CURRENT ONLINE

A year later, fans are still campaigning to bring "songbook" music back to WGBH-FM

Originally published in Current, Aug. 19, 1996

By Judith Davies

photo of Ferrari and Low"This is not an attack; this is civil war," says Stephen Low about the campaign to persuade WGBH-FM, Boston, to bring back its daily program MusicAmerica. Low, along with Carp Ferrari and John Brady, are leading a band of 15,000 petition-signing and check-writing listeners who miss the program and its variety of standards from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. [Pictured at right: Low and Ferrari.]

They have a big (and growing) war chest, a mission they support feverently and a combination of public relations skills useful in making their case.

MusicAmerica--hosted for 18 years by Ron Della Chiesa until it was canceled almost a year ago, Aug. 31, 1995--had 100,000 mostly older but ethnically mixed listeners, according to Low, and they feel they've lost their best friend.

Monday through Thursday, 2 to 5 p.m., Della Chiesa played the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, as interpreted by the likes of Sinatra, Streisand, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald--an archive of once-popular music that today is often packed off into a niche called cabaret.

In place of the three hours of MusicAmerica, WGBH added two hours of news and one hour of classical music. On Friday nights, it created The Jazz Songbook with Della Chiesa.

Station