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Classical Radio title
By David Schiff
Classical-music radio stations in the United States were once chock-full of nutty professors, eccentrics whose quirky opinions served to educate and inspire generations of listeners. In the 1950s and ’60s in New York, for example, the obsessive Fleetwood, on WNCN, might play a selection four times in a row if he liked, and the outrageous Seymour DeKoven, on WFUV, proselytized fanatically for “barococo” music. Far more than purveyors of musical appreciation, they were models of musical devotion.

Today there are just a few strong personalities left on the air, like the durable and majestically ponderous Robert J. Lurtsema on WGBH in Boston, and their futures are imperiled by a bland format that has become the norm on commercial and public stations alike. (Mr. Lurtsema himself has been cut back to weekend mornings.) Station managers justify the new, smooth approach as “welcoming,” but it is hard to imagine how it could ever instill a passionate concern for music in a new generation.

Across the country, station managers and programmers seem to believe that their audiences want a continuous and homogenous flow of background music, interrupted as little as possible by announcements, let alone idiosyncratic bursts of opinion. Shows like Jim Svejda’s Record Shelf and Peter Schickele’s Schickele Mix, both syndicated by Public Radio International, and Performance Today, produced by National Public Radio, find themselves caught between, on one hand, a news and information culture with little interest in classical music and, on the other, classical-station executives for whom “education” has become a dirty word.

“The educational approach only leads to the graveyard,” said Fred Child, the music director of WNYC in New York. But classical stations like WNCN and KFAC in Los Angeles have died in other ways, pursuing “lite” or crossover formats.

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