Thursday, February 4, 2010

Their ears should be burning

Robert J. Lurtsema must be spinning in his grave.
Somehow the angry howl of classical music lovers who found all their favorite programming dumped by the radio station they supported with years of tax-deductible donations hasn’t reached the tin ears of the WGBH’s corporate managers. Maybe they need an HD outrage receiver to hear what the station’s loyal, dues-members have been saying about their format change.
Over four hundred people attended a forum last month on the question “What Can We do for Classical Music Radio in Boston?” The answer almost everyone who packed the pews of the Old South Church would offer is "put it back on GBH!" Boston’s oldest public radio station dumped its music programming last month in favor of a news and talk format that mimics but falls short of WBUR’s. If you want non-stop news and talk, there are plenty of places to go. If you want classical music you must now – by fiat of GBH’s management – go to WCRB.
Only you probably can’t, because CRB’s signal (beamed from Lowell) is too weak to be heard in much of Boston, the entire South Shore, and all points beyond – wiping out classical radio for thousands of households where GBH’s famously strong signal is a New England treasure. Holy Fathers in Taunton found themselves excommunicated by GBH. Disabled seniors in Auburndale were deprived of the daily companionship of the music which speaks to their souls.
Classical music lovers, many of whom have listened to the station’s first-rate programming since Lurtsema began Morning Pro Musica in 1971 (or longer) discovered that their so-called “membership” in GBH meant nothing. As “members” we made annual contributions to the station’s upkeep. But management failed to consider our interests or consult our opinions when it decided to banish classical to CRB’s radio signal Siberia.
Many such listeners – or former listeners – packed the Old South Church forum, and about three-quarters of the house raised our hands when asked how many of us could not receive CRB’s signal. Listeners told GBH’s radio general manager John Voci (a forum panelist) that his station has forgotten both its mission and its identity. GBH’s management, they pointed out, was now using Arbitron ratings to justify its program decisions just like any commercial station. A woman from Roslindale who told Voci she felt “abandoned” by GBH drew little comfort from his advice that she could listen to the station’s stream on computer. She didn’t have a computer.
Even those who can tune in CRB aren’t happy with what they’re hearing. The new non-commercial CRB is too much like the old commercial CRB, playing single movements of symphonies, relying on a narrow playlist of classical’s top 50, and dropping the live in-studio performances by talented, young, otherwise seldom heard performers that GBH’s new, expensive, completely unnecessary studio was supposed to be for.
GBH’s seven-hours-a-day classical programming was educational, listeners said, it was a service, it furthered Boston’s vibrant musical culture, it was a daily presence in thousands of households. The station’s news and information mission was more than adequately carried out by its morning news show, its drive-time All Things Considered and The World shows. Why, GBH members wanted to know, did the station have to cut out its heart?
Adding insult to injury, the spin GBH puts on this cruelest cut drives listeners like myself positively over the edge. The station’s happy talk promos keep bragging that GBH has “saved” Boston’s only all-classical station by purchasing CRB. To classical music lovers that’s like firebombing Boston to save Nut Island. Then they ask us for money.
Voci let drop the real reason for the change when he dismissed an appeal for just a little bitty taste of classical on GBH. “It’s a business,” he responded. Well, no, it’s a nonprofit educational organization. Businesses don’t ask people to donate their money. A station determined to operate like a commercial, for-profit radio station has no right to its non-profit status and no reason to be considered a “public” station at all.
I’m afraid that what Mr. Vocci is really saying is that classical music fans are old and will only get older and that as soon as they’re out of the picture altogether in GBH’s business plan the better things will be for the bottom line. But I wonder if management has calculated on a rapid withdrawal of support by a core membership.
My wife tore up her membership card and mailed it back to GBH with a suitably scathing letter of resignation. Maybe if other listeners withhold all contributions until classical music comes back to GBH, management will figure out how to tune us in.