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WQXR, Fading Away

October 14, 2009
New York, N.Y.

I grew up in an area of New Jersey where it was simply unacceptable to listen to classical music. There were no concert opportunities, of course, and anyone caught buying a classical LP was subjected to ridicule and ostracism. Fortunately, we were within range of three radio stations in New York City that played classical music — WNCN, WQXR, and WNYC-FM — plus college stations that frequently indulged, such as WKCR ("King's Crown Radio"), the radio station of Columbia University.

I don't know what I would have done in my teenage years without these stations. Radio provided a way to explore classical music in private — or rather, in the anonymous company of friendly and intelligent DJs who obviously knew and loved the music.

These days, the cultural hegemony of commercial pop music is more dominant than ever, and even in New York City, classical music stations are fading away.

WNCN had a rocky history beginning in the mid-1970s, changing formats and call letters and changing formats back again. But whatever was left after all that turmoil has been gone since 1993. Seven years later, in a move that stunned and shocked the city, WNYC-FM abandoned most of its daytime classical music programming.

That left WQXR, a commerical radio station owned by the New York Times. The Times affiliation had some advantages — nice news breaks at the top of the hour — and being commercial involved some weirdness — including advertisements with rock-music soundtracks — but on the whole WQXR was a much beloved part of New York City.

Beloved but apparently not a money-making operation, WQXR was recently sold by the New York Times. For the past six days, WQXR has been a listener-supported radio station run by WNYC. It's still playing classical music, fortunately, and even some of the DJs made the transition, but we're all a little nervous.

The first problem is WNYC's ownership. After what they did to WNYC-FM nine years ago, I don't think anybody trusts them to maintain WQXR as a classical radio station. Spokespeople seem upbeat about the long-term prospects, but I simply can't share that optimism.

Much worse is a part of the deal that involved station swaps. WQXR no longer broadcasts a 6,000-watt signal at 96.3 but is now stuck with a 600-watt signal at 105.9. It's actually not quite as bad as it sounds — the signal strength is proportional to the square root of the wattage rather than the wattage itself — but it's still significant: Ever since WQXR moved to 105.9, the signal has been 1/3 its previous strength — audibly weaker and noisier and virtually unlistenable.

I no longer rely on radio stations as my sole source of classical music, of course, and at home there are alternatives to conventional FM broadcasts, such as online streaming at wqxr.org (formerly wqxr.com). But listening to WQXR in our car has become quite unpleasant, and what scares me most is the overall trend pushing classical music further and further to the peripheries of our culture.

New York City no longer has even one classical radio station. It's now closer to 1/3 of a radio station.


Comments:

On the bright side, there are far, far fewer advertisements, so the only way to support the station is by direct donation. If enough people donate AND complain about signal strength, we can get things done.

I don't know what the alternative is. :-/

Lord Omlette, Wed, 14 Oct 2009 14:13:25 -0400

I'm not sure I quite like the idea of helping buy WQXR a new transmitter... — Charles

On the other hand, the music that remains available is far superior to other places I've lived. Most public radio stations around the country have a very narrow definition of "classical." As far as I can tell, the standard format goes something like:

* compositions from 1700-1925. (with exceptions made for a few who outlived their era, like Strauss)

* almost entirely orchestra, keyboard, or string-heavy chamber ensemble. (choral music is confined to Sunday mornings; opera to Met broadcasts; works for brass, wind ensemble, or percussion to the dustbin)

* absurdly heavy emphasis on random birth/death anniversaries (to the detriment of anyone listening for more than 20 minutes at a time)

* little or no thematic connection within the programming

* less informative DJs than you'd get from merely skimming the liner notes, much less giving a poor musicology grad student a much needed job :)

I wasn't here for the apparent heyday of WNYC, but I can't get enough of Terrance McKnight & company. They'll be sorely missed if I ever leave.

Richard Berg, Wed, 14 Oct 2009 15:07:25 -0400

I don't know which part of New Jersey you were in, or when, so I can't totally relate to what you are refering to as far as the available Classical Music. I had maintained a presence there (in New Jersey) in the 50's through the 60's, in the 'Wild Mountains of the North West' in New Jersey. I remember some excellent stations operating out of Penn. One of which was private if I remember correctly. I often wonder if it still exists. It being the 60's I also listened to WNEW, which at the time was playing some radical new Music now labled "Classic Rock". It wasn't at the time however. It was, in fact, one of the main sources of information for what was to be the "Woodstock Music and Art Fair", that at the time no one knew if anyone would even show-up. Of course History teaches us otherwise. And as well the Power of Radio.

