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PODCAST: William Bulger, Chris Lydon, WGBH, WCRB, and the Future of Classical Music on the Radio

In 2009, we got used to seeing angry mobs descend on public forums with vengeance in their hearts. So for anyone who'd been to a town-hall forum on health care, the scene at Boston's Old South Church on January 5 was eerily familiar -- an older audience, larger than you'd expect (the organizers put it at 400-plus), venting its collective spleen at hapless bureaucrats. 

What was different -- and remarkable -- is that the issue was classical music on the radio, and the object of the audience's ire was public broadcaster WGBH. Only in Boston. 

In case you haven't been following Boston's biggest radio-format drama since the demise of WBCN, here's the time line. At the beginning of December, WGBH took formal possession of Boston's only all-classical radio station, WCRB, after having bought the station for a reported $14 million. WCRB remains all-classical, but WGBH has eliminated the classical music it had been airing from 9 am to 4 pm on weekdays in favor of more news shows.

Boston listeners thus have less classical music on the air than they did before. WGBH's not altogether unreasonable reply is that if it hadn't bought WCRB, listeners wouldn't have even what they do now, since the station was up for sale and no other bidder was proposing to run it as a classical-music station.

But that's only the beginning of the dissatisfaction. WGBH has a 100,000-watt transmitter in Milton; the WCRB transmitter is only 27,000 watts, and it's way up in Lowell. Many WGBH listeners, especially those south of Boston, can't get WCRB at all. And some of those who can feel that what they're hearing has been dumbed down. (On the other hand, some regular WCRB listeners feel that their station is now too pointy-headed.) Everyone, moreover, is up in arms over WGBH's announcement that it is discontinuing its long-running live broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Friday-afternoon concerts.

The result was this public forum organized by the Boston Music Intelligencer, a blog covering Boston's classical-music scene that's written by local musicians, musicologists, and academics. No less than former State Senate president William Bulger presided over a panel comprising public-broadcasting star Chris Lydon, former WCRB general manager Dave MacNeill, former Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer, and WGBH general manger John Voci.

Voci figured to be the sacrificial lamb, and indeed he did himself few favors with the audience, which lined up and nailed him to the wall for a solid hour after the formal panel discussion had ended. He explained that there's no practical way to increase WCRB's signal strength -- and no one was able to refute him on that. He suggested that disenfranchised WGBH listeners could buy HD radios -- a "solution" that would have gone down better had it been offered with more sympathy and less arrogance. (Why couldn't WGBH offer HD radios instead of Andrea Bocelli box sets at pledge time?) And he was peculiarly resistant to the universal plea for the restoration of the Friday-afternoon BSO broadcasts, saying it would cost $20,000 or $30,000 that the station doesn't have. (How hard would it be to get a bank, say, to underwrite those broadcasts?)

The Intelligencer pronounced the event "a great success," which it was, if the goal was a mass public venting. In terms of altering the course of WGBH's actions, the meeting was somewhat less successful. There is, however, an ongoing grassroots campaign to lobby WGBH on behalf of that signature issue of restoring the Friday broadcasts -- and the audience has been joined by what you'd think would be a powerful special-interest group: the BSO's own musicians.

For those who couldn't make the meeting, then, we present a very-nearly-complete* recording of the proceedings, with thanks to the Boston Music Intelligencer. Click on the file below to listen, or right-click and save-as to download the file to your intelligent device of choice. 

PODCAST: Panel: The Future of Classical Music Broadcasting in Boston (full) [mp3]

*We apologize in advance to Mr. Lydon, who was in the middle of a funny retort when our hard drive ran out of space around the 90-minute mark. We were able to delete some old files and be back up and running again within about a minute -- but unlike Mr. Bulger, who promised to stay until every registered Democrat had a chance to speak, we ran out of power at the 2-hour mark. Thus, we further apologize to the final three citizens whose remarks to the panel went unrecorded. UPDATE: We've received a full recording of the panel, thanks to the Boston Music Intelligencer; we've updated the MP3 link accordingly.

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