I listen to public radio a lot. I’ve been listening to WGBH for almost thirty years, since I moved to Massachusetts. I would listen to Ellen Kushner’s and others’ folk shows every weekend afternoon. Now those shows no longer exist—the folk music scene of the 1980s apparently petered out, and Kushner started a music-and-spirituality program that eventually became too much for me to take—but for a long time, WGBH radio played lots and lots of really good classical and jazz. A couple of years ago, they turned their original frequency entirely over to news (with a few hours of jazz late on weekend nights), and bought a second station that would play classical music only. This station, WCRB, had previously been a commercial classical-only station. WGBH had, for a long time, defined themselves as the station that didn’t have to make the kind of commercial compromises that other station did. But a bunch of their classical announcers had gone into retirement or semi-retirement, and they’d already been limiting music to fewer and fewer hours of the day. They bought WCRB to keep it from folding and got most or all of their announcers (a couple of whom had been filling in now and then already).
For a while it seemed like they were going to take over existing shows and merge the two station’s sensibilities. But after a few years, I just don’t like the music they’re playing. It is too much the same pieces, over and over again, and the pieces they play are from too limited a range of time. There’s too much eighteenth century, and not even the challenging music from that period. Nowhere are the twentieth-century pieces I learned to love when Robert Lurtsema and Ron della Chiesa used to play them. Some of the shows, and announcers, are perfectly fine, in small doses; others, I simply can’t take, and I think not only because they remind me of the doctor’s or dentist’s office: the old station had that calming affect that made it perfect for places that didn’t want their clientele nervous. It’s nice that they still have the BSO and Pops concerts, but in fact they play fewer of these, too.
I appreciate that all these things cost money. They play what brings in cash, and they play what their announcers like, too, and maybe Lurtsemas and Della Chiesas are thin on the ground these days. It’s better, I guess, to be able to have music all day, than to have it be restricted to only a few hours slotted into a news schedule, as was the case for a few years until they purchased the second station. (It would be even nicer if the jazz and folk offerings on the main station weren’t also diminishing, but the new talk programs taking their place are, admittedly, not bad, and there may be an announcer issue there, too; they’ve had the same announcers doing the job for decades by now.) But I’m finding that, with rare exceptions, I often have to turn it off.
I’d been using the TuneIn app on my phone to use it as a radio upstairs or in the backyard, and when I travel, I sometimes use it to browse stations that are local to where I’m staying. Eventually, I ended up searching for and saving classical stations around the country that I preferred to Boston’s. I’ve been listening most frequently to WRTI, from Temple University in Philadelphia. It’s kind of neat to hear the traffic reports from near where I used to live. The stream usually plays an ad before it gets going, and it’s also been neat to hear the local Toyota ads with the local pronunciation. When I was twenty-one an annoying friend from college insisted that I was saying “Tie-oh-ta” and that nobody said that, and I must have picked it up in two months’ living outside Boston—because of course nobody pronounces words correctly except people who live in New York.
I also added the Harvard and Columbia college stations, which sometimes play classical and sometimes play jazz, occasionally folk or rock, and neither of which I can get on a radio receiver where I live. And some secondary streams from other stations, including WRTI’s jazz stream and another station’s “unusual classical stream.” WBCN, which used to be a classic rock station (and before that, just rock—of course, the letters stand for “Boston Classical Network,” but that was a long time ago), has a second stream that only plays 80s music. And WBDC is an online-only alternative station run by the Globe that has a number of the DJs who used to be on WFNX, before they were bought and became, I think, a country station. ‘FNX upped their signal strength just before I moved up here, in 1987, but I’ve actually never lived in a place where I could get them indoors. So it’s pretty cool that I can still listen to them; and they still, often enough, play music from the 1990s.
WGBH also has a TV affiliate that I watch at times, and that participates in the PBS network (and produces a lot of shows for them). And they still have their news station. This competes with WBUR, which is run by Boston University using professional staff. I’ve mostly listened to WGBH for many years. During afternoon and morning drive time, people in Boston usually have a choice of two stations that are playing much the same programs, maybe at different times and maybe not. In the middle of the day and at night, when I listen while driving or doing housework, the shows are usually different—though Philadelphia’s Fresh Air has occasionally been on both during the same time period (but not the same time slot). And until recently, I’ve generally felt that WBUR was more conservative and business-oriented. (And I can’t listen to Christopher Lydon.) But their culture and news shows On Point and Here and Now have grown on me. And though I like The Takeaway, a news magazine somewhat similar to Here and Now (to which WGBH contributes, along with the New York Times but which is produced in New York), and the local programs they air on weekday mornings, I simply can’t stand their new (couple years old) show featuring news figures from other media outlets—which they’ve now expanded from two to three hours and begun repeating again in the evenings (when On Point is also rerun).
Obviously, with streaming audio and a smartphone or tablet, or wireless speaker connected to my computer, I can also download most of these shows anytime I want, anywhere in the house (not necessarily in the car unless I download a podcast ahead of time—and now, considering the somewhat conflicting devices my husband and I bought one another for Christmas, I can listen to digital streams on my stereo, too). Or I could choose shows from different parts of the country. But these are the ones I most often listen to.
I feel bad that this year some of my public radio donation is going to go to WBUR (in spite of the fact that the last time I sent them money, they sent me dozens of membership solicitations, stopping only when my year-long membership in fact had expired, so much mail that I felt like I was saving them money by not donating) and WRTI, not only to WGBH, but the alternative is not to send the other stations anything.