I grew up in an area of New Jersey where it was simply unacceptable to listen to classical music. There were no concert opportunities, of course, and anyone caught buying a classical LP was subjected to ridicule and ostracism. Fortunately, we were within range of three radio stations in New York City that played classical music — WNCN, WQXR, and WNYC-FM — plus college stations that frequently indulged, such as WKCR ("King's Crown Radio"), the radio station of Columbia University.
I don't know what I would have done in my teenage years without these stations. Radio provided a way to explore classical music in private — or rather, in the anonymous company of friendly and intelligent DJs who obviously knew and loved the music.
These days, the cultural hegemony of commercial pop music is more dominant than ever, and even in New York City, classical music stations are fading away.
WNCN had a rocky history beginning in the mid-1970s, changing formats and call letters and changing formats back again. But whatever was left after all that turmoil has been gone since 1993. Seven years later, in a move that stunned and shocked the city, WNYC-FM abandoned most of its daytime classical music programming.
That left WQXR, a commerical radio station owned by the New York Times. The Times affiliation had some advantages — nice news breaks at the top of the hour — and being commercial involved some weirdness — including advertisements with rock-music soundtracks — but on the whole WQXR was a much beloved part of New York City.
Beloved but apparently not a money-making operation, WQXR was recently sold by the New York Times. For the past six days, WQXR has been a listener-supported radio station run by WNYC. It's still playing classical music, fortunately, and even some of the DJs made the transition, but we're all a little nervous.
The first problem is WNYC's ownership. After what they did to WNYC-FM nine years ago, I don't think anybody trusts them to maintain WQXR as a classical radio station. Spokespeople seem upbeat about the long-term prospects, but I simply can't share that optimism.
Much worse is a part of the deal that involved station swaps. WQXR no longer broadcasts a 6,000-watt signal at 96.3 but is now stuck with a 600-watt signal at 105.9. It's actually not quite as bad as it sounds — the signal strength is proportional to the square root of the wattage rather than the wattage itself — but it's still significant: Ever since WQXR moved to 105.9, the signal has been 1/3 its previous strength — audibly weaker and noisier and virtually unlistenable.
I no longer rely on radio stations as my sole source of classical music, of course, and at home there are alternatives to conventional FM broadcasts, such as online streaming at wqxr.org (formerly wqxr.com). But listening to WQXR in our car has become quite unpleasant, and what scares me most is the overall trend pushing classical music further and further to the peripheries of our culture.
New York City no longer has even one classical radio station. It's now closer to 1/3 of a radio station.