By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When Bukowski wrote those film noir lines in his poem “Some Notes on Bach and Haydn,” classical music radio in L.A. was flourishing. Hamilton Williams presided over “Concerto from Coldwater Canyon” on KCBH (the BH for Beverly Hills); maverick musicologist Bill Malloch produced magnificent Mahler, Bruckner, and Golden Age conductor historical documentaries on Pacifica station KPFK; and Thomas Cassidy and Carl Princi held forth on KFAC. At KUSC, however, classical wouldn’t take over from funky rock and weekend baseball games until 1973.
It is quite something to turn your radio on / low / at 4:30 in the morning / in an apartment house / and hear Haydn / while through the blinds / you can see only the black night / as beautiful and quiet / as a flower.—Charles Bukowski
But when Jim Svejda arrived in 1979, the station had grown into a powerhouse, and he would go on to set a standard for radio hosts who keep the public engaged with classical music. There he remained a stalwart champion of classical radio programming until his retirement this year. Svejda’s was a major voice in promoting live events in Los Angeles and the Southland, and ranked alongside even the New York Times in selling recordings. He was deeply knowledgeable about great conductors—a fierce advocate for those he loved with terrible scorn for those he didn’t. He played Nielsen and Martinů on a regular basis. His annual Gramophone Awards Show was a delight.
Over lunch he tells me where his confidence in evaluating conductors came from. “One year when I was a kid, nine or ten, I saw Fritz Reiner, Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, and Sir Thomas Beecham conduct the Chicago Symphony. In one season. And I have a very good musical memory, which is confirmed by a lot of the Reiner recordings for RCA. In fact, I attended the concerts that preceded the recordings, and they were very similar.” Svejda admits that the concerts were “a lot more exciting, generally, as concerts tend to be, but it was a close enough approximation to say this is the way they used to sound. Same thing with Szell. And that’s how I was introduced to orchestras. Of course, I didn’t know that they didn’t all sound quite this way.”
For all his uniquely terse flamboyance, Svejda retired with little fanfare, just his usual five-hour program. He began with Til Eulenspiegel conducted by George Szell (“not a very nice man”) and ended with Beethoven’s Ninth by Fritz Reiner. He played An American in Paris conducted by Mitch Miller and Lark Ascending played by Anne Akiko Meyers, whom he calls “one of music’s best violinists and one of its loveliest human beings.”
Within two months KUSC had named its Resident Artist pianist Lara Downes, already a star on National Public Radio for her Amplify series of performances and conversations, to fill Svejda’s 8 pm to midnight slot, followed by the launch of Classical California, an umbrella brand under which KUSC and KDFC in San Francisco will collaborate.
To fill Svejda’s shoes will be a formidable task, as a classical radio host of his stature and knowledge draws and secures an audience of his own. “Radio hosts are half the value proposition for classical radio listeners,” says Brenda Barnes, CEO of KING FM. “Research has consistently found that the information hosts provide about the music is as important as the music. Knowledgeable hosts are absolutely critical to the future of classical radio.” Throughout the country, radio hosts play a key role in bringing classical music into the everyday lives of listeners and connecting them to the classical community.
At WFMT in Chicago, vice president and general manager George Preston says, “We’re not a public radio station, but we are mission oriented, and clearly knowledgeable and personable hosts make classical radio a deeply personal and intimate medium. During the pandemic, when in-person gatherings were not possible, our hosts provided a critical connection to many listeners who found themselves isolated. The word we heard again and again from listeners was ‘lifeline.’ We heard from listeners that they didn’t know how they would have gotten through the pandemic without the connection we provide.
“And of course WFMT’s hosting presence plays a huge role in connecting listeners to classical music and cultural events, especially in and around Chicago. We celebrate the classical music scene of Chicago on a daily basis. Our aim is to provide an intentional platform for Chicago musicians and institutions.”
Knowledgeable hosts are also critical to sales and marketing, says Katy Salomon, vice president of public relations at Primo Artists, who leverages interviews and airplay on hosted radio to increase physical sales and digital streams in the hopes of landing on the Billboard, Apple Music, and Amazon charts. “Hosted classical music radio is very effective. These stations have devoted listeners,” Salomon says, “who are the exact target market for recordings, and the hosts curate in order to educate and entertain them.”
A great host doesn’t just promote recordings they consider worthy. In Dallas, WRR Classical FM works to promote “the momentum and artistry of the Dallas Symphony,” says DSO vice president of communications Denise McGovern. “On Monday evenings for over 50 years, WRR has aired hosted broadcasts of DSO concerts. Our concerts and appearances throughout the city are regularly promoted. The artists are generous with their time, and come out to our parks concerts and appearances in the city to meet their listeners.”
But perhaps most fundamental in a radio host’s role is providing a connection between listeners and art. Ed Yim, chief content officer and senior vice president at New York’s WQXR, says that “human connection and curation beats an algorithm for experiencing art. Our mission is not to be the best radio station. Our mission is to engage people—both passionate and curious—in the music. We strive to be an essential partner to our New York musical community and to share that with our local, national, and international listeners.
In the nation’s capital, Dan DeVany, vice president and general manager at WETA Classical, says, “We create handcrafted programming that’s hosted—that means live hosting and companionship—18 hours a day. It was once the norm across the United States. Back in the day that’s what radio was all about, and we believe it still is. Public, not-for-profit community radio is an entity that tends to aggregate people of passion and build communities of volunteers.”
Yim thinks that the selection of Svejda’s successor will be an indicator of where the industry is headed. “One of the things that classical music should always be concerned with is the diversity of voices, not just in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of personality and generational perspective. So I really love what KUSC and KDFC are doing with Lara Downes. She’s brought a really fresh perspective to their airwaves.”