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The Battle for Bach

On the day the music died for South Florida's classical fans, headaches began for one radio station's general manager. Not Mike Disney, new GM at Party 93 (WPYM-FM), the once venerable WTMI-FM (93.1) that on January 1 went and floozied itself up as a dance-music outlet to woo a younger crowd. Any pain Disney felt from being the target of numerous excoriating phone calls, letters, and columns by the region's irate classical-music audience was quickly assuaged by the impressive number of young adults who began tuning in to the new format.

But John LaBonia, general manager of WLRN-FM (91.3), suddenly found himself fending off some of WTMI's former listeners, who requested -- nay demanded -- that his station, South Florida's National Public Radio affiliate, pick up the slack. He was sympathetic to their plight but reluctant to fiddle with the format that rescued WLRN from the hodgepodge of programming that defined it a few years ago. In fact that format -- news and talk during the day; jazz at night -- has garnered the station a record 225,000 listeners per week and exceedingly successful fund drives. "We told people we can't be all things to all people," LaBonia explains. "We have had our programming in place for the last three and a half years and it's worked pretty well."

The most noticeable clarion calls for the classics have been issued by self-appointed champions of high culture such as Miami Herald music critic James Roos and Sun-Sentinel columnist Stephen Goldstein, among others. Roos in particular filled several cantankerous columns with his assertions that WLRN, owned by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, owed it to the public to preserve classical programming such as Performance Today and the Saturday-afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. He exhorted his readers to put pressure on LaBonia to "act like a public radio station -- in the public interest."

This posed something of a public-relations problem for WLRN given that some of its most important donors are also ardent devotees of classical music. LaBonia won't name names but he admits he received a few calls from people who threatened to withdraw their financial support if WLRN didn't agree to offer at least some classical programming. Richard Krinzman, chairman of the station's fundraising group Friends of WLRN, also received his share of calls. "The people in the cultural community who go to the opera, the symphony, or the [Florida] Philharmonic all had an interest in us converting to classical and cutting back on jazz," he relates.

Not only that, Roos reminded WLRN that Boynton Beach public station WXEL-FM (90.7), which currently airs 88 hours of classical music each week, sometime this summer is preparing to double its broadcasting power, which could cut into WLRN's audience in Broward and parts of Miami-Dade.

In an effort to mitigate the classical faction's anger, Krinzman arranged a meeting with LaBonia, radio station manager Ted Eldredge, and Roos, at which they implored the Herald writer to give them time. "We said, 'Just cut us a little slack and see what we can do,'" Krinzman recalls. "We tried to explain the big picture. There are plans [to accommodate classical listeners] but it can't be done overnight and it's a much bigger picture than just putting the Met on the radio."

Then on April 7 WLRN quietly altered its program schedule. It began airing Performance Today from 6 to 8 p.m. Sundays; the public-affairs programs that had occupied those slots were dumped. Though seemingly a minor tweak of WLRN's lineup, the change in fact was the result of more than a month of internal wrangling at the station, according to LaBonia and Eldredge. "That wasn't really where we were going [as a station]," LaBonia says. "News and information is really our bread and butter. Then we thought: There are 45 stations in this market and none of them offers classical. We need to offer something."

Five organizations -- the Florida Philharmonic, the Florida Grand Opera, the Concert Association of Florida, Carroll's Jewelers, and Relax the Back -- agreed to underwrite Performance Today, which features recorded concert performances of classical works. LaBonia asserts it wasn't exactly a pay-for-play agreement, but the underwriters picked up the roughly $20,000 tab for the show immediately after the station began airing it. "We committed to a year. [Any more would] depend on the funding and listenership we get," he says. "It's a test, and we told people that." LaBonia insists the station has no plans to broadcast the Metropolitan Opera because it would disrupt the popular Saturday- afternoon lineup.

Beyond the one program, WLRN is also talking to the heads of the Florida Grand Opera, Florida Philharmonic, and the New World Symphony about the possibility of broadcasting their live or recorded performances. The catch is that the station will need guaranteed donations to commit to such a large expense. "I think it's in the best interests of WLRN and the South Florida community to present our own performing-arts institutions because there is a wealth of wonderful performance going on," Eldredge maintains. "In a nutshell, we are trying to turn to the private sector and say, 'If this is important, we need your support.'"

Neil Birnbaum, general manager of the Florida Philharmonic, is ebullient at the prospect of WLRN airing local performances. The California transplant believes it is "not only a shame, it should be an embarrassment not to have classical music on the air somewhere in this market." Birnbaum says his preference would be to reserve a regular couple of hours per week -- say, one weeknight between 8 and 10 p.m. How to pay for such a service is a question that hasn't been worked out. "Ted Eldredge is playing it pretty close to the vest," he notes. "But in reading between the lines, I'd say it's more than $25,000 and less than $50,000."

Steve Malagodi, an on-air jazz host and engineer at the station since 1979, says he's a fan of what he refers to as "European classical" music, and he supports broadcasts of local performances. But he is concerned that other quality programming could suffer. "The folks who are pushing for this European classical music are organized, and the folks who like the Caribbean and jazz that basically built this station are not organized and they don't have the kind of money, clout, and political influence," he observes. "So it's kind of a lopsided battle -- if it is a battle."

LaBonia claims it's not a battle, although he does acknowledge that WLRN is looking at some lean times ahead. He figures the radio and television stations lost about $600,000 in funding from the school board in the past six months, plus another $100,000 in cutbacks of state funds, a substantial chunk from an $8 million operating budget. Eldredge allows that if some programming is shifted, it won't likely be the donation-generating news programming. But he dismisses the notion that WLRN, in attempting to accommodate classical tastes, would let itself slide back into the misguided mishmash from which it only recently recovered. "Not on my watch," he quips. "We worked too hard to get where we are now. But I think an appropriate balance can be found."

Judy Drucker, long-time president of the Concert Association of Florida, doesn't think Performance Today and a "maybe" on future local broadcasts make up for the loss of WTMI. "Big deal!" she huffs bitterly. Drucker laments the national trend of classical music disappearing from the airwaves. "It's a terrible sign of the times that classical music is not important to the stations anymore," she says. "I can only blame the media. They keep pushing rock, like the music you grew up on, because I guarantee you never went to a [classical] concert, did you?"

Drucker adds that she spends part of her week trying to find the magic spot on Miami Beach where WXEL's signal can sometimes be heard. "That's the only station I listen to anymore," she sighs. "I miss WTMI greatly."

Betsy Kaplan, the school board member most associated with arts and culture and a member of WLRN's advisory board, says it "just isn't in the cards" for WLRN to become a WTMI clone. "There are just as many people, if not more, who would be upset if the programs we have now were replaced," she offers. "As I said to one wealthy attorney [who was complaining about WTMI's format change]: 'All of us let WTMI fail by not trying to get advertising for it.'"

That sentiment is echoed by WXEL's general manager, Jerry Carr, who admits he experienced his share of pressure from classical-music fans before adding the Metropolitan Opera to the station's programming. He says he has no plans to expand the number of hours his station now devotes to classical fare. "I read somewhere that only four percent of the population listens to classical music," he muses. "And classical-music fans are not the greatest supporters of radio. They scream the loudest, but they just don't step up to the plate. It's a question of survival for a lot of stations."

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Rebecca Wakefield

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