Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

If you are one of the the seventy-five thousand listeners who tune in to public radio station WHRO each month, you are going to hear new and interesting music. WHRO “breaks all the rules” of today’s classical programming, and yet somehow they are still alive and kicking. Station Manager Raymond Jones tells his announcers simply to “program interesting music,” and, as it turns out, a fair amount of it is modern.

This may be partly because Jones himself is avidly interested in classical music of all kinds. Interviewing him, in fact, was a little unnerving because of the speed with which he tossed out the names of pieces and composers who were completely unfamiliar to me. He raved about the symphonies of the British composer Havergal Brian, for instance. Jones describes Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony, completed in 1927, as a masterpiece. He also explained that he was anxious to purchase recordings of works by some New Orleans composers that he had heard at the recent AMPPR Conference. Jones likes to program contemporary works in the context of older works to which they are somehow connected. Typical is the programming on the Ides of March, when they broadcast Schumann‘s Julius Caesar Overture, Miklós Rósza‘s music for the 1953 film Julius Caesar, and the Norwegian composer Pauline Hall‘s Suite from Julius Caesar.

Jones claims that listeners keep tuning in to WHRO because they trust the announcers, many of whom have worked at the station for twenty-five years or longer. Jones describes the audience as “sophisticated,” partly because so many of the listeners have spent years absorbing WHRO’s educational programming. He also thinks that the station’s strong ties to the community help keep them in business. They broadcast many local concerts, including those of the Virginia Symphony, the Virginia Chorale, and the Waterfront Chamber Music Festival. Jones also makes an effort to broadcast the recordings of JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony. New music forms a part of both the concerts and the CDs. Jones mentioned a recent Virginia Chorale concert, for instance, that featured a new work by USC professor Morten Lauridsen, and Falletta’s discography includes pieces by Chen Yi, Jerome Moross, and Karol Rathaus.

In keeping with WHRO’s commitment to broadcasting local concerts is their policy of trying to interview the artists involved, and this includes composers. Interviews are becoming rare enough these days, but broadcasting a two-hour chat with George Crumb is unheard of. Yet Raymond Jones sees nothing at all unusual in what he and his colleagues are doing. I find him to be a truly special character, for he is as sure as a well-seasoned professor that his listeners – in a sense, his students — will enjoy whatever he is presenting every bit as much as he does. Jones certainly does not seem overly concerned with that current obsession of classical radio, entertainment.

Jones does not favor the idea of a separate program devoted solely to contemporary music, and I agree that it would be an unnecessary addition to WHRO’s already eclectic programming. I hardly need to add that if every station programmed like WHRO, I would never have written this article.

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox