Monday, September 23, 2013

Music, sustainability, and public radio

    Although we had little down-time at the cultural sustainability conference, early in the mornings before breakfast I listened to Vermont Public Radio, broadcasting NPR’s ubiquitous news program, Morning Edition. One of the flashpoints for music’s sustainability is its future on US public radio--what used to be called noncommercial radio, and now should be called brief commercial radio based on those 3-sentence announcements naming corporate underwriters, what they do, and how to contact them. Whereas music programming, particularly classical music, once dominated public radio, in the new millennium it’s gradually lost its hold, to the point that today most public radio stations broadcast news and talk shows over the air, having moved classical music to the Internet or to broadcast channels that conventional radios cannot receive. I've blogged here before about classical music's future, on radio and elsewhere. Meanwhile, music of many kinds still can be heard on several low-power, local community radio stations.
    In New England, I date the public radio all-talk trend from the 1990s, the decade when Boston-area WBUR-FM gradually removed music from prime time to its peripheral schedule, late at night and on weekends. In 1997, despite much protest, WBUR dropped music programming entirely, in favor of news and talk shows. WBUR’s award-winning and highly popular late night jazz show, hosted by Tony Cennamo, was among the programs eliminated. Boston’s WGBH-FM still provided much music programming, including the paradigmatic Morning Pro Musica, hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema, aired also by many other stations in New England, including Maine Public Radio. But in the new millennium, after the charismatic Lurtsema died in 2000, WGBH-FM also pushed music gradually to the side, and today it too is all-talk, all the time. What of Vermont?
    I didn’t hear enough public radio in Vermont to get an impression, but after returning to Maine I looked up its programming schedule. Not to my surprise, I found that Vermont had followed the trend, and was programming news and information almost exclusively. What did surprise me was that in some of the on-line articles I read about how Vermont made that transition, the man behind the trend was identified as Vermont Public Radio’s Mark Vogelsang. In 2012, Vogelsang left Vermont to become head of Maine Public Radio. Would Maine now follow Vermont? Most likely.
    Since Vogelsang took over, peripheral blocks once reserved for music have been replaced by talk shows. The 11 p.m. hour, once a haven for soothing music (“Echoes,” with John DiLiberto), is now punctuated by the noisy drumming that introduces segments of On Point, produced, incidentally, by WBUR, but on air there in the mornings when the drum-banging is a little less annoying. Maine weekend early mornings, once given over to classical music, now feature information shows: On Being, Living on Earth, Only a Game, and Bob Edwards Weekend. These shows do have their merits, but to music listeners, airing them on early weekend mornings is especially galling, as the classical music host, Jennifer Mitchell, used to start with Robert J. Lurtsema’s signature show-opener, a dawn-chorus of bird sounds, appropriate at that early hour—although not as rewarding as the real thing one could hear through an open window.
    Another ominous sign was the departure, last month, of Maine Public Radio’s morning classical music host, Suzanne Nance, for a position at a commercial, all-classical music station in Chicago. Morning classical music remains from 9 to noon on Maine Public Radio, but now with rotating local hosts while the station says it’s undertaking a national search for a replacement. Maine is the New England morning classical music holdout. If and when it goes, it will join Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, none of whose public radio networks broadcast classical music in the morning (or, for the most part, anytime else day or night).
    A word about Suzanne Nance is in order. For several years she not only hosted the morning program but also was a strong, public voice for classical music live performance in Maine. Herself a singer, she could be heard in concerts in Portland and elsewhere in the state; importantly, she hosted on her program visiting composers, conductors, soloists and chamber groups for a half hour, on average one day a week; and besides talking about their upcoming concerts in the state they sometimes played live music on her show. Not everyone liked her enthusiastic, up-front personality; and some thought she didn’t program enough music from before 1800; but no one doubted that her presence boosted classical music in Maine. Thus, her departure as radio host is an even greater loss for classical music in the state.
    By chance, a little after returning to Maine from Vermont, I met someone who until earlier this year had worked for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. I asked about Suzanne Nance’s departure. “Well,” the answer came, “I shouldn’t talk out of school. But since I am out of school, I will.” Having left the job at MPBN, the person (who will remain nameless here) told me that Suzanne “read the tea leaves and decided that she ought to move on. She’d been looking for another position, and when this came along, she decided to go.” I asked if this was a career move up for her. “More of a lateral move,” was the reply. “What did she see in the tea leaves?” I asked. “The new head, Vogelsang, wants to make it all news and talk radio. That’s what he did in Vermont. You can see he’s gradually doing it already.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve noticed.”
