Ode to Joy
At 8:00 a.m., Carl Kasell announces that a bomb blast in an Iraqi town has just killed five people outside a Shiite Muslim mosque. The explosion appears to have come, he says, from a gas cylinder attached to a bicycle.
Two minutes later, National Public Radio news gives way to another voice, this one belonging to Steve Staruch, who begins reading Minnesota news and weather. It's unseasonably warm, he says, with a projected high of 35.
Then he switches into the first person: "I promised something sassy-sounding as we opened the next hour of Top of the Day. Here are three short pieces for winds, from French composer Jacques Ibert. Here's the Bergen Woodwind Quintet."
This is the radio station I wake up to every day: Classical 89.3, "Music and Ideas," WCAL-FM, or as I call it, "a world of flutes." Most of the time I only half-comprehend what the voices are talking about before falling into the world of flutes. One morning, I had slept late, finger-humping the snooze button until well after 9:00 a.m., when Melissa Ousley's soothing patter came on. She said something that struck me as completely hilarious at the time, which I paraphrase now from memory: "Here are four short Brahms pieces for piano. Just to warn you ahead of time, they finish quite a bit louder and faster than they start."
I appreciated this caveat. The purpose of morning classical radio is hardly to startle the half-awake. This is why Ousley (pronounced "Owzlee") and her colleagues babble so soothingly, never failing to sound less than surreal. They're informative, too: Classical 89.3 is the radio equivalent of Classical Music for Beginners, the book I picked up last year in hopes of shaking loose whatever knowledge I once possessed on the subject--especially now that I, you know, write about music for a living.
Still, something else strikes me even more about this weird station. Its DJs take music personally. They tell you how they feel about the music, why they love it, why they're playing it. And they're able to speak in these terms for the simple reason that they're choosing the music they play. Where the most popular Twin Cities classical music station, KSJN-FM (99.5)--one of Minnesota Public Radio's 35 regional stations--is loosely bound by a playlist handed down in advance from three program directors, Classical 89.3 follows the whims of those voices among the flutes.
"They would never use focus groups to determine what they should be playing, which I know KSJN does," says Edina musicologist Michael Steinberg, a popular writer and avid listener of both stations. "The WCAL people, they come across more as distinct individuals who have a kind of stake in the music, a kind of commitment to it."
In its way, the tinier station sounds like a classical music variant of REV-105 in a sea of Clear Channel--one of the few holdouts for free-form FM programming in its arena. And while the underdog station's many former MPR employees are strenuously diplomatic about their old friends (pointing out, for instance, that MPR produces some vital shows), they can't help but seem happier where they are.
Maybe there's something emboldening about the physical isolation of the place. Though WCAL's 100,000-watt signal covers the entire Twin Cities, Classical 89.3 is actually located in Northfield, a few blocks from a Malt-O-Meal plant and some 35 miles south of Minneapolis. A staff of about 25 operates out of a squat 54-year-old building made of horizontal stone, which sits at the top of a woodsy hillside on the pastoral campus of St. Olaf College. The station looks like it sounds: an oasis of learning, art, and sweaters.
Steve Staruch (pronounced "stare-ick") makes the drive down the highway from Minneapolis every day before his early shift. And on the morning of the Iraqi bicycle bomb, I decide to make the drive, too, to interview him. It turns out the DJ shuffles CDs in a studio that looks a little like the elegant interior of a Japanese restaurant. Montell Williams is yammering silently on the TV in the corner--a mute reminder that a larger world hums on outside Tchaikovsky's Fate. Staruch has just explained to his listeners that the piece was reassembled from orchestral parts after the touchy composer burned the original score--a response to a colleague's criticism.
"I get here at about 5:30 in the morning, and I need to know that there are people out there," Staruch says. "Because I sit here and talk to a sponge. That's my job. I talk to a sponge and you sit here and get to hear my conversation."
A buttoned-down member of the Dale Warland singers, the host is graying, yet boyishly enthusiastic about his day job. When I tell him he's been part of my subconscious for years, he cackles with delight.
"Radio is the most intimate broadcast medium," he says. "You can close your eyes, but it's hard to close your ears."