I now live in Germany, and there is no shortage of Classical Music here. In fact one could probably listen 24 hours a day. And that is with a strong and broad variety at that.

There is always the www. for those with a Broad Band connection. Then the whole World of Music is available. -d

D. Taylor (dawgit), Wed, 14 Oct 2009 18:02:53 -0400

I grew up in NYC and later, Rockland County, NY. WQXR was as friendly a sound as one could imaging. Likewise, WRVR with the legendary Ed Beech playing the best jazz on the planet.

What's become of this world?

Peter Bromberg, Thu, 15 Oct 2009 20:33:48 -0400

> What's become of this world?

I think it's called something like "adult contemporary." — Charles

I got used to Music Through the Night (http://classical24.publicradio.org) when WETA used the overnight part of that service. Ironically, WETA then went all-classical and dropped the service. Music Through the Night (and, presumably, the rest of the day) has the finest selections I've had the pleasure of listening to, and the hosts are informative and interesting. Real people.

Now, WETA plays "popular" classical stuff, with lots of that pre-Beethoven "music" some people seem to like. I no longer listen.

But the issue, surely, is more a question of What is radio in our lives, don't you think?

Michael Broschat, Fri, 16 Oct 2009 07:58:54 -0400

A tip for listeners in the NYC-North Jersey-Central Jersey area who are having difficulty hearing WQXR on its new frequency: I grew up in North Jersey, now live in Seattle. I have a little pocket radio called a Grundig G8, $50. at Radio Shack; it's very good at picking up FM stations 50-75 miles away. I'm visiting my father-in-law in Central Jersey, 55 miles from Times Square, and WQXR and WNYC-FM both come in clear as a bell on this radio, in stereo with headphones, as well as numerous other NYC, Phila., and NJ stations. AM and shortwave are good, too, but better in outer suburbs or rural areas than in the city.

Keith Beesley, Fri, 30 Oct 2009 18:24:03 -0400

I was born and raised in NYC, and fondly remember listening to WQXR, WNCN, and WNYC - along with WABC ("Cousin Brucie!"), WMCA ("Good Guys!") and "10-10 WINS New York". Yes, that was quite awhile ago.

Thanks to the miracle of internet streaming, I had already realized WNCN was gone sometime in the last decade, but WQXR still seemed to be holding its own. So I was quite shocked to see WQXR now listed as "105.9" and not 96.3 on the dial, even in an internet search. I looked around for a "what happened?" discussion, and found this website. Given the NY Times' financial issues, I can see how they might no longer be able to support WQXR if it were in the red, but it is rather unimaginable to me at least for NYC - one of the global classical music capitals - to be potentially w/o a full-time classical station in the not-to-distant future.

I now live in Toronto, where something similar happened last year to CBC 2 (the "Classical" CBC station, at least by day; CBC 1 tends to be "News / talk" and also **mono**). There seemed to have been a desire for CBC 2 to reach out to a "broader" audience, so key parts of the day - the "morning show" from 6 until 9 and the "afternoon show" from 3 until 6 - are now mixed formats more reminiscent to me of college stations than the old CBC 2 which I had happily listened to for nearly 2 decades.

Fortunately, CBC streams both CBC 2 (as well as CBC 1) 24 hours per day over the internet (and via iTunes). There is also CBC 3 (Canadian / Alternative), various podcasts, and "on demand" feeds available as well. But the CBC is government supported, paid for by the entire country - and even it couldn't stay all-Classical by day.

I would therefore say that with the competition of internet radio, satellite radio, other US streams (like WBGH Boston), and even the availability of CBC 2 and other global classical sources, WQXR would seem to be facing something of a real challenge. Too bad it wasn't possible for the NY Times to provide WQXR as a "classical radio superstation feed" to cable companies nationwide, just as WTBS (Atlanta), WGN (Chicago), and even WPIX (NYC) became cable television superstations a while back. (Yes, whenever I am in Calgary, Alberta, I can watch Connie Chung deliver news at 10PM ET - just like when I lived in North Jersey in the '80s.)

Perhaps instead WNYC can do a "CBC 1 / CBC 2" split - use the original WNYC as the "News/Talk" station (and alternative music), and WQXR as the "mostly Classical" station. But I will also remind you that as the Jazz capital of the USA, it's been a long time since there has been a commercial Jazz station in NYC either, even part-time ("Smooth" stations don't count). Jazz instead had to move to the end of the dial and go the "listener supported" model; so perhaps the real surprise is that WQXR held out as long as it did. Still, no matter what happens, I wish WQXR and its listeners all the best; and I will continue to listen over the internet.

Chuck Hamilton, Sat, 7 Nov 2009 19:21:37 -0500

Out here on Long Island I feel as if we have been abandoned culturally. I was once able to rely on WNYC, WNCN, WQXR and WSHU for classical music -- recorded and live. Now there is only the poor reception for WQXR and WSHU. And for some of us who live in poor locations (apartment houses without access to rooftop antennas) there isn't even that. How is it that a metropolitan area of 8 to 11 million people there isn't ONE good access to both live and recorded music? we ARE truly living in a wasteland.

Myron Sywak, Mon, 9 Nov 2009 20:11:51 -0500

I remember reading that WQXR is also carried on an HD channel via the WNYC FM signal, but depending on the power of this subchannel, it might not be easy to hear around the NY Metro area, much as seems to be the case for the 105.9 signal. I wonder if there is a more powerful FM that has an HD channel that WOULD be listenable throughout the old WQXR coverage area which could be leased. Or find another FM channel to get a big signal onto. Classical radio in the US has indeed taken a serious hit ever since NPR beefed up its news output and stations found out that if they put more of that on, they got far more pledge dollars. Jazz is no different.

What I do, given the Internet, is use a small micropower FM radio transmitter to rebroadcast whatever I tune into on my laptop at home, and I can hear the programming on all my FM radios. I started doing this when listening to the 'old' CBC Radio 2, but have expanded into other stations from around the world. CBC Radio 2 also left classical behind after broadcasting it in very creative ways for years and years. I wish the WQXR audience well, but that 105.9 signal has to get a boost back up to 6kw, and possibly put onto satellite radio with good audio. Good luck.

— Patrick, Tue, 10 Nov 2009 17:16:25 -0500

Dear classical music lovers

I happen to live in Zurich, Switzerland, where the cable brings me classical stations from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and more. The technology and quality are generally tops, so there is nothing to complain about.

Still, I used to enjoy some of the classical stations in Mass and the Boston, NY, Philadelphia area generally, and although most of these stations died off in the past few decades, we got internet radio in return, and some of it was OK. For the past few years I have enjoyed WQXR, but that is close to over, with very low quality streaming ruining the efforts expended on programming. What to do?

One option is to try some of the better European stations which generally stream at 80-160 kb/s, have few if any ads, and very rich programming. Try the following links:

Bayern Radio 4 (THE Classical Station, Munich, Germany: solid, getting more lively, with some adventurous programming from time to time)

http://www.br-online.de/br/jsp/seitentyp/liveStreamFenster.jsp?welle=bayern4klassik

France Musique (THE Classical Station, France: very lively programming, with some chatting by generally very clear and pleasant voices. Understanding french helps, but even if you do not, this is a thoroughly enjoyable station)

http://players.tv-radio.com/radiofrance/playerfrancemusique.php

BBC Radio 3 (THE Classical station, UK: good)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/radio3/

Radio 4, Netherlands (Dutch Classical station)

http://radioplayer.omroep.nl/radio4-theme-het-beste-van-het-beste/flash/radioplayer.html

DR Programs (Danish Radio, with 4 major broadcasts; and 20 or more programming options. Start with P2 to select the classical stream)

http://www.dr.dk/radio/

Click on "LYT TIL P2, which brings up the player menu, and select "Høj" to get the highest quality stream

I hope you enjoy the programming...

Bernard Witholt, Thu, 19 Nov 2009 07:08:07 -0500

Thanks for the information!

Have you figured out how to listen to these stations in the car? — Charles


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