A US classical station is taken over by country music

A US classical station is taken over by country music


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2017

WBACH in Portland, Maine, has played what it says in the name for 25 years.

No longer.

As of yesterday, the station is playing country music.

‘We would like to thank the fans of WBACH and classical music for listening over the years and we regret any inconvenience as a result of the changes,’ said operations manager Stan Bennett.

Just like that.


  • MissPrinteditions says:


  • Shankha Mitra says:

    Ah yes, country music. I wonder if future generations 300 years from now will be listening to Waylon Jennnings. But they’ll be still listening to Bach.

    • James says:

      Isn’t it true to say that there have been many classical composers and musicians over the centuries that are not known or performed today?

      The same will most likely be true of country music in the future. There will be giants like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams, to name just a few, that will continue to be remembered and played for generations and many others that will sink without trace. It’s already 60+ years since Williams died and 50+ since Cline’s death yet they’re still played and revered.

      And if you accept that country music can cover a gamut of styles in the way that classical music does there are many more artists past and present – from Woody Guthrie to Ryan Adams – that will live on.

      Whether intended or not, your disparaging comment smacks of condescension and ignorance of the genre.

      • Dan P. says:

        I don’t think that Shankha is being condescending at all. Tastes in popular music change radically over time. Yes, some may remain, but if history is any guide, even the best of one period tends to be of interest only to specialists in later generations. How much popular music do we listen to from the 1920s. Among many composers of the time there’s Gershwin and Irving Berlin but this is all except, perhaps, if a song is revived and modernized (I’m thinking of Mama Cass singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” as an example. That was a hit in the late 60s but the song comes from 1931). And as for singers, do many people still listen to the stars of yesteryear – Gene Autry, Annette Hanshaw (a favorite of mine), Ethel Waters. Popular music is always of the moment – it expresses the spirit and concerns of the time and when that time passes the majority of people no longer relate to it and move on, despite the quality of the music. But there are revivals from time to time. When Shankha states that Bach remains she is merely stating a fact. How much popular music from the early 18th center is still around? How much of it do you know?

        • James says:

          I think we’re both saying the same thing here which is that both (all?) genres have some people / pieces that endure and some that don’t.

          I have no quibble with the fact that Bach remains 300 years later but, for me, the OP’s comment intimated a disdainful belief that country music would not be recalled 300 years from now but I’m possibly mistaken in my reading of it.

          • Dan P. says:

            Well, besides the fear some of us have that nothing much will still be here in 300 years, what will remain even a generation ahead is tough to guess. Even in the relative short term, who of age and any experience in the 60s would have guessed that a half century later, the Beatles would still be a big deal and the Rolling Stones would still be performing? They had lots of hits but so did others. Their music lasted, but other groups are remembered at best by one or two songs by oldies like me.

            Bach was written off as old fashioned and stuffy before he died. He was only rediscovered much later – and gradually at that. On the other hand, there were pieces that were acclaimed masterpieces when they first came on the scene that have completely disappeared for good reason.. Off the top of my head I can think of Horatio Parker’s oratorio Hora Novissima that in its day was played all over the US and celebrated in England as one of the greatest compositions by an American composer. Now, of course, Hora is an encyclopedia footnote at best and I doubt many people even know who Parker was, except, perhaps, as the teacher of a Yale student who was considered a crank and an amateur through much of his life, Charles Ives. Then in the 60s – he was re-discovered. But that was long after he died.

            So – it’s hard to tell even though we may now have our own convictions of the moment – but even those change over time. I just say, love the music you love and don’t apologize for it. Leave the prognosticating to those with time on their hands. I’ll just go back to listening to Boulez and Babbitt (and Mama Cass).

  • NYMike says:

    Years ago, NY’s finest classical FM station WNCN switched to rock on the stroke of midnight despite having been listener-supported.

    • Dan P. says:

      The WNCN story is very interesting, actually. One of the great classical stations, it was purchased In 1974 by Starr Broadcasting, whose chairman was the William Buckley, editor of the right wing magazine “National Review” who actually went on the air himself to announce to listeners that the format would change to rock because they had a fiduciary duty to the owners to make as much money as they could. To kick sand in the face of the listeners, the first music they played when the format changed, as you said on the stroke of midnight, was “Roll Over Beethoven.”

      LIsteners got really steamed and organized to petition the FCC to block the change, which actually happened in 1975 when Starr sold the station and it went back to classical music. That lasted until the early ’90s when it’s classical music programming went off the air for good and went rock again. Since then, the station’s call letters were changed and it’s been bought and sold a few times. But during its heyday (I even owned a WNCN coffee mug) it was a great station that played a remarkably wide variety of classical music – including every once in a while a difficult piece of contemporary music. I seem to believe a favorite in the overnight spot was Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, which would get air time every once in a while. Someone there must have liked it as much as I did.

