The Slow Demise of KUSC-FM
Updated September 8, 2020
My interest in classical music began in the late 1970s, and I was first introduced to KUSC shortly thereafter. It was a terrific resource; I spent a lot of time on the freeways in Los Angeles, and took the opportunity to educate myself, tuning in to KUSC and becoming acquainted with a tremendous variety of great music. I remember vividly the first time I heard Schumann’s Piano Quartet Op. 47, or Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, as I was driving through Culver City and Downey, respectively.
KUSC emerged as the largest non-profit classical music station in the US. It had its good and bad points; although Jim Svejda’s announcing style was maddeningly pompous, and he insisted on inflicting upon the listener his fixation on third rate English composers, he also made genuinely insightful observations and programmed classic archival performances of tremendous educational value. Rich Capparela was consistently witty on the air. But somewhere around 2016, KUSC began to morph into something else. Here are the symptoms:
· An increasingly large percentage of KUSC’s programming is devoted to non-classical music, including (most notably) Hollywood movie themes, as well as contemporary pop composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, and even music from popular video games.
· KUSC has adopted an “ADD format” where for the most part, substantial works may not be played in their entirety; only selected movements are offered, out of context. On occasion, listeners are even treated to truncated versions of a single movement. KUSC ran a listener poll on their website, in which one of the questions had to do with whether listeners would accept compositions of more than 25 minutes.
· Vocal music is banned, except for weekend opera broadcasts and the choral works on Brian Lauritzen’s Sunday morning program of religious music. The great Lieder of Schubert and Schumann, or arias by Bach, Händel and others, are presented only in the form of tacky piano arrangements by Liszt, or elevator-music instrumental transcriptions. KUSC announcers matter-of-factly inform their listeners that these amateurish arrangements are the actual compositions of Schubert and Schumann et al. Is this some sort of pandering to xenophobes who are suspicious of people who sing in foreign languages?
· Certain very well known pieces are placed in constant rotation, Top 40-style, including Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite, Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser, Schubert’s incidental music for “Rosamunde”, Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” and so on.
·With the exception of Jim Sjevda’s show “The Record Shelf”, KUSC does not program archive recordings by the great musicians of the past. They emphasize new releases in such a way that makes me suspect that there is a business arrangement with the recording companies. And this is particularly regrettable because the knowledge of how to interpret classical masterworks is gradually fading into the past, replaced by technically facile but un-poetic renditions.
·KUSC shows an utter disdain for the composer. They shun the composer’s intended instrumentation, preferring to substitute schlocky arrangements for saxophone, etc. The listener is generally allowed to believe that he is hearing the original composition.
· For a while in 2018, there was an attempt to introduce a mash-up format where two entirely unrelated works would be programmed with no break between them, emulating the style of FM rock stations and creating confusion in the minds of classical listeners (who were at a loss to comprehend the sudden change of instrumentation, key and genre.) Evidently there was some push-back from listeners, so that this benighted policy was reduced, but not dropped.
Every year, KUSC runs an on-line poll called the KUSC Top 100 Countdown, another programming idea that borrowed from Top 40 commercial pop stations. Although the reader has the option of voting for “write-in” candidates, the results are largely shaped by KUSC’s list of nominees, which reveals much about the biases they hope to transmit to their listeners.
For example, during 2018 and 2019 there have been only two options to vote for (very minor) compositions of Robert Schumann, putting him on an equal plane with Ludovico Einaudi, instrumental music’s answer to Justin Bieber (and consequently, for two years no composition by Schumann has made the Top 100). They clearly don’t like chamber music; out of roughly 300 voting options, there are a total of 7 chamber works. Although there are some selections from operas and oratorios, there is not a single Lied or art song. And most tellingly, there are 5 voting options for movie themes by John Williams (including such landmarks of classical culture as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park”), as compared with zero options for C.P.E. Bach (or any of Bach’s sons), Hummel, Zelenka or Dohnányi.
In 2020, the station introduced a new feature, the “Classical California Ultimate Playlist”, which appears to be a rebranded Top 100. They offer a list of “popular pieces on KUSC” to guide the listener in voting for his or her favorites. This time around, Robert Schumann is reduced to only one option, his piano concerto, whereas pop sensation Ludovico Einaudi still gets two, and Hollywood schlockmeister John Williams is increased from five options to seven. They polish their PC credentials by adding some new options by female and POC composers, but still choose not to acknowlege the existence of Bach’s sons, nor Hummel, Zelenka or Dohnányi.
Based on a search of their website, it also appears that KUSC is boycotting the Beethoven Year of 2020, which is being celebrated by classical music enthusiasts all over the world in celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. My guess is that this is an expression of “cancel culture”, an aspect of the trendy Political Correctness movement that is promoted in particular by afternoon DJ Brian Lauritzen. It appears that Beethoven is being “canceled” because his unsurpassed artistry and passionate humanism might make it appear that the mediocre lightweight composers of the 20th century, as well as the whole gamut of pop culture, are of relatively lesser importance to humanity (as if that were not blindingly obvious.)
The big question in my mind is, why? What would be the motivation for America’s most successful classical station to move steadily away from a classical format?
Money may be a factor. Non-commercial stations are always in a state of financial anxiety, since they depend upon listener contributions and must frequently schedule on-air pledge drives which tend to annoy their listeners. The failing economy means that some regular contributors will fall away, making it necessary to find new ones. Did KUSC decide to emulate pop-music programming formats, in hopes of attracting pop listeners to the station?
Another possibility is that KUSC hopes to become less dependent on listener support, by attracting more corporate sponsors. They make public a short list of “featured” sponsors, including Warner Brothers, Miramax and Netflix, giving rise to the question: is the big shift toward programming movie themes a quid pro quo, in response to donations from Hollywood firms? In the old days, there was something called Payola, where record companies paid Top 40 stations to push specific records. That was a bit more blatant (and illegal), but essentially the same principle, if that is what is going on. I addressed this question on Twitter to KUSC Vice President Bill Lueth:
Mr. Lueth did not not deign to respond. [Update, January 2020: KUSC announcers are now proclaiming on the air that their annual schlock-fest, “KUSC at the Movies”, is sponsored by Hollywood corporations. So much for non-commercial radio.]
Is there anything that die-hard classical music listeners can do to halt this trend? Money talks, of course. Perhaps a “listeners’ union” could be formed to negotiate with the station, offering more financial support in exchange for a return to an all-classical format. I invite you to sign this petition. Engage with the station on social media — they are extremely sensitive to that. And if you have other suggestions, please add them as comments to this article.