Radio Chopin: The Journey Begins

Image We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth this year at WDAV with an ambitious new series:  Radio Chopin.  No fewer than 200 two-minute stories about the music, the people, the events, and the stories surrounding the “poet of the piano.”  Our midday host Jennifer Foster is at the helm, and I imagine you’ll be hearing from all of the WDAV voices between now and Dec. 31.  Heck, we’re even building an entire website for the project.  What an adventure!   Stay tuned, and enjoy Episode 1 by our multimedia producer Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, concerning a famous, if mispronounced, little Waltz…
Episode 1: The Minute Waltz: A Mispronunciation and a Dog Named Marquis

Up off the Canvas, PT II: The Classical Comeback?

il Divo: the future of classical music? From Slate comes an article about the surprising sales of Classical Music recordings in the last year. The lede is attention-getting: “Is classical music—a genre that has spent a seeming eternity on the commercial skids—staging a comeback? That’s the buzz on Nielsen SoundScan’s 2006 report card, which listed classical as the year’s fastest-growing musical genre. In an otherwise dreary year, sales of classical albums—a figure that includes CDs, LPs, and downloaded albums—increased by 22.5 percent, or 3.57 million units. That put the genre way ahead of such laggards as jazz (down 8.3 percent), alternative (down 9.2 percent), and rap (down 20.7 percent).” Holy Cow – up 22-plus-percent? What’s going on here? Are those Christopher O’Riley-plays-Radiohead CDs and New York Philharmonic iTunes downloads making that much of a difference? Well, yes, they are…a little bit. Classical musicians and organizations have gotten a lot savvier about the Net. But the vast amount of that growth is coming from a change in what the industry counts as “classical.” For years Billboard has maintained two charts: “Classical” and “Classical Crossover” (often as related as “jazz” is to “smooth jazz”) – and in 2006 Nielsen SoundScan (the back-end data collector of Billboard and a whole bunch of other folks) simply rolled ’em together. So: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Pierre Boulez are in the same category as Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo, and Josh Groban. And the latter three, who all released albums in 2006, combined for more than 4.6 million units of sales last year – just about the same margin of overall growth in the genre. Hmmm… But there a couple of nuggets worth paying attention to: Bocelli, Groban et al appeal most especially to women 36-50 years old – and most classical programmers aren’t realing paying attention to them as a demographic group. Two that are are Classic FM in the UK (who just happen to be the most popular classical radio station in the world), and WBKK in Albany, NY – a fascinating attempt at programming a classical public radio station a little differently. Worth a listen. (Full disclosure: WBKK PD Christopher Wienk is a colleague and RoeDeo‘s webmaster – doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fascinating experiment.)

Nugget No. 2 is the Songs from the Labryinth album by Sting …his hyper-produced interpretations of 17th-century lute master John Dowland. Turns out that was the biggest-selling “true” classical recording of 2006 – and tonight you can watch him do his Dowland thing on PBS. Bully for him – and if he does any Dowland during the upcoming Police reunion tour, double bully. But will that actually help fortysomethings (like that aforementioned Il Divo Demo) really discover Dowland? If only the album were better – and Sting sang “Flow My Tears” with the same conviction as he sings “King of Pain.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, the Guardian, the L.A. Times, etc. all loved it. I’m more in tune with Timothy Jarrett at Blogcritics.com:Seriously, there are vocal lines that sound as though they’re sung through dentures. Worse, there’s no variation to the vocal lines: the performances are note-note-note, with little or no vocal inflection and no phrasing. Then there’s the overdubbing. Awkward as the solo lines are, they sound like sheer genius compared to the same voice in two part harmony.

Up Off The Canvas (or, The Other Shoe Drops)

All right, it was a big deal to me, but not many other folks paid much attention to the news that I wrote about on Day One– Bonneville’s “Yankee Swop” of its frequencies with Entercom, meaning a likely sayonara for classically-formatted KDFC in San Francisco. Sure enough, the other shoe dropped today here in DC – as of 8 pm on Monday, Jan. 22, Bonneville’s WGMS (103.9) will move down the dial to WETA (90.9), effectively ending the latter station’s less-than-successful run as a news-and-information station. It’s a complicated deal, all right – the Washington Post reports that no money will change hands, but that WETA will get from Bonneville the WGMS call letters (to be applied to its repeater station in Hagerstown, MD) , 15,000- CD record library, and even its program director, Jim Allison.

But…wait! Bonneville is not selling to Snyder and Red Zebra at all…at 3 PM today they flipped to a Jack-like oldies format called George104. I promised rants in the title: Here are a couple from DCRTV:

“… a pair of rimshot signals (Waldorf and Frederick). “Well, at least it’s low overhead,” a local radio observer tells DCRTV. Pretty much a CD player in the back of the co-owned WTOP newsroom, says another. It’s kind of sad to watch Joel Oxley and Jim Farley slowly lose their minds, says yet another. Of course, it could be an “extended stunt” until Redskins owner Dan Snyder finally decides to sign the papers and buy the station.

Bonneville’s take:

Both sides agreed it made sense for their stations and their listeners. This saves classical music in this market and arguably puts it in a better place than it is now.

– Joel Oxley, Bonneville Senior VP

You bet it does – WGMS enjoyed fairly consistent ratings (hovering between 5th and 11th in the market) until it got shoved off of its longtime frequency of 103.5 one year ago (collateral damage from the “Washington Post Radio” deal) and wound up on the much less attractive spots of 103.9 and 104.1). At 90.9, WETA’s signal is one of the best in the entire DC Metro area, with 75,000 watts and a repeater in Hagerstown, MD (that’s the one that will be re-christened WGMS-FM.

Funny, for all of the talk (and I’m as guilty as anyone) these days about New Media and the levelling of the playing field in the online world, size – and positions – still matters. It was the truly wretched signal of the Redskins’s radio stations (a/k/a Triple X Radio) that got this whole ball rolling in the first place. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how radio works would have been able to tell you that choosing a 1000-watt station that drops to 250 watts at night to as your metro DC flagship for the Redskins was going to be a trail of tears. You also knew that the stakes were too high here in football-crazed DC for that situation to go on for more than one season. (Ironically, the format change comes one year to the day that Snyder bought his three new toys).

The new “official” ID for the stations will be “Classical WETA 90.9 FM Washington and WGMS 89.1 FM Hagerstown.”