Classical 89.3 keeps a silent bond with its listeners: Here is something I love. Here is why others have loved it. And here's why I hope you'll love it, too. By all accounts, this bond extends to its patron: St. Olaf doesn't interfere with the work done here, though the school has owned WCAL's license for all of its 82 years. And while other small college stations have closed shop or joined larger networks over the last decade, WCAL has turned down overtures from Minnesota Public Radio. (MPR, which operates KPCC in Los Angeles, along with a station in an Idaho ski town, declined to comment on any interest in WCAL.)
"The board of regents hasn't had any real direct involvement because the station is well run," says Jan McDaniel, who serves as a go-between for Classical 89.3 and the college. In fact, the station's idiosyncratic independence might be a byproduct of sticking to old ways. "I think that uniqueness goes back to the tradition of the station," McDaniel adds. "It wasn't an asset that the college went out and purchased. It was incubated right here."
WCAL is the oldest of many things. It is the oldest listener-supported station in the United States, the oldest continuously owned station to keep its call letters, one of the first to flirt with FM (in 1949, though it didn't commit until '67), and one of the founding members of National Public Radio. Its first licensed AM broadcast in 1922 featured one Gertrude Boe singing into a primitive microphone, using a wooden salad bowl as a reflector. The dish belonged to the mother of WCAL's founder, Professor Hector Randolph Skifter, who had launched the signal himself as an experiment out of the physics department four years earlier. "Skif," as friends called him, was the tinkering son of working-class Danish and Norwegian immigrants--his dad was employed at the milk factory where Malt-O-Meal now stands. Having built his first wireless transmitter from the spark coil of a Ford motor, he went on to invent jamming devices used by the Allies in World War II.
But if WCAL began as a science project, it was always enamored with vocal and sacred music. Skifter even married a lead soloist from the St. Olaf Choir, and for most of its first 40 years, the station aired Sunday musical services in seven languages: English, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic. Today Classical 89.3 still plays choral music from Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Sunday evenings, and syndicates St. Olaf's Christmas festival around the country. In the rear of the building you'll find a windowless chapel with a giant tracker-action organ that runs on a mechanism developed in the 18th century--a monument to both the station's preservationism and religious commitment.
But if Classical 89.3's choral fixation seems natural for a Lutheran campus, it couldn't be more anomalous in modern classical radio, where the sonorous human voice is considered ratings death. Composer and satirist Peter Schickele noticed as much in 1991, when he issued a P.D.Q. Bach album featuring a made-up station with the call letters WTWP--"Wall to Wall Pachelbel."
"The rules were, no minor-key music during the day, no vocal music during the day," Schikele says now of his satire. "And all these rules turned out to be true within months! Most classical stations don't want vocal music during the day because if it's on in the workplace, it's distracting. I think it really is intended to be like musical wallpaper."
Classical 89.3 doesn't entirely ignore this focus-group wisdom, generated by such companies as Maryland's highly influential Audience Research Analysis, which provides public radio with its Arbitron ratings. During daytime hours, at least, WCAL DJs proceed cautiously with music for solo organ, vocal performances, and contemporary masters.
"There is certain 20th- and 21st-century stuff where, as much as we'd like to keep living composers' music playing, we have to consider how many people are really going to want to be listening," says Melissa Ousley.
But autonomy makes a difference that you can hear. On December 6, 2000, the Star Tribune's Gwendolyn Freed surveyed the daytime programming of KSJN, WCAL, and "Classical 24"--MPR's round-the-clock service produced out of St. Paul and syndicated across the country by Public Radio International. (The stream, which frees local stations from the costs of overnight staffing, provides about 60 percent of KSJN's content. A similar, competing service out of Colorado provides WCAL with its overnight feed.)
Freed reported that the average selection on WCAL lasted 15 minutes, where on KSJN it was 12 minutes, and on Classical 24, 9.5 minutes. In an era when commercial classical stations play ads between movements of the same symphony, even 15 minutes can feel like a luxurious eternity.
