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2001

Classical Music ArticleAt the same time that stations plan formats to avoid alienating fringe listeners, they know that their strongest supporters are the hard-core music lovers. Most stations provide for the essential needs of theselisteners: Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and live recordings of orchestral concerts. These programs are typically the most interesting ones on a station, the only time you might encounter Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” or John Adams’s “Harmonium.”

But these features usually appear in fixed time slots, like Saturday afternoon or 10 at night, when the fringe listeners are otherwise engaged. And the kind of quirky, personal programming that once turned listeners into devoted advo-cates is hard to find. Shows that could ignite a lifelong passion for music, like the Record Shelf, Schickele Mix, and Performance Today, often find themselves at odds with their surroundings.

Mr. Svejda, of the Record Shelf, and Mr. Schickele are the two great eccentrics on classical-music radio today. Mr. Svejda, whose show is produced by KUSC in Los Angeles, is perhaps best known for his use, or overuse, of dramatic pauses. You may learn the real subject of a show only several minutes in, after being teased and tantalized by musical excerpts and Mr. Svejda’s portentously dropped hints. Still, no one on the air treats both composers and performers with such personal devotion or has such a fine ear for differences in inflections and interpretations. His show on the legendary Hollywood String Quartet sent me running to my local record store only to find that several speedier Svejda listeners had beaten me to the bin.

If you tune in to your classical station and hear a bagpipe band playing “Send in the Clowns” you have probably happened on Schickele Mix. Mr. Schickele’s radio persona seems a distant but equally deranged relation to his more familiar incarnation as P.D.Q. Bach, spawned by a freak collision of musicology and vaudeville. The show, designed for people with a lively interest in music, usually pursues a single musical concept, like the contrapuntal device of the ground bass or the rhythmic phenomenon known as hemiola, and tracks it down in an odd assortment of musical examples that may jump from Haydn to Bulgarian folk singing to heavy metal.

Although Schickele Mix is often more technical in its musical discussion than anything else on the radio, its mood is a throwback to classical radio comedy. Mr. Schickele, who was born in 1935, grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, where WDAY, like many other stations of the time, had a full-time staff of professional musicians. “Peggy Lee got her start on the station,” he said. Mr. Schickele and his brother went to the studio before school to hear the musicians, who would play big-band swing during one program, switch to polka in the next, then turn to country and western.

But diversity, which may be a plus in academic and political circles, gets Mr. Schickele into trouble on radio stations that are sensitive to image and format. In addition to worrying that potential listeners may not re-cognize their stations, managers fault the show for its thematic approach. “If you don’t tune in at the beginning you don’t know what he is talking about,” Ms. White, of Portland, complained.

Schickele Mix does demand “foreground listening.” Each show has a carefully constructed shape, for all the appearance of improvisation. Yet in the larger classical mix, that strength becomes a weakness. And despite its comic mayhem the show raises a specter of the E-word, education. Mr. Schickele has found that the show succeeds best when it is sold as an informational program rather than a musical one, and over the years he has increased the amount of talk and shortened musical examples.

Performance Today, NPR’s main musical offering, is similarly caught between musical and informational formats. It comes on between news programs like All Things Considered and talk shows like Fresh Air or Talk of the Nation, but it attracts a different audience: notably older, smaller, and more female.

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2001