Classical Radio Communities: Thoughts on Mediation

Mediation is so central to the musical experience that we often ignore it altogether. A violin section at a concert plays the melancholic yet winsome melody that opens Mozart’s 40th Symphony; I listen to a CD recording of the melody; perhaps at another time I hear the same recording broadcast over the radio; I play the same melody on the piano in order to demonstrate its structure to a music class; a student’s cell phone rings, interrupting and yet reinforcing the lecture by once again “performing” the melody of Mozart’s 40th.

These are all iterations of some entity (some thing) that we call the main melody of Mozart’s symphony. We believe that there is something inherent in all of these soundings of the melody by which we can identify them all as this Mozart melody. And yet this Mozart melody, whatever its abstracted ontological character may be said to be (that is, whatever it is that makes all of these soundings the same melody) cannot be said to exist without its being manifested in some manner as sound. The melody therefore is not identical with its various performances (just as the notion of “humanity” is not identical with each individual human being but rather is abstracted from those individuals in order to demonstrate what it is that makes them all human beings). But the melody cannot exist without some kind of sounding performance (just as humanity as such does not exist without actual human individuals) even if that performance is the imagined sound produced within the “inner ear” of someone reading the score.

Thus, although enthusiasts frequently praise the immediateness of musical experience, every confrontation with music necessarily relies upon some form of mediation. But these various media are not “transparent”. They contribute something to the melody that becomes part of the melody in its actual occurrence even if we can say that the trace of mediation is not part of the essence of the melody. Is it essential to the melody in question that it be played on the strings? Certainly not insofar as we recognize that it is the same melody when rendered digitally on a cell phone. And yet, in another sense, the string performance and the cell phone “performance” do not present the same thing entirely. It is the same melody but the message differs. These various forms of mediation impact the use-value of the melody. Whatever the benefits one might derive from having Mozart as a ringtone, it seems rather dubious that someone would turn to it to gain an understanding of the music as music.

Indeed the notion of Mozart as ringtone presupposes an understanding that can then be manipulated to serve a separate (but not unimportant) function. Its appearance as a ringtone conveys something that is not available to its appearance in the string section. The bizarre kitsch of the Mozart ringtone does not derive from the lack of sound quality (indeed they now have cell phones that can play a recorded segment of the symphony that differs little in quality from a CD) but rather from the way it inflects the melody to signify something that would have been unavailable to it in other media. The ringtone Mozart is declarative in a manner that would seem to be contrary to its affect within the symphony. It is still the Mozart melody but now it does something different. This, it seems to me, is what Marshall McLuhan meant, in part, by “the medium is the message”.

What is obvious with respect to cell phones becomes less intuitive when we turn to the broadcasting of the melody over the radio. Here we are tempted to say that we can indeed gain an understanding of the music in all of its vaunted presence. The radio, we want to believe, is a fairly direct conduit through which we encounter the music itself. Indeed, when the radio first emerged in the 1920s as a widespread medium of entertainment, many people proclaimed it an ideal cultural equalizer. Now even the poor farmer in the Midwest with no feasible opportunities to attend a symphonic concert could learn and enjoy the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. What had been reserved for an elite and wealthy few could now be broadcast to anyone with a radio in their home. Classical music on the radio was seen as the manifestation of a democratic ideal. No better example of this musical philanthropy can be found than the efforts of David Sarnoff to provide weekly symphonic concerts conducted (at first) by the infamous Arturo Toscanini on the air via NBC beginning on Christmas night in 1937. While some commentators lamented what they saw as the inevitable loss of sonic quality in broadcasts, NBC claimed to have designed the studio where the weekly performances were held so that the radio audience would experience optimal listening quality while the acoustics were less ideal for the in-studio audience. NBC officials proudly proclaimed that broadcasting classical music brought the nation together within an ever-growing virtual space of cultural knowledge.

Theodor Adorno, perhaps not surprisingly, dismissed the notion that the radio would prove to be the great cultural equalizer as a sign of false consciousness. For Adorno, the technical apparatus of the radio and the exigencies of broadcasting undermined that which gives aesthetic and intellectual depth to classical music (particularly, to symphonic music). In other words, in their attempts to bring such cultural treasures to a mass audience, the purveyors of classical music via radio effectually eviscerated the music, depriving it of precisely that which served as the foundation of its cultural value. In his essay, “The Radio Symphony: An Experiment in Theory”, Adorno writes: “Analysis of a radio symphony must rid itself of the commonsense view that the alterations brought about be radio have no significant bearing on the symphonic purpose.” The radio, owing to its technical limitations, could not present the music of Beethoven, in his example, in the proper manner. The sound of a symphony must be “larger” than the auditor “so as to enable him to ‘enter’ the door of the sound as he would enter through the door of a cathedral.”

