Classical Gasbags

Fans of the late culture bastion WTMI are still crying into their brandy snifters

At least WPYM-FM (93.1) general manager Mike Disney can safely answer the phone now. It got pretty bad there for a while after his company, Cox Broadcasting, replaced WTMI-FM, the area's last remaining classical station, with a pulse-quickening trance and techno tableau of "Party 93.1" on New Year's Day (see Bandwidth, January 10). Yeah, so maybe he brought it on himself just a little bit by beginning its programming life with an inflammatory li'l tune called "Shut the Fuck Up and Dance." Now, the Miami station does bleep out four-letter words per FCC rules; some of the folks who called Disney to complain did not exercise the same courtesy.

"The profanity!" he cries. "And some of the things these people said!" Disney (no relation, by the way) knew he'd make enemies when Cox decided WTMI wasn't returning revenue fast enough as a classical station and switched to an all-dance format. "The problem with the classical music fans is they're extremely passionate, and it's like rippin' their hearts out," he says. "They're irrational when you talk to them."

Disney ended up talking to a lot of them after Sun-Sentinel classical music writer Lawrence Johnson noted in a January 20 article that ex-WTMI listeners, who consider Disney to be "just this side of Satan," had begun Web pages devoted to general handwringing and chest-thumping. He also printed Disney's direct line in the paper to facilitate the lobbying effort.

"I specifically asked him not to," gripes Disney. "Thank you very much, Larry! He sucker-punched me on that one. I found that extremely offensive. It screwed up our voice-mail system here for a while."

One of those Websites, www.keepitclassical.com, overflows with irate classical radio lovers harping on their discontent. "Cox, Shut the F**K Up and get OUT of Miami... now!" insists one writer. "Such revolting, insulting, déclassé sounds," laments another.

Another loyal patron of the arts, Coral Springs teacher Ellen Stahl, built a homepage that exhorted sponsors to pull their support from the dance-trance station. But Disney says it's in vain. "Very few advertisers carried over from the old format to the new," he points out. "We started at ground zero with the new station. It's a huge change. Had I gone from classical to talk, I think we could have kept a lot of those advertisers, but that was not anything [Stahl] did."

A full eight weeks after the switchover, some hangers-on still can't let Beethoven be bygones -- although Stahl's Website (www.sugarbanana.net/savegoodmusic) is now down, at least temporarily. Stahl, who hadn't returned phone calls and e-mails by press time, evidently lives in the same world with those poor folks who thought holding their breath would bring back Punky Brewster. It's not happening, so please find another cause! Save a seal or a whale, or help a homeless person. Your concerto ran off, and it ain't comin' back.

See, despite all the haughty proclamations from you classical buffs about how fat your freakin' wallets are and how Party 93.1 "blatantly promotes the drug culture" to "teenyboppers" and "welfare types" (actual message-board quotes, I swear), your wads of cash haven't reversed the course of classical music's decline on the airwaves, in South Florida or anywhere else. And it isn't just radio that's in trouble. Last month saw the collapse of the Boca Pops and subsequent auction of its instrument collection and music library. The Florida Philharmonic is in turmoil.

All over North America and Europe, orchestras are on the ropes, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Sales of classical recordings, especially opera and symphonic works, have been in a free fall for ten years or more. Classical music hasn't just failed to attract young audiences: Cities like Denver and Seattle use loudspeakers blasting Mozart and Beethoven to clear undesirables (skateboarders, winos, and street urchins) from public parks.

So what's left for the chardonnay-and-brie set in South Florida? Not a whole hell of a lot. Internet radio stations like beethoven.com can help fill some of the void. WVUM-FM (90.5) at the University of Miami recently offered to chip in three hours a week of classical programming, but its puny signal doesn't penetrate north of Aventura. WXEL-FM (90.7), Palm Beach County's public radio station, has promised to enter the froufrou fray -- for all the good that'll do (more on this next week).

Disney breaks it down thus: "I think it's sad when you take the classical music station out of the market. It's a bummer. But we're a big company, in business to make money." He stresses that Cox, which owns newspapers, cable systems, television stations, and radio stations, is not waging a war on culture using recruits from the glow-stick brigade. "In my CD collection, I have a lot of classical music," Disney continues with a radio pitchman's smoothness. Why, he wonders, don't these affluent, educated, stock-market-playing old white folks get it?

"They're speaking out of both sides of their mouths," he charges. "They're all greedy little capitalist pigs, but they can't understand that a classical music station wasn't making any money."

 
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