View from the West: The Decline of Radio



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

No matter how you slice it, new music is a tough sell. Composers young and old have a difficult time getting commissions and having their works performed. With limited budgets, concerts are often not well publicized and, as an inevitable result, are poorly attended. How then are composers and new music ensembles going to spread the new music gospel? Of course, many enter the recording studio, either producing and financing the recording session themselves or by way of grants. In a very few instances, composers manage to land a contract from a record label willing to take a gamble. The CD is often used as a kind of calling card for the composer. It can be sold at concerts as well as the normal commercial outlets, sent to music critics, concert impresarios, journalists, and the like, in the hope of getting a gig, interview, or review.

These are all helpful, if not vital for the composer, but the most effective and efficient way of disseminating music is probably through radio.

For many years, radio has been, and to a degree remains an important ally for contemporary art music. And while an important conduit for the dissemination of music, it has been problematic at best. The musical arts are among the most conservative, or at least the audience is. The art world embraces the contemporary. Modern art museums are a source of civic pride, galleries specialize not only in modern art, but even in specific styles, genres, and niches. On the other hand, modern music remains esoteric and for the most part, underground, tucked away so as not to upset or annoy anyone within earshot. As a result, it is virtually unheard on television and only begrudgingly allotted a few moments on the radio airwaves, often when few listeners are likely to tune in. Thus, only the diehard new music consumer willing to forego sleep and otherwise rearrange his or her schedule is able to ferret out contemporary music on the radio airwaves.

It was not always so, at least not in all radio markets. For many years, the San Francisco Bay Area had a very strong champion of contemporary and experimental music in KPFA-FM, the flagship station of the troubled Pacifica network and the first public radio station ever established in the United States. Among a host of music directors who supported new music, the best known is Charles Amirkhanian who served as music director at KPFA for nearly 25 years. During his tenure, there was a daily “Morning Concert” which focused on contemporary music. Additionally, Amirkhanian hosted an evening program of experimental music and a bevy of other programmers served up all manner of new music. Among them were the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh (whose musical roots include free improvisation and work with the likes of Steve Reich and Jon Gibson) with his show “Rex Radio,” and the good folks from Negativland who, to this day, dish up live-mix radio on their program “Over the Edge.” Visit Negativland’s Web site and if you call during their program, you will become part of the show and all of the on-the-spot musical goings on. Even after Amirkhanian’s departure from KPFA, the station maintained a commitment to new music, but it has been gradually eroding. The focus of the daily two-hour “Morning Concert” was shifted to world music, but the Friday program, hosted by Sarah Cahill, was devoted to classical and primarily contemporary music. Sunday evening, a time when relatively few listen to the radio, became the haven for new music. Carl Stone hosted “Ears Wide Open” from 8 pm until 11 pm, followed by my “Discreet Music” and then David Laskin came in to do “4’33”” from 1 am until 5 am. Additionally, several other experimental music programs occupied the late night slots starting at midnight. As a series of music directors came and went, and as programmers left or took leaves of absence, the contemporary music programming that started before midnight was trimmed back until all that remained was my “Discreet Music” (go to www.kpfa.org, Sunday evenings from 10 pm to 1 am. “Discreet Music” is on every other Sunday with programmers Chris Brown and Barbara Golden hosting “New and Unusual Music” on the alternate Sundays). Even some of the late-night programming was changed. When Laskin departed, his slot was filled with a straight-ahead jazz program.

The current KPFA music line-up focuses on world music, folk, Latin, R&B, and jazz. While these are all worthy and exciting musics, new music is in a relatively sorry state. Looking around the Bay Area airwaves, there are few alternatives for contemporary music programming.

Of course, the Bay Area had a surfeit of contemporary music on the radio under Amirkhanian’s leadership and the subsequent paring back may simply put KPFA on par with many of its public radio peers. The cutback in contemporary music on KPFA, however, is emblematic of a programmatic change that has paralleled public radio’s (and especially National Public Radio’s) remarkable growth spurt in the last decade or so, and that is the incredible expansion of news and talk radio programming on public radio. In many markets, public radio stations are turning to all news and talk radio formats, eliminating the arts and music, including contemporary music, altogether. Public radio station KPCC in Pasadena in the 1980s made an effort to compete with the ecletic music programming of the very popular KCRW in Santa Monica, one of the two most listened to public radio stations in the country. Today, KPCC has adopted the all news and talk radio format. The other most listened to public radio station in the country is KQED in San Francisco. Well over a decade ago, it dropped classical music programming in favor of the all news and talk radio format. San Francisco is blessed with two public radio stations that broadcast NPR programming, yet the smaller KALW also offers news and talk during the day, albeit with a mix of music (none of it contemporary), arts, entertainment, issues and news in the evenings. Does the San Francisco Bay Area really need two NPR outlets both of which offer many of the same programs, some of them at the same time? The answer, of course, is no, but the ideology behind public radio has been corrupted by ratings and corporate sponsorship. Rather than serving a diverse community with alternative programming, including non-mainstream music, a large listenership is sought by way of NPR programming.

As for webcasts replacing or even supplementing radio programming, it is a work-in-progress. Certainly one can find programs with contemporary music given enough time for surfing. However, with thousands upon hundreds of thousands of Web sites, tracking down webcasts, including radio simulcasts on the Web, is a daunting task. Also, the quality of sound is dependent on modem speed and the many vagaries of computer equipment and software. The future holds promise, but for now, the Internet does not seem to be a reliable or user friendly medium for new music.

It is incumbent upon us to support new music programming on our local public radio stations and in some cases, advocate its return. What the future holds is difficult to determine, but a greater presence of new music on the radio airwaves is certainly in order.