It's the Stupidity, Stupid

What the demotion of classical station WQXR to 600 watts means for civilization

Photo: The New York Times/Redux

Artists and Engineers joined forces at WQXR, including pianist Jascha Zayde [left] and sound-man Robert Cobaugh [right].

This is an extended version of the "Spectral Lines" column that appeared in the November, 2009 print issue

On 8 October, the storied classical music radio station WQXR, in New York City, ceased operation as a powerful commercial station and become a public radio station on the fringes of the FM dial. Another predictable step in the inexorable collapse of classical music as a viable entertainment medium? Yes, but also something more than that. All over the world—in Hollywood, in Paris, in Rome, in Mumbai—fatuousness is on the march. This is an important milestone.

WQXR was the first—and the last—commercial classical music station in the New York City area. The station was sold as part of a three-way, US $45 million deal that sent WQXR’s coveted slot on the FM dial and its powerful transmitter to a Spanish-language station, and its venerable call letters to the public radio stations of WNYC. Since the October changeover, 6000 glorious watts have been pumping pointless shouting, cheesy sound effects, and frenetic salsa music into the ether at 96.3 FM in the New York City area, while Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky have been making do with only 600 W at 105.9.

rebel in radioThe deal barely made news this past July, when it was announced. Perfunctory articles in The New York Times and The Boston Globe emphasized that classical music would survive on the FM dial: ”…the transaction ensures that New York City—so often pointed to by its culturati as a music capital—will have at least one classical outlet,” said the Times story. Both those newspapers are the property of The New York Times Co., which also owned WQXR. The New Yorker magazine, which might have been expected to wax wistful, became puzzlingly technical instead: It published a little meandering story about the transmitter switchover. Even the city’s classical music lovers couldn’t find much to get exercised about. After all, the station will live on, albeit with a less desirable dial position, a different studio and transmitter, and 5400 fewer watts than it had previously—along with, of course, a new dependence on the largess of the ”culturati.”

Here’s what no one has bothered to mention: A precious and unique piece of radio’s technology history—and of cultural history—is being lost. If you care to know them, the details are in a neat little book titled Rebel in Radio: The Story of WQXR , by Elliott M. Sanger (Hastings House, 1973).

Sanger’s book is a brisk and well-written glimpse of radio’s golden age, and of a remarkable time when technological innovation was reshaping mass media. Not incidentally, it was also a time when people who weren’t fond of higher forms of culture didn’t seem to be proud of that aversion. You didn’t have to feel self-conscious about loving classical music, or Impressionism, or cosmology.

Every technological form of mass media—motion pictures, radio, television, the Internet—was initially cheered by optimistic dreamers who saw in the new medium fantastic opportunities to bring humankind’s great cultural achievements to the masses. With precious few exceptions, those hopes have always been quickly dashed.

For 73 years, WQXR was one of those exceptions. It was founded in 1936 by a partnership between Sanger and John V.L. Hogan, an electrical engineer and music lover who had been a protégé of two of the greatest engineers of that era: Reginald A. Fessenden and Lee De Forest. In the 1930s, Hogan, who had made a name for himself years before by inventing a radio set that could be tuned with a single dial, was working on a form of mechanical television and operating an experimental radio station, W2XR, over a garage in Long Island City (the XR stood for ”experimental radio”). Hogan, who was a Fellow of both the IEEE’s predecessor societies—the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers—received the IRE’s Medal of Honor in 1956 for his achievements in the field of radio and for his role as a founder of the IRE.

In the fall of 1935, over dinner in Brooklyn, Hogan and Sanger became seized with the notion of turning Hogan’s little 250-W station into a more powerful commercial operation unlike any other then on the air. Commercial radio in those days was a mix of mostly lowbrow humor, melodrama, and forgettable music.

Hogan and Sanger had a pretty radical idea: to operate a station that would play good music and turn away tasteless advertising. People thought they were crazy. In an article a few years later in Harper’s magazine, Hogan was quoted as saying, ”We assume the radio audience to be an intelligent and cultured person”—to which the article’s author, Henry F. Pringle, added: ”It is an assumption which would qualify Mr. Hogan for a lunatic asylum in the minds of nearly all other radio company officials.”

They received their commercial license in December 1936, and W2XR became WQXR. It took them seven years to turn a profit. Sanger later recalled that Hogan was so devoted to the station and the idea it represented that when there wasn’t enough money to meet the payroll, he made up the difference from his personal savings.

With its emphasis on the listening experience, and with the tech-savvy Hogan as its initial majority owner (the Times bought the station in 1944), WQXR soon became a hotbed not only of culture but also of technological innovation. Hogan left few avenues unexplored in his quest to provide the highest possible fidelity. On 18 July 1939, the WQXR studio was the source of the first regularly scheduled broadcast in frequency modulation (FM), arranged by radio pioneer Edwin H. Armstrong. Some years later, when the station was simulcasting on both AM and FM, it encouraged listeners to tune a radio to each of the two broadcasts and then position each of the radios on opposite sides of a room. It was a remarkable, pathbreaking attempt at what would later be called stereo broadcasting. At its height, WQXR was a network of stations beaming as many as 50 000 W into radios as far away as Washington, D.C., and southern Canada.

In its programming, WQXR favored heavy classical, light classical, and the occasional worthy show tune. But the station’s early daring and fizzy intellectual ferment were also evident in on-air experiments that ranged from the ponderous to the wacky. At various times there was a nightly poetry show or a show where inventors demonstrated their inventions to businessmen or manufacturers, who assessed their merits and flaws. One summer, the Yankees sponsored a program that aired classical music while they were playing their games. Between the musical selections, baseball scores were announced. Among the people who got their start as hosts on WQXR were Alistair Cooke, Norman Corwin, and Bennett Cerf, who hosted a patriotic World War II–era show called ”Books Are Bullets.”

That such freewheeling cultural experimentation could occur on a commercial station is astonishing when seen from today’s media landscape, which is dominated by conglomerates fixated for financial reasons on appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Sanger casually mentions that classical music made up 20 percent of record sales in the mid-1960s and bemoans that the percentage had since slipped by the time he began writing his book in the early 1970s. Sanger, who died in 1989, would have been really unhappy about the trend since then: In the United States, classical music now accounts for less than 1 percent of record sales, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

When I became interested in classical music 30 years ago as an adolescent in the New York suburbs, there were two thriving 24-hour-a-day commercial classical stations on the FM dial: WNCN at 104.3 and WQXR at 96.3 (WNCN signed off as a classical station in 1994). Later, as a young journalist, I would often hear WQXR playing softly after hours in the pasteup rooms of the publications I worked for, a stimulating and yet soothing influence as we staggered though another hectic closing.

Today there are alternatives for the classical music fan, including continuous programming delivered by satellite and cable. And for those who have put their computer and their audio amplifier next to each other, there are a panoply of Internet-based options, such as personalized radio services like Pandora and the streaming Internet simulcasts that virtually every radio station now offers.

But none of them can substitute for a well-run classical music station with knowledgeable hosts and robust ties to the local scene. So I’ll hope for the best. WNYC has pledged to keep WQXR’s all-music format, augmenting it with progressive programming of its own. I’ll keep listening. What other choice do I have?

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