27.6.07

SHRIMP WILL LEARN TO WHISTLE BEETHOVEN. Milwaukee musicologist Tom Strini does not see an ETTS(*) moment in WFMR's change of format.

As this newspaper's classical music critic, that's my cue to lament the passing of a noble art and rage against crass commercialism, abdication of public responsibility and the dumbing-down of American and Milwaukee culture. So I hereby send out a clarion call to all who would uphold the lofty standards that are everywhere under siege. Rise up! Demand that. . . .

Oh, never mind. The truth is, I can't work up much enthusiasm for the task.

I have a confession to make. Like most people in greater Milwaukee, I almost never listened to WFMR. Why would I? Over-the-air radio is the fifth-best way to get at the music, after live performance, the personal CD collection, online musical archives, Internet and satellite radio and download services (iTunes and the like). Broadcast classical radio is dying for some very good reasons, and in markets much larger than ours. It's a miracle it hung on as long as it did in Milwaukee.

The only conceivable use for it has to do with discovery. I can imagine classical music radio with charismatic, knowledgeable on-air personalities who are fun to be around (as opposed to industry-standard soporific and mellifluous). I can imagine classical radio that seeks out the most articulate composers and performers and gets their voices on the air. I can imagine classical radio focused primarily on music being made here and now, with an emphasis on the excitement of live performance. Of course, this would be labor-intensive, talent-intensive and expensive to the point of requiring subsidy. Which is why WFMR didn't do it.

He writes, of course, of the lugubrious format of National Public Radio, and I'm not referring to their news and opinion pieces. Those were imitated to disadvantage by Air America.

"Articulate composers and performers?" Sure, a few are around, but have you heard what often passes for compositions to win tenure or to qualify for a National Endowment welfare check grant? It's about what you'd expect. Beethoven drunk or Shostakovich in Comrade Stalin's dacha are better. The old 96.5 WFMR was also better. Their morning drive-time show was lively and fun, and it signed on with Carl Orff's Gassenhauer (my sister characterized it as playing music on turtle shells, which is not far off). If, in its final incarnation, the morning show resembled Morning Edition, Milwaukee listeners wouldn't have to hit the snooze button.

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