The sound produced by radio was comparatively small and the presence of the music, filtered through the radio apparatus, became emaciated. Therefore, the structural connections (the utter suffusion of a movement with subtle variations upon a relatively small set of motives) are lost in the homogenization of tone that inevitably results from radio transmission. The motivic connections that vouchsafe the unity of a movement of a Beethoven symphony dissipate and the residue that remains is simply a collection of “tunes” that are arbitrarily connected to one another in the manner of a medley. What was a process unfolding over time becomes a commodity that is neatly separated into easily digestible chunks. Melodies that developed continually as the very subject of the musical work become hypostatized jingles that no longer belong to the musical work as such but rather represent the musical work in the way that a “Kant for Dummies” book represents the thoughts of the philosopher as a commodity for consumption without granting the reader any actual access to those thoughts. Adorno believed it was foolish to ask radio listeners if they were developing a new appreciation for classical music inasmuch as what they were getting over the radio was a simulacrum of classical music — a commodity in the guise of art.

One might challenge Adorno’s view on a number of points — especially with respect to his particular brand of technological determinism — but the element most blatantly absent from his critique is a consideration of the uses to which consumers put the radio. And indeed these uses have shifted considerably over the century of the radio’s existence. When it originally became a familiar part of the cultural landscape, the radio was the first technological medium that brought the semblance of immediacy to the individual’s understanding of the world outside. The radio was the conduit through which the public sphere entered the private home. Via radio, the nation was informed about important events and more importantly the radio elicited participation in those events on the part of the individual at home. This comes across most clearly in the various broadcasts during World War II. The nation was informed of the vicissitudes of war through a seemingly direct communication with the broadcaster. Moreover, unlike print media, the radio induced within the listener a sense of engaging in a larger listening community — all of whom were hearing this broadcast at this moment. The radio thus sought not only to efface its own form of mediation but also the regional, economic, and political divisions among the constituent listeners. This role was largely usurped by the television.

So the question now arises: how is radio used now with respect to the broadcasting of classical music? Or perhaps a better way to frame the question would be this: what is it that those listening to classical music via the radio expect to get from it? Clearly, most people interested in classical music have available to them a collection of compact discs offering far greater fidelity of sound. Most people who enjoy listening while driving will have a CD player in their car. The choice is then theirs as to what is heard and when. Given the rather limited range of repertoire supported by the majority of classical music radio stations (usually music no earlier than Bach and no later than Rachmaninoff, nothing experimental or atonal, no opera aside from overtures or preludes, very little vocal music of any kind), one can hardly make the argument that listening to the broadcasts will expose a listener to music the listener did not know previously. This argument works for about two months; after that, with respect to most classical music radio stations, you will just be getting more of the same.

There seems to be some vestige of that sense of listening community that continues to exercise its influence over advocates of classical music radio. A fascinating study in how listeners negotiate that sense of community, in large part by attempting to fix its boundaries, can be found in the comments posted to the blog of WETA-FM 90.9 in the Washington D.C. area. In late January of this year WETA (a listener-supported, public radio station) switched formats, going from an all-news format to reclaim its former status as a classical music radio station. In the process it absorbed the music library (and at least one of the announcers) of the commercial classical station WGMS (now defunct), allowing WETA to bill itself as “the exclusive classical music station in the nation’s capital.” Thus the stakes are rather high (insofar as classical music radio has stakes at all) as the management and the listeners/financial supporters seek to establish just what a classical radio station (much less the only one in the area) should be and what its responsibilities are.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the switchover was the station’s decision to start a blog and to allow listeners to post comments to that blog. Its initial entry, “Welcome to Classical WETA 90.9 FM”, garnered over 2,000 comments. Some were from disgruntled listeners lamenting the loss of the news format but many of the comments derived from people who exude an almost febrile concern with the shape that the station will take. As you scroll through these comments (and related comments on other blog entries) certain patterns emerge and certain posters begin to dominate the virtual conversation. Indeed it was the persistence of some of these posters that first grabbed my attention. These people are deeply invested in the promulgation of a specific view of what classical music is and how it should be represented via radio.

One point of contention involves the radio personalities. Many listeners request (some go so far as to beg) the restoration of the voices they were used to hearing on WGMS while other listeners vehemently discourage the management from absorbing these announcers. Indeed the posters seem to divide themselves into WGMS “refugees” who want the station to become a reincarnation of what they had and WETA supporters who insist that bringing WGMS announcers on board would be an otiose capitulation to nostalgia. Terry Moore, in a post attached to a different blog entry, writes:

The Hosts. Stop asking for the WGMS hosts back. I’m one of the WGMS listeners who were forced to switch over to WETA (I made an initial $50 donation), but the whinning [sic] about “they’re my family” is bull. You can’t bring back what’s gone? Are you going to tell your new girlfriend to start acting like your old girlfriend (wearing her clothes, her hairstyle, etc.). That’s crazy talk. Learn to meet new people and like those people too. It would be nice (if the WGMS hosts wanted) for WETA to post a “where are they now” page, but that’s all WETA should do.