  • Dave says:

    This has been happening for years in the US. The local PBS classical station changed to all an all news station a few years back. The reason? We will now have more listeners.

  • Dennis says:

    We’re lucky here in Louisville to still have an all-classical channel 24/7, WUOL. I hope it too doesn’t fall to the zeitgeist.

  • Dan P. says:

    I grew up in Portland long before WBACH and for many years the only classical music on the radio was 2 hours on Sunday night on commercial station hosted by a 75 year old news anchor. By the late 60s, however, there was WDCS. They had a very clever business model. Religious programming (that paid up front) during the day to pay for the classical music from 6 PM on. Occasionally a few of us – we were in our teens – would hang out at the station and chat about music with the disc jockey. As the DJ told us, “Jesus pays to keep Beethoven and Stravinsky on the air.” But not forever, it seemed. The station eventually went off the air too.

    WBACH, however, from what I heard during visits, was very somnolent. Lots of easy listening classical that you could put on in the background at a dentist’s office. I suppose it was better than nothing. But the truth is, if there are enough people that want something, it will happen. Radio stations are expensive to maintain without lots of advertising or lots of non-profit support..

    The sad thing is, however, is that many public radio stations have gone to an all talk-show format. That happened in both Boston (WBUR and WGBH) and New York (WNYC) that had long traditions broadcasting both recordings and live concerts. And it happened at the same time for the same reason. During the first Gulf War, these stations went to an all news format to provide current information about the war. They then saw their ratings go up significantly. So they got the message.

    • Tom Varley says:

      I have fond memories of WDCS in Portland c. 1972, when I was a student at Bowdoin College. My recollection is that classical music was on 6 p.m. – midnight, then the station went to rock until dawn, when the religious programming began. Eclectic, to say the least!

      WDCS carried the Boston Symphony broadcasts and since William Steinberg was often ill, Michael Tilson Thomas was frequently heard. My recollection is that I heard MTT program the Borodin 2nd Symphony a couple times in the 71-72 season.

      The DJ made his own preferences very well known and his favorite recordings, e.g., Scriabin 2nd Symphony under Svetlanov and the then new Giulini/Chicago Beethoven 7th would pop up with some regularity.

      • Dan P. says:

        Yes – one of WDCS’ characteristics is that they didn’t have a program director (at least that I knew of) to mastermind the classical schedule long term but the classical music guy (I think his name was Ed Shaughnessy) just played what he liked. (They took requests too.) After they went on the air they took over broadcasting both the Boston Symphony and the Portland Symphony. It was a very informal place. It was located off the lobby of the Lafayette Hotel, right in the center of town and as a teenager I’d stop by from time to time to chat about music. My friends did too.

        Once I mentioned how excited I was to hear the Portland Symphony play Webern’s Six Pieces Op. 6 (which I had never heard before – you really couldn’t find much Webern back then). The next time I visited he gave me a copy of the master they had in their archives. On the box (this was in the reel-to-reel days) he put a caricature of himself. I STILL have that tape along with that doodle. I still can’t believe how informal things were back then.

    • MWnyc says:

      Not quite fair to say that WNYC abandoned classical music.

      You’re right about what happened with the switch to news – except that at WNYC, it happened in 2001 as a result of 9/11, not during the first Gulf War.

      However, the New York Times was preparing to sell WQXR, at that point the city’s only full-time classical radio station, to a company that was going to change to a Latino music format. WNYC stepped in and worked out a three-way purchase-and-swap and took possession of WQXR, to which they moved classical programming.

      So you can’t say that WNYC dropped classical radio itself without also saying that it saved classical radio in New York.

      • Dan P. says:

        You’re right – it WAS 9/11. It was the Boston public radio stations that changed during the Gulf War – I was living there at the time when it happened – and then living in NYC during 9/11. I conflated the two.

        The thing though, is that they didn’t move classical music to WQXR because WQXR was already a classical station, so instead of two there was now only one. When they did the swap, however, the Latino station got the frequency (96.3) and then WQXR moved to the not so good frequency of the Latino station and reduced its power from 6,000 watts to just 600. The signal now is fairly crappy in many places, including where I live.

        I guess one could say they saved classical music for New York, but the station dropped it’s most interesting themed programs (the Vocal Scene, First Hearing, and the morning interview shows of musicians who were in town to perform) and just spun records, a lot of which could serve as background music for dentist offices. So, you may be right, but they made programming less interesting.

        And I distinctly remember Laura Walker, head of WNYC, bragging that they purchased WQXR so they would have “somewhere to ‘park’ their classical programming.” I thought that indicated that classical music may not have been something of great personal interest to her.

        • MWnyc says:

          Dan P., I wouldn’t say that Laura Walker bragged that WQXR would be a place to park classical music. She did say that, but I don’t know if bragging is a fair description.

