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.
The 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.