Moore seems to accept the notion that the announcers have a personal impact upon listeners but insists that one must move forward to embrace other relationships. The analogical link between a new announcer and a new girlfriend is revealing. Moore and his fellow posters apparently feel that they develop quasi-personal relationships with the announcers. Another poster, Rick Bornemann, quibbles with Moore’s analogy. “Those are emotional and psychological matters,” he writes, “while the issue of the WGMS people is a business matter. And, business decisions can be made — and unmade.” Indeed, but what is the “business matter” at hand? Obviously Bornemann wants to convince his interlocutor that bringing these announcers over from WGMS will increase listenership. But why should it if the listenership is ostensibly founded upon the music? Such arguments have little to do with the music per se but they have everything to do with the function of a classical music radio station. Despite Bornemann’s distinction between personal and business matters, it seems fairly evident that this “business matter” is underwritten by a personal connection between the announcers and the listeners.

I must admit to being somewhat bemused by this aspect of the discussion. After all, the announcer does little more than name the piece one is about to hear; there is precious little time for said announcer to exude “personality” and indeed whatever personality they may be said to have seems to derive from the investment of the listener. Obviously, for some posters, the personality (however wan) plays an integral role in classical radio. Tom Eilenberg, in again suggesting the absorption of WGMS announcers, agrees that “James Bartel might offer more personality than the station is willing to project, but Diana Hollander would be a great addition to provide some much needed warmth and enthusiasm to the midday programming. She is knowledgable [sic], but never overbearing, and presents the music with an infectious enthusiasm that captures the complimentary essence of the music, itself.” Now the phrase “complimentary essence of the music itself” is so bizarre as to lack coherence and yet it captures something about the listening experience that Eilenberg seems to find indispensable. The announcer it would seem allows these listeners not to listen to this music (they would be better served by CDs if that was what they wanted) but rather to listen along with another — once again the seemingly private act of listening is transmuted into a communal experience and this sense of community is intrinsic to radio listening. The music becomes complimentary to the communal ethos as such.

One poster clarifies another aspect of the role of the announcer when he requests that the announcers be required to name the piece before and after it is played. This strikes one as an eminently reasonable demand and yet it points toward a larger issue. Classical music on the radio disciplines its listening subjects. They must know what the piece is in order to master it, in order to pin it down as an object and not as a process. With a name, the piece becomes an object of consumption; it is fixed and determined. The listener now owns this knowledge and it accrues some kind of personal cultural capital. Such an impression is only deepened by the level of “information” some of the announcers provide. It is almost exclusively biographical: “Mozart was only 12 years old when he composed this” or “Beethoven was almost completely deaf when writing this”. Such information has no real impact upon the composition as a process of engagement but it serves to further solidify its status as a commodity.

Another series of complaints, not surprisingly, involve what music is represented. Again it is the determination and fitful insistence of the posters that intrigues me. Some posters demand modern music, others want to hear songs, and many insist on more American concert music. One poster goes so far as to offer to lend the station selections from his private collection. Another poster provides an endless list of suggestions of specific recordings of certain works. Presumably, given the level of familiarity this poster has with these recordings, he owns them. Why do these people want to hear what they already own broadcast over the radio when transmission will necessarily give rise to lesser sound quality? There seems to be little reason behind it aside from the notion that they are participating in a community and moreover their suggestions and offered loans confer onto them the role of a shaper of that community. Terry Moore reveals this sense of community rather neatly when he writes to another poster, Bob L., “sorry, you are a crank. We all are. We’re posting on a classical radio station’s blog! We’re outside the norm, but that’s okay.”

And so we return to the issue of mediation but in a decidedly different vein from Adorno’s concerns. It seems at least plausible that, given advances in technology, many of Adorno’s qualms could be rectified but even then classical radio listening would fail to approximate the kind of structural listening that Adorno demanded was the only authentic mode of engaging with this music. It is not so much the technical limitations of the radio that demotes the music to the status of a commodity but rather the historical development of the use of the radio as medium. Classical music radio gives rise to a prophylactic form of community: we are somehow participating with other listeners without having to engage directly with those others. The music becomes a pretense for communal participation. Radio seems to open up a space in which a listener can listen to an other’s act of listening (whether that other is the announcer or an invisible group of fellow participants). In this sense, despite Adorno’s claims to the contrary, when we listen to a symphony on the radio we do enter into the experience as though we were entering a cathedral but it is a cathedral populated with other listeners.

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