          It has been clear for a long time that Walker doesn’t care much for classical music, and the way she treated former morning classical host Steve Post (who was the only person whose pledge drive programs one would go out of one’s way to listen to – he was very funny, and he raised millions of dollars) was shameful.

          But one can’t say she’s been a bad manager: the station has grown and thrived enormously during her tenure. And WNYC didn’t have to buy WQXR at all, but it did.

          As for the change of radio frequency: precisely because it is better for broadcasting, 96.3 FM is a much more expensive frequency to purchase than 105.9, and the New York Times was not going to accept less than top dollar for it. (Rightly so). WNYC did not have that extra money, so it bought the available frequency it did have the money for.

          (As I understand it, WNYC has, as it’s able to do over time, been buying and stationing signal repeaters to improve transmission in areas where it’s poor. Maybe you should let the station know that the signal is weak where you live, and they can add the area to their repeater plans.)

          A lot of people complained about WQXR’s move on the dial at the time, but the choice wasn’t between WQXR at 96.3 and WQXR at 105.9. It was a choice between WQXR at 105.9 and no WQXR at all.

          – – – – –

          As for programs like First Hearing and The Vocal Scene, they had been around for a long time (I was fond of them when I was a kid), and a lot of listeners thought they were tired.

          • Dan P. says:

            WNYC certainly has grown from the sleepy station on a shoe string budget to an area powerhouse – for our crowd at least. I remember my first interview there in the late 70s was in a bare studio in the Municipal Building in which the microphone was attached to a cold water pipe that the host Tim Page and I stood around. But he always played such an eclectic range of music. It was always a place to hear somethin unfamiliar. I also have fond memories of Steve Post. He was unique. His mordent wit and the jaundiced eye he cast on pretension and weasely edicts that came from on high made his news casts amusing but must have made his bosses squirm. But that’s why we all listened.

            As for Laura Walker, perhaps the word “bragged” was not quite accurate but you have to admit that the tone of her statement about “parking” classical music speaks less of love and support than of the relief of getting an annoying pain in the rear out of the way. The station has grown immensely under her, and that’s great, but maybe a few less talk shows about current events would be nice.

            I understand the realities of the WQXR situation of the time and followed them closely once Mayor Giuliani decided that the city shouldn’t be in the broadcasting business. And I appreciate that there was no other option – although WNYC didn’t really have to exile all its classical music too. They have two stations broadcasting on AM and FM and duplicate much of their programming. So there’s room. I just wish WQXR’s programming could be a little more interesting and inventive as was WNYC and WNCN were in their heyday.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    In Rochester, NY, we are extremely fortunate to have WXXI, which broadcasts classical music 24/365 on FM, and news/talk 24/365 on AM, in addition to running the PBS television station here. WXXI is available streaming on the web, for those of you unfortunate enough not to have a local classical station.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    The classical station in Dallas (WRR) is a commercial station but owned by the city, the only case like that in the nation.

    It is a potentially valuable asset that must perennially resist complaints that it isn’t playing the music of the people and demands that it be sold off so it could be another rap station.

  • daveferre says:

    How about no FM stations at all? Norway shut nearly all of them down and now streams classical on the Internet.


    There are other choices, of course. I think streaming is where it’s at these days. Also, another nice channel from Seattle:


    There are 1,000s of stations out there.

  • Dennis says:

    What’s particularly absurd is that, according to an article linked on ArtsJournal, the former classical channel at 96.9 is not even presenting it’s own original country programming or on-air talent. They are just simulcasting another country channel that broadcasts on 99.9. What’s the point of simply re-broadcasting what another channel a few clicks away on the dial is already broadcasting? The modern mass-media radio and tv markets and their brainless corporate overlords are utterly sickening.

    • Dan P. says:

      Most likely the reason they are simulcasting is to reach a broader audience. Maine is a not very densely populated state and to reach the number of listeners that advertisers need, some stations – like Maine Public Radio – have repeater stations that simulcast in various parts of the state. Maine Public Radio has five stations – all with the same program. 99.9 The Wolf as they are called already has two stations and to look at the range they claim to cover on their website they would have to have multiple stations simulcast. One FM station would never cover that kind of territory. FM just doesn’t travel far. In the Portland Press Herald article that Norman has linked to, they claim they want to improve coverage into Portland, which is Maine’s most populous city. And, the thing is, having grown up in that state, fans of country music certainly outnumber fans of classical music. And once you leave the greater Portland area, you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re not bound to run up against anyone who has a hankering for, say, Beethoven Op. 59 No. 1, much less has heard of it.

  • Bill Berger says:

    The classical radio station in South Florida turned into a religious station just after concluding a big fundraising campaign.

  • jasper says:

    I believe that WNCN signed off with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, after which the rock format began with Megadeth (correct spelling of band; could be mistaken about the two musical pieces, my memory is faulty at times).