Sunday, November 15, 2009


Yes, even I know there is a hip-hop artist in Los Angeles by that name, but this story isn’t about him, in spite of the picture below. Sorry, fans.

This past summer we learned about the New York Times selling their well-respected classical music radio station WQXR to Univision. Off the air went a powerful transmitter at 96.3 on the dial, to move far to the right, to 105.9 and to a much weaker signal. The station’s AM transmitter had been leased to Disney a decade prior. Most listeners prefer looking for stations in the mid-range of the dial so fewer people searching for serious content will accidentally tune into the station. Also, the coverage of the new transmitter is about half the area of the old one. Naturally, this doesn’t translate into half the listeners because population gets denser near Manhattan, but the drop is significant nonetheless.

When I first arrived here as a student in the late sixties, there were numerous stations offering classical fare on both coasts where I lived. FM radio was still rather new and most people depended on AM, along with their eight-track. The combination of the latter two was standard equipment in most cars. People were not demanding high fidelity. FM or UKW (Ultrakurzwellen) had become popular in Germany which had severe restriction with a possible propaganda weapon as a result of their defeat in the war. They were forced to go in the direction of frequency modulation, to the delight of music fans. The Soviet Union didn’t want Finland to have AM stations of any significance and thus my home country was in the “ULA” ( Finnish for ultra short wave) camp early on. We had only one powerful long wave station situated in Lahti, operating until 1993, and very weak AM transmitters in a couple cities, with instructions to dampen their transmissions toward Karelia and Leningrad in the east and Estonia in the south. The Soviet FM system used a different spectrum so their radios couldn’t pick up Finnish stations without illegal modifications. Even when the Finns obeyed the restriction, the Russians would transmit static on the same AM frequencies, to prevent their population from being “corrupted”.

The other morning I was driving our daughter to her school near the Seattle Center. I was taking a different route from the usual and passed a boarded-up business at a street corner. There were big signs saying the that space was for lease. Something about the location seemed familiar and on my way back I drove around that block again. Sure enough, one could see the text “KING-FM” over the plywood. At some point, this station had been a source of pride for the city, operating from the top floor of the big KING-5 building on Dexter Avenue. Later it was given to a non-profit group which in turn was linked to some of the local arts organizations. Frankly, I had forgotten about the existence of said station, as it mainly broadcasted musical wallpaper or mediocre recordings of local groups ad nauseam. My car has twelve presets for FM and it hasn’t been one of them for a long time. I did some digging on the web and indeed the station has been hit by the same economy that is affecting most of us. Jobs have been terminated and obviously the station itself has had to relocate to a less expensive space somewhere.

The waning interest in classical music is not just an American phenomena. A couple days ago I got an email from the Finnish Soloists Association, asking all members to contact the state-owned Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, regarding their planned major cuts in both production of classical music as a form of recordings, and broadcasting itself. Much of the latter would take place during the night hours according to the plans. The savings for the company would be minimal but clearly someone there doesn’t appreciate this variety of music. Perhaps the idea of sending it during the night is a suggestion that such music will put anyone to sleep. I used to do a lot a recordings for YLE so I can understand how my colleagues back home feel.

My country had an independent classical station but the head of the company got involved in criminal activity with messy finances. Today they send classical music only via the web at Wouldn’t it figure that even in Finland one would find crooks among those who try to influence culture. Russia I could understand and the U.S. as well, but my homeland is known for its honesty.

Thank goodness for NPR with its informative programs and all that vintage jazz many of their stations send. When it comes to classical, I like to be in charge of what reaches my ears. That is exactly why I have a CD-changer in my car.  Personally I don’t find classical relaxing but rather the opposite, a source of anxiety. No wonder many businesses purposely blast this type of music through speakers on their parking lots, to keep drug dealers and other unwanted away. A fast food joint downtown pipes classical to rid the premises of homeless people. Why does this music have such an effect? Perhaps these unfortunates associate this genre with arrogant elitist oppressors, the ones who caused their jobs to disappear in the first place and put them on a slippery slope. Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles would suffer if they force-fed Wagner to their elderly Jewish Shoah survivors.

When I have been put on hold and yet another version of the Four Seasons is piped through the telephone, I tend to hang up. Modern Jazz Quartet and Bachianas Brasileiras number 5 would be another story.