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WNYC Gets More Classical

Radio station WQXR has found a buyer. In the rough-seas economy we’re in, this news might qualify as a small miracle.

On Tuesday afternoon came the announcement that 73-year-old all-classical radio station WQXR—owned by the financially-troubled New York Times—has been sold to public radio station WNYC. The plan is for WNYC to continue broadcasting in an all-classical format at the new frequency of 105.9 FM, beginning in October. That’s in addition to WNYC’s existing FM and AM stations.

It’s been known for some time that WQXR was one of the assets the Times wanted to sell to free up some badly needed cash. The cash in question turned out to be $45 million ($33.5 million for the FCC broadcast license and $11.5 million for the station call letters and website from the Times Company). This is certainly a surprising outcome to a saga that seemed likely to end with WQXR ceasing operation before the Times could find a buyer.

WNYC + WQXRStepping back a bit from the immediate situation, as a commercial radio station WQXR was becoming more and more of a dinosaur. Plenty of classical stations operated with this formula in the past, but the model has nearly fallen apart in recent years, as traditional advertising methods have been increasingly rejected by advertisers as not viable from a business perspective (i.e., not producing buyers). How do you sell advertising to companies, when you have a 45-minute symphony and can’t interrupt with commercials? Often, with an endless string of commercials afterward—not fun. Nowadays, that’s when your listeners presumably leave the room or take off the headphones, and head for the internet or the iPod.

Nonetheless, for those of us who grew up with WQXR as the soundtrack of the household, there are a lot of memories tied up with the station: making dinner or playing Monopoly with the Egmont Overture, Brandenburg concertos, Les Nuits d’ėtė, or “Drumroll” Symphony playing in the background. That station was not the only one on the dial (there was also WNCN, further up), but it was the one most frequently selected where I lived—partly because of the strength of its signal and partly, I think, because the parental preference was that the less said about the music, the better. (More time for the uninterrupted music.) It was a different generation then—everybody wants to talk about music now, before concerts, after concerts, on the radio, on blogs. But just 20 years ago, the resonant (nearly always male) WQXR voice of authority—with its overly schooled pronunciation of words like Rrrravel and Baccccccch—was the expected public voice of classical music presenters.

With WQXR, my father had a habit of inching up the volume dial when some piece was playing that he especially liked. (That used to drive my mother crazy.) Sullen teenagers in my household could occasionally be roped into still participating in a game of “guess that piece” (or “guess that composer”), attempting to come up with an educated guess as to what was playing on-air, listening, possibly revising the answer, and waiting for the radio-host post-performance announcement, to see if we were right. Pretty geeky, I know. I never cared much for the delivery of the hosts, who were often stodgy and uppity-sounding, and sometimes sounded hampered by dentures (not a pleasant mental image). I always have liked George Jellinek’s opera programs and David Dubal’s piano programs—consistently interesting and thought-provoking over the years. These are among the station’s worthwhile shows, curated by hosts who talk intelligently about music they know in-depth.

It will be interesting to see how the various programs get divvied up—WNYC’s current FM channel is not all-classical but rather a mix of talk and various types of music, including classical. There could end up being some overlap. And of course the business model will change to public, listener-supported radio. It’s pretty ironic that public—a format that challenged the status quo by not having content be hostage to advertisers’ preferences—could possibly outlast the old commercial radio model. These are strange times, indeed.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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