I don't write about radio stations often, but on occasion the spirit moves me. And the classical music station KUSC in Los Angeles has been sitting on shifting sands for a while and has finally moved me.
While I enjoy KUSC -- often a great deal, and I especially appreciate that it even exists since classical music stations have been dropping off the radio landscape over the past decade -- I've noticed that beginning a few months ago, the station has been playing significantly more movie soundtracks than in the past. Those times in the past were always more than I personally cared for, but at least it was rare. And I understand why KUSC played SO many soundtracks a few months back during Oscar time -- this is Hollywood after all, so let's celebrate our heritage (or something like that), so I accepted it with a sigh. But unfortunately, the veering to movie scores didn't stop after the Oscars and has continued full-stem ahead. Instead of one movie soundtrack every couple of weeks, it now almost seems at times to be one every other hour. And no, I'm not wildly exaggerating, if exaggerating at all.
It is their station to program as they see fit, of course. But as a listener, it's my choice how I spend my time. And I don't find movie soundtracks even remotely to be classical music. I fully-understand that one of their longtime (and superb, if often pretentious) announcers Jim Svedja loves them and loves inviting movie composers into the studio to talk to. And I know that the music can be melodic and often lovely and uses an orchestra -- but then so did Percy Faith, Andre Kostalanez, and Montovani, as well as Spike Jones. Movie scores are a very-talented craft which I much-admire, intended to be background music that augments the on-screen action, music that may not even stand-out and be noticed, so as not to distract. Using an orchestra no more makes background music "classical" anymore than -- as Lincoln noted -- a kitten born in an oven makes it a biscuit.
Speaking only personally, I usually turn the station off when a movie score plays on KUSC. Some of that is admitted petulance and a personal protest. But much of is because with classical music running through my home most of the day, which is where I work, the abrupt change to a movie score is clear and often comes across as Music Lite, and a bit annoying. Far better than elevator music, but when you've had Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Mahler and Brahms wafting through the air and are adjusted to it, the comparison feels apt. Sometimes with KUSC turned off, I switch to another station, sometimes I put a CD on. I also will sometimes put KUSC back on when I later remember, but that can often be half a day.
Again, it's their station, and much of KUSC is very good, they have several very good announcers and often good programming, and I really do greatly appreciate that it exists at all. And I even accept why tossing in a very rare movie score can fit here in "Hollywood." They're trying to appeal to crowd not honed on classical music. But I think this new effort of theirs, trying to build a classical audience by weaning them on a movie soundtrack once an hour is pursuing the Maltese Falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of." It's a lovely goal and idea, but underneath when you scratch off the paint what's there is just dross. The problem isn't playing a movie soundtrack once in a rare while -- that's annoying, but I fully get it. The problem is that KUSC playing SO many movie soundtracks now as standard programming fare in the regular daily lineup creates a foundation that is dumbing down a classical music station, just a step above playing only single movements of full symphonic pieces and some other changes I've noticed over the past six months or so.
It's all part of a larger whole. If a station (whatever the format) is faiiling then I understand trying to fix what's not working. But the fixes should be towards enriching things to full strength, not tearing down the walls, that are holding up the ceiling. And I don't get the sense that KUSC is failing with the audience. They seem to just be "trying new things" for the heck of it. For example, they now have a sister-station in San Francisco, and I'm sure that at times they're sharing the feed, so you're not always getting a local host. It's fine for cost-cutting (if that's the intent), but the immediacy of locale has always been one of the strengths of radio -- local weather, local traffic, local events, local references even in classical music world that make a station personal, and not just Muzak.
None of it is "terrible" (though borderline), but it's all part of dumbing down -- which is the antithesis of classical music. This isn't being elitist. This is a classical music station. That's its very point. That's its reason for existence. No one has to like Beethoven. People can adore movie soundtracks. But this is a classical music station. You wouldn't play oldies once an hour on an alternative rock station. Hey, it's all rock-n-roll, they all use electric guitars and drums and an electric base, what's the problem? I am sure there are people who like hearing movie soundtracks on KUSC. They're good melodies. But the problem is, if you make it part of the regular fare then the core audience who's there at the classical music station listening to classical music will eventually be gone, and what you're left with is movie themes. And there's a reason that All Movie Themes radio stations aren't taking over the airwaves.
And on an admittedly even-more personal note, though related, the station started maybe a year-and-a-half ago a cutesy feature complete with a cutesy promotional introduction from a cheery announcer telling us over honky tonk music that it's time now for "Off-to-School" requests from the kiddies, an idea which has long-since outlived its charm. It worked for about...oh, six weeks at most but then stopped having next-to-anything to do with kids requesting a classical piece (which more often than not -- seriously -- has been the "Theme to Star Wars") before they head to school. At this point, ever since the attempt fell apart at that six-weeks mark, it's mostly just adults sending in their requests. To be clear, kids' classical requests is a great idea...if it worked, which sadly became clear it doesn't. They just don't get many requests from kids. And morning drive-time requests is a perfectly good idea, too -- but just say that, say "It's time now for our Morning Request!" since that's what you've actually been doing for the past 18 months. But hey, you could even make Mondays your Off-to-School request day, to start the school week right. Just don't keep telling your listeners every single day that this is our "Off-to-School Request" when it's not that, when it has near-zero to do with the kiddies going to school. And it hasn't been for a year-and-a-half. The point is -- treat your listeners with respect, get it right and stop dumbing down yet one more thing day after day after day after day after day.
(By the way, how silly has it gotten? This week, they changed the name to -- buckle your seatbelts -- "And now, it's the KUSC Summer Vacation Request for Out of School Students or Studentless Teachers or even Parents and Grandparents or to Celebrate a Birthday or Mark a Milestone or Highlight an Achievement or Just Share a Favorite to Kick Off a Summer Day." Really! I'm not exaggerating. I wrote it all down verbatim. That's how far they've jerry-rigged the concept to try and justify calling it "Off to School" when it has next to nothing about schools...!)
As I've said, I like KUSC. And I'm extremely glad it's on the air. But classical music exists for people who want to hear classical music -- just as any format exists for listeners of that kind of material. A few adaptations here and there can work fine, when done with structure, wit and intelligence -- WFMT in Chicago, perhaps the gold standard of classical stations and as serious as could be, occasionally tosses in comedy, Broadway, poetry and offbeat material, but they program those things mixed with classical pieces in brief segments that are all tied together with a theme connecting them -- and it works brilliantly. There's a structure to it, a reason. KUSC can do what they will. But the core of classical music is its richness that has sustained over 400 years, and dumbing that down seems to work against its best interest.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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