    What prompts this blog entry is that Vogelsang himself spoke for nearly an hour today, on MPBN, in response to listeners’ questions. He confirmed that his plan for Maine Public Radio was to move towards two separate stations, one for news and information, and the other for classical music. Of course, this means no jazz, no folk music, no popular music; it means the end on Maine radio for shows like A Prairie Home Companion, for years arguably the largest fund-raiser for public radio; it means the end for other staples that the Maine audience likes, such as alternative music and singer-songwriters; and it’s already the end for shows like American Routes, hosted by folklorist Nick Spitzer out of New Orleans, which went off the MPBN air last spring.
    These programming changes are cause for a measured lament, and the lament goes beyond music programming on public radio: it is a lament for a generation and a way of life that included listening to music on radio, particularly classical music; it is a recognition of the passing of a segment of a generation for whom classical music on radio represented more than merely music, but also a set of values, values increasingly out of step in a contemporary, diverse global society. Vogelsang dropped the statistic that most people under 30 don’t even own radios, and don’t listen to them except perhaps in their automobiles; and we are hearing that this young generation doesn’t own nearly as many cars as past generations did. The automobile, once the symbol of freedom, is being replaced by the smartphone, the symbol of connectedness. Culture is rapidly changing; those who wish to address questions of musical sustainability will need to look elsewhere besides public radio.
    Radio executives like Vogelsang are consumed with other survival issues, not least the survival of public radio itself, as it moves in the digital direction and its Internet presence becomes more important than over-the-air. All programs need to be available on the Internet, he said; that will become our primary means of delivery. When news breaks, should it go immediately on the public radio website, or do we wait until it’s broadcast and only then put it on the website? This is the kind of nuts and bolts question that radio and television executives think about, not what they will do with their music programming. They already know the answer to that one. And when pressed on it, as he was by at least one listener this afternoon, Vogelsang said it wasn't going away: classical music would be available 24/7 on another MPBN station, as it is on the Internet right now. (MPBN streams it from its website.) And after all, music of all kinds is available elsewhere on the Internet. Indeed, with Internet services like Pandora and Spotify and now Apple’s iRadio along with iTunes, the under-30 generation is able to hear the artists and individual music tracks they want there. Most won't realize what they are missing: voices like Suzanne Nance’s, which helped sustain the live classical music performance community in the state of Maine, for example; or the history and biography and other context that once came in the liner or brochure notes that accompanied a record album or CD, now replaced by "album art."
    Measured lament behind us, the transition to news and talk on Maine Public Radio offers the chance for MPBN to become a conduit for civic dialogue in the state. Vogelsang understands this, and has initiated programs like Maine Calling, now expanded in prime time, the noon hour, to four days a week. People are invited to call in from all areas of the state to discuss issues of local, regional, and national importance. This was the show he appeared on today, and I was one of the callers. Rather than prolong the lament, I decided to focus on the possibility of a future in which MPBN became more of what local community radio in this area already is, on WERU-FM, a “voice of many voices.” I suggested they make an effort to get out of their regional news focus on Portland, Augusta, and Bangor (the three major Maine cities) and get their news and information teams out across the state to find out what is going on in the Maine forests, the blueberry lands, the fisheries, and rural life all over Maine. I suggested that there be more working-class voices heard on air (and Internet), adding that it could increase their contributor base enormously. (Vogelsang asked me, “How do you do that?” One answer: get those news teams out into the whole state, talk to the people, and record their voices.)
    The future of classical music on public radio—let alone the future of music on radio—let alone the future of radio itself—is debated within a larger context that involves globalization, unprecedented connectedness and decreasing privacy, changes in media and transformations in daily life and experience. In this discussion, sustainability cannot simply mean preservation of an older set of experiences--that is impossible--but, rather, reassessment, continuity, and possibilities previously unrealizeable.


  1. How Dickensianly odd that his name is Vogelsang.
    Bird song.
    Robert J is turning over in his grave.
    I miss waking up to him each morning.

  2. Indeed. And Robert J was an acrobat, among other things.

    1. Well, and word on the street has it that Ray L. Birdwhistell's father was an ornithologist -- an instance of what folklorist Amy Shuman calls "overdetermination!"