The Magazine

Radio Silence

From the June 14, 2004 issue: How NPR purged classical music from its airwaves.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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IF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF BLACKSMITHS AND BUGGYWHIP MANUFACTURERS had held a convention in 1910, in those last sullen moments before the Horseless Carriage put them all out of business, then this is what it must have felt like--the same forced cheerfulness laid over the same defeated air, the same stiff upper lip at the prospect of the inescapable end. Outside the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort, on the Florida coast near Tampa Bay, the beach was streaked with wind and black thunderheads stacked up along the horizon. Inside the hotel, members of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio had gathered for their 42nd annual convention. These are the programmers who play what remains of classical music on America's noncommercial radio stations. They milled about the Citrus Room, and ducked in and out of the Mangrove Room, and stepped hopefully toward the Manatee Room, where, in the manner of all such trade conventions, a space had been set aside for interested tradesmen to hawk their wares to this select professional audience. It was nearly empty.

On a couch next to the Dolphin Room, Dave Glerum sat talking about classical music and public radio. Glerum is a friendly and thoughtful man, bearded and roundish, who serves as the music director of WMFE, the public radio station in Orlando. He's been coming to the AMPPR conference for 25 years.

"Believe it," he said. "This was once like a major trade show. You had 30 record labels here, giving records away, all kinds of free stuff. Artists would perform during the day, every night, promoting their records. There were throngs of people all weekend long. By Sunday, when you left, you still wouldn't have met 80 percent of the attendees. That's how many people there were. And now it's . . . well . . ." He waved his hand toward the conference-goers who drifted from room to room, singly or in groups of twos and threes.

Glerum has been working at WMFE since 1990. He was hired away from WXXI in Rochester, New York, where he'd worked for more than 10 years. In retrospect, those years now look like the tail end of the glory days of classical programming on the nation's public radio stations, when a large majority of them devoted a large majority of their airtime to music.

"When I came to WMFE, we had three full-time on-air announcers and two part-time announcers," he said. "Now we have no part-time announcers and one full-time announcer." He tapped his chest. "Me."

Like most public radio stations, WMFE was conceived as a "fine arts" station, broadcasting classical music and other arts programs around the clock. Today it carries only three hours a day of its own classical programming. The rest is talk--call-in shows, BBC news, interview shows, as well as the flagship newsmagazines from National Public Radio, All Things Considered and Morning Edition--plus several hours, most of them overnight, of a syndicated classical music service, called Classical 24, that originates from a studio in Minnesota but is designed to sound like local programming wherever it's played. Listeners in Orlando worry that much of even this canned music will soon be replaced by more talk shows. And they're right to worry.

"You do get the feeling a little of being an anachronism," Glerum said. "There's no question that there's less and less classical music on the radio now, and more and more programming that's produced somewhere else. The trend seems kind of overwhelming at times, like something you can't overcome.

"But do I think classical music will disappear from public radio altogether? No. I can't think that. Its power to enrich our lives and our communities is just too great. Its flame will never be extinguished. Maybe that sounds hokey. But I believe it. You sort of have to."