Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

WRVU goes to WPLN

A couple of years ago when WPLN switched over to a mostly talk format, I went through perfunctory motions of complaining about the death of classical music. Truth was I listened to the talk shows then on the AM station and not the classical programming. The switch accommodated my listening patterns. Well, classical music is back with WPLN’s purchase of WRVU, which gives me something else to complain about.

WPLN and Vanderbilt followed the same playbook as KUHF and Rice in Houston. Rice had (or has depending on what you think about internet broadcasting) a superb station, better than Vanderbilt’s. They put it on the block, and the NPR station associated with the University of Houston bought it and created separate sister stations for talk and classical music. Public radio seems to work that way—one station works out something, others pick it up. Several years ago I read some articles about a consultant who worked with the public radio stations on programming that always seemed to end up with less music more talk. Over time, I think most people feel reasonably good about NPR and local public radio as primarily news outlets. The decline of newspapers and the transformation of TV news makes the radio stations very important.

College stations like KTRU at Rice at WRVU at their best became interesting venues with room for a wide range of sound and inspired, idiosyncratic programming. They were places where a fringe improviser could do a live spot on radio for a few minutes. Some DJs emerged with very distinctive ideas—the Sunday afternoon jazz shows on KTRU, or their weeknight world music and experimental/electronic shows, Brian and Elizabeth’s Brazilian and local show on WRVU, Pete’s R&B show, the jazz shows John Rogers did. Chris Davis had a show at various times that was often remarkable, informed and broad-minded, and subversive.

Whenever these stations came under threat, I always wanted the Universities to see these stations and the programming mix that evolved as cultural assets major contributions to the life of the community like a series of art exhibits or classical music concerts. But there’s no getting around the fact that the universities saw these stations as student activities, possibly a training ground. And as student activities radio stations had probably outlived their relevance. I haven’t done a poll, but I can believe that fewer students listen to their college radio station today than way back in my day. Too many options.

According to the press release WPLN bought the frequent for $3.3M and Vanderbilt is going to set aside the money as an endowment for student communications. That means they didn’t sell the frequency to cash in on it. They will save some money on operating costs, and it might free up space, although maybe not if they continue to operate as an internet station. The $3.3M will go into an investment that would generate $165K a year at a 5% payout, $132K at 4%. In other words, not enough that these funds will make a difference for Vanderbilt’s bottom line.

Of the options, what happened at Rice and Vanderbilt is not as bad as I feared. The frequencies could have gone to the religious outfits that dominate the left side of the dial in some times, or ended up broadcasting C-SPAN or whatever it is that took over the public bands in DC (radio has been terrible in DC for over 10 years). I can’t say I’ve been listening to WRVU in recent years. While I never got turned on by much of WPLN’s classical programming, some of their stuff is well done. I don’t listen to Live in Studio C as much as I should, but it seems like they plug in well to concert programming in town. As the Nashville Symphony gets more interesting, they’ll ride with them. There is every reason to think that they will come up with new things.

A few suggestions

Drop the convention of avoiding music with words. Most classical music radio sticks to instrumental music, I believe in recognition of how people use classical radio, often as background music. Words and the human voice draw attention to themselves.

Grab programming from other stations, even if it is not actively syndicated. WQXR in New York recorded and archived the performances from the festival of North American symphony orchestrasat Carnegie Hall.

Do locally-produced programs of electronic and contemporary music. Find someone who can say put together a program on French spectralists or recordings by Ursula Oppens. If you must, put it on the air at some God-awful time, but archive it.

Buy recordings, don’t just rely on what record labels are pushing.
One of the best shows on WRVU was a program of contemporary classical and renaissance music hosted by Angela Lin, a professor in the German department. She died at the early age of 40. WPLN, in the form of WFCL, could honor her memory by trying to match the insight and range of her show.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lost World

Visiting the Zoo is a depressing experience. This still comes as a surprise to me. I took such delight in zoos when I was a kid. I knew my way around the National Zoo well, got to the point where I could identify nearly every bird there. 

I went back this weekend, to something irreversibly diminished and damaged. In part it comes from getting older. The Zoo seemed so big back then, endless in the new things to see. As an older, larger person, everything is easier to comprehend. I also think the zoo has reduced the number of exhibits. Back in my childhood days, zoos were just beginning to create naturalistic environments for animals, and the National Zoo still had many locked up in row after row of cages. You can fit in more animals that way. Now that they need to give the animals more room to stretch out, there's room for fewer of them. Also, in the intervening years there has been more awareness of the stress on cold climate animals living in such a warm places. A lot of places have gotten rid of their polar bears. I think the National Zoo did that.

Zoos are suspect now. If you’ve paid any attention you know that no zoo provides a great environment for most of the animals. All animals have their habitats and natural patterns of roaming and movement. No way you can catch that in an enclosure.

Habitat brings us to the worst part. Every exhibit, in the interests of education and honesty, describes what has happened to the natural range of the animal on display. And nearly every one is in danger of disappearing in the wild. Indian Elephants, tigers, Central American amphibians. There are so few wild places left, government preserves hold on tenuously and suffer incursions, mysterious diseases sweep from one end of a continent to another, and introduced species drive out the old ones. The exhibits at zoos always talked about conservation in my memory, but somehow back then, back in my childhood, it seemed to be a matter of identifying cases that need attention and getting people to work on those. And there were heroic people who would eventually prevail, in spite of any setbacks. Now seems like we've got a massive series of last ditch efforts across species, geography and ecosystems. I’m not sure anyone believes in restoring balance, only in arks like the seed vault on Spitsbergen in Norway.  Gather a breeding stock of each thing that exists and try to keep it safe, map its genome, hold on for who knows what, and hope and pray that events—climatic, political, social—don’t overtake the effort.  

A Zoo visit today tolls mourning, for what was lost and what seems impossible to avoid losing.

When I visited as a child, in the 60s and 70s, I saw the zoo as a storehouse of wonders and a gateway to a much larger world where these animals lived in many places I hoped to visit.

At the time I made those visits, the forces were in motion that robbed the world of these places. Modernization, economic integration, the creation of a universal capitalist market and its unrelenting demands to realize economic potential in everything that contained it. Technology and human population too great for anything delicate—like an ecosystem, or a social system—to resist.  And chaos generated by all of that.

That pleasure of discovery proved to be innocent and ignorant. And age dispels some ignorance. At the end of the day knowing is stronger. But maybe the breaking of illusions which inevitably accompanies age makes up the bigger part of the mournfulness.