The problem, says Staruch, is that classical-music broadcasters, both public and private, are desperate to hold on to a dwindling audience. When he returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Staruch says he found the public station he once loved sounding insanely "perky"--a characteristic sweeping many formerly education-minded stations.
"They don't know who their audience is," he says. "And I think that's really the problem. One of the things I try to do is to say things that are intelligent but not necessarily highfalutin."
Compared with KSJN's 200,000 listeners, WCAL's 89,300 would seem to be a self-selected elite. So who are these people?
Hours after Staruch signs off, Ousley is taking requests for Favorites on Fridays--something she could never do, staff tell me, at Minnesota Public Radio.
"It's funny, because at least 50 percent of what is requested is vocal music," she says, laughing. "It goes against everything I've told you so far. Is it because those people don't get enough of it during the rest of the week? Is it because that type of person is more outspoken? Is it because that's what people really want to hear? I don't know. I think it's a little bit of all of those."
There are so many calls that two station employees, Susan Beeby and Jeff O'Donnell, are needed to field them. Sometimes listeners know what specific movement or performer they wish to hear, Beeby says. Sometimes they want the same thing every week. "We don't play things every week," she adds, madly scribbling notes.
Inevitably, this kind of hypereducated enthusiasm can give way to wingnuttery: Staruch says he once introduced an English madrigal called Amaryllis, and remarked that nobody really knows who Amaryllis is. Soon one caller laid into him: "I looked it up in the Oxford book of mythology! Amaryllis is a wood nymph, you hear me?! A wood nymph!"
"There are times when people call," Staruch sighs, "and you realize that they're just not having a good day and they have to talk to somebody."
After Ousley winds up her shift with a requested Gregorian chant, drive-time host Bill Morelock takes over, and finds himself fielding his own phone call. A lanky man with intense, blazing blue eyes, he responds with a series of subdued uh-huhs, then bursts into laughter. "Plus the fact that I think he sold the rights to that for $35 bucks!" he says. Then he hangs up.
"Well, there was an example of someone who calls in every once in a while. He said he had a great John Philip Sousa story. Nixon was in Amman, Jordan, on the second anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and the Jordanians played 'The Washington Post March' in his honor." Morelock laughs.
A former host of a syndicated show produced out of Minnesota Public Radio, Morelock had retired from the airwaves before being lured back into the fold by WCAL. Now he's a favorite among listeners for his endless historical segues.
"There are plenty of people, I'm sure, who want announcers to just stay out of the way," he says. "But at the same time, I think this music needs a context, as a signal that this is really accessible stuff."
Morelock worries that classical music has been the domain of scholarship for so long that beginners assume all the feeling about the music has been done for them already. "We tend to give up sovereignty over our reactions, because we feel daunted by these experts," he says.
And yet classical music continues to take on new meanings in the age of car bombs and endless military campaigns. Morelock realized as much after September 11, 2001, when Classical 89.3 switched to National Public Radio news for most of the day. By nightfall, staff had decided to return to music and forgo constant coverage of the events.
"By the end of the day, we said, 'That's going to keep going on everywhere,'" recalls station manager John Gaddo. So WCAL struck out, as usual, on a different course: "'Let's create a place where people can find respite, where they can retreat from the other stuff that was barraging all of us.'"
Morelock remembers playing dirgelike pieces at first, such as Barber's "Adagio for Strings," but feeling numb. "I think I was one of those people who were a little bit catatonic," he says.
Then he started talking with producer Stephen Davis about what other pieces might be appropriate, bringing up one song in particular: Would a Welsh baritone rendering of "You'll Never Walk Alone" be too much?
"At that moment, it was something I was really feeling," he says. "There was something I could actually do to respond to what was going on. We're all bombarded with media messages, and it's almost like we're expected to respond like a Pavlovian dog to this stuff. And you sort of resist it, especially when you're in the medium. You distrust it."
Imagine being a classical music DJ in that same position, and having to announce and play music that someone else had decided was appropriate. Or imagine no local DJ at all: The Beethoven Satellite Network wallpapering your pain away. Without stations like Classical 89.3, the world of flutes would be a lonely place.
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