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Listeners use the broadcast for relaxation,
meditation, the wild thing or whatever.
"One week," says Hill, "someone tells us they saw God
while listening to the show.
Another person says he listened while washing his car."

Hearts of Space: a mellow carriage leader after a decade on the public radio satellite

Originally published in Current, Feb. 1, 1993

By Steve Behrens

Through a fortunate convergence of circumstances, Music from the Hearts of Space has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as one of the most widely broadcast programs in public radio.

Weekends are the last place on many schedules that is still open to music programs as singular as Hearts, and the hour before sign-off is the widest open of all. That's where the program thrives--Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.

"It's primetime for space music," says Stephen Hill, the San Francisco producer who crafts the weekly hour of reverberating, chiming, flagrantly mellow instrumentals.

It's heard on some 275 public radio stations. Judging from distributors' estimates last year, only the NPR newsmagazines and a couple of freely syndicated orchestral concert series are carried more widely.

Station programmers praise Hill's consistent quality, his care in choosing selections to fit the weekly theme, and his diligent rejection of mediocre examples of the "space music" and "new age" genres. (Hill himself says a lot of the spurned recordings are banal and listless.)

"It's a program that's very respected--it does what it does well," says Dave Carwile, program director at WOSU-FM, Columbus, and president of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio.

"It was a dynamite sign-off program," says John Fischer, programming manager at KSUI-FM, Iowa City. "To my mind, what you'd always want after that program is silence."

Most of the programmers interviewed about Hearts say they like the program, but they don't shout with glee from the rafters.

"I can't think of anybody who's crazy about it," says Annette Griswold, a music consultant who aired the program when she was p.d. at KCFR-FM, Denver.

"A lot of serious music listeners think maybe the producers go for the easy piece that washes over the listener, that doesn't engage the mind in any way," says Craig Curtis, p.d. at WUNC-FM, Chapel Hill. "That's not entirely fair. There's nothing wrong with allowing music to wash over you, if that's what you want."

A music director at a major station admires Hill's skill as a producer, and carries the show, but summarizes his own opinion about space music by paraphrasing H.L. Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the population."

Virtuosity not the point

Such a view might be expected among music specialists who revere the virtuosos of classical and jazz composition and performance. The relatively simple and often slow-moving compositions on Hearts come out of a very different tradition, says Hill. "The quality of the musicianship--that's not what it's all about. Ultimately, it's about the internal experience the material is capable of creating." That's enough for the listeners.

"The people who love it really love it," says Carwile, who airs Hearts before Saturday midnight sign-off in Columbus. "It's one of the times in the week when we're in the top four or five stations in terms of share. Our share goes up when it comes on."

At research-oriented WMFE-FM in Orlando, the programmers find the appeal of the music is distinct enough that they have pulled "new music" from the daily classical playlist and created a four-hour block on Saturday nights, with Hearts surrounded by Echoes and a local new-music show, says Music Director David Glerum.

Griswold believes the fans commonly make an "appointment" to listen to Hearts. They "use" the broadcast for relaxation, meditation, the wild thing or whatever.

"One week," says Hill, "someone tells us they saw God while listening to the show. Another person says he listened while washing his car."

Fire up the hot tub

The contemplative music accompanies a valued weekly quiet time for some listeners. Kevin Nissley, a WMFE host whose show leads in to Hearts, recalls that one caller said he and his girlfriend "take a bath in their jacuzzi with candles all around" when the program comes on.

Nissley says he also heard from a staff member of a mental institution who said the patients enjoy Hearts. "It calms them down. He was wondering if we could air more of it."

"The bottom-line quality in space music," Hill contends, "is that it is psychically restorative and emotionally soul-satisfying."

An earlier generation got its soothing sounds from "Easy Listening" or "Beautiful Music" stations, which have since been rejected by younger audiences, Hill says. "'Beautiful Music' is relaxing, but there is nothing happening emotionally or intellectually. The music we're attempting to bring together ... is supposed to be both."

"Contemplative music is one of the oldest musical traditions," Hill remarks. "It probably goes back to the first person who took a flute into a cave and liked what he heard."

"Leaving people in a completely nonverbal, tonal experience, it opens the possibility of other kinds of perception to occur."

Though "space music" often conjures up the "outer space" of Hollywood, with its whizzing rocket ships, Hill is more interested in representing inner, mental spaces. He originally trained and began work as an architect. "What I do is architecture by other means. I'm still involved in creating environments."

Hill hears spatial imagery in all styles of music these days. "Traditionally, [music] was melody, harmony and rhythm. I think you have to add imagery now."

His ear tells him, however, that today's audio equipment still can't effectively reproduce the spatial component of sound. "We've overcome all forms of distortion, but what we can't capture adequately is the entire three-dimensional surround of listening to music in a live space."

Most attempts to do so have required listeners to buy extra hardware, but Hill hopes new generations of "ambiance processors"--his latest gadget is a Hughes AK100--will make it possible to transmit the illusion of 360 degrees of sound through an ordinary stereo receiver.

Berkeley-born

Hearts is really 20 years old, not 10. Hill began the program as a volunteer at KPFA-FM, Berkeley, in 1973, and worked with Anna Turner as co-producer. Ten years later--Jan. 8, 1983--the program went national. Hill didn't break-even financially for seven years, until 200 stations were carrying the show and paying carriage fees.

But what really made Hearts beat was the founding of a recording subsidiary, Hearts of Space Records, in 1984. Though it began as an afterthought, it now brings in 90 percent of the company's revenues, including his salary. (The public radio program pays a couple of other salaries.) "I'm really in the record business now." The record label has published 36 albums so far; two more will be out soon.

This recording business was another fortunate circumstance that converged on Hill. "Until the financial realities of public radio change substantially," he predicts, "the only way for a producer to make a long-term commitment is to have another business, which hopefully is tied into what you're doing with the radio program."

"I don't recommend going into public radio as a financial proposition," he comments.

That wasn't his plan 10 or 20 years ago. In fact, he didn't have any plan to become the leading impresario of space music. "I didn't feel it would become my mission in life," Hill says. "I just liked it. The basic impulse is no more complicated than that."

 

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Outside link: the Hearts of Space web site.

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