is on the air as WKCP 89.7 FM in Miami and on a repeater station at 101.9 in West Palm Beach, not to mention 24/7 streaming on their website. Which brings up an interesting question: Now that we are consuming our music through the Internet and carrying it around with us in matchbook-sized iPods, is radio still relevant? Even the old network of shortwave broadcasts, which used to be the only way to get a world-wide audience, is being dismantled because the Web offers greater availability, higher reliability, and better sound quality.

I used to have a shortwave receiver myself, and would while away hours on it, laboriously fine-tuning to pick a station out of the radio noise, and getting a kick from hearing the BBC, Radio Moscow, and Middle-Eastern music from Turkey. But that radio died years ago, and I haven't missed it. Online you can tune in anything from anywhere at any time.

As I write this I'm listening to a recent live performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony by the Minnesota Orchestra, which was readily available by browsing the archive of past broadcasts. The sound is great in 128-bit MP3 format, which is Linux and Mac-friendly, and I had the chance to hear it when I had a block of time available, rather than being a slave to a radio schedule. I can even pause it or hear it again if I want to.

So the answer to the question is, first of all, that radio has become more than it used to be. A "station" is no longer just a spot on the local dial, but a nexus of connections on the web of the Internet--connections between performers, listeners, sponsors, venues, reviewers--and not just local ones but national, international, global. The station can offer content of its own, too, such as live broadcasts not available elsewhere. As radio, like TV, goes digital, a single station can even broadcast multiple program streams at the same time.

And second, call me old fashioned perhaps, but as much as I like to manage my own music library and choose what to listen to and when, there is still a place for a steady background stream of news and music, a soundtrack for our lives in which we have a chance to discover something new and unfamiliar as well as old favorites.

I can pull my van onto the road and punch a button. One says "talk to me," and WLRN and National Public Radio let me know the news and tell me what it means. Another says, "I feel jazzy," and WDNA, the local affiliate of Public Radio International feeds me a diet of jazz by those I know and those I do not yet know, with BBC news on the hour.

And the newest addition says, "play me something beautiful, I don't care what," and in the words of Shakespeare that they are so fond of quoting on the air,

"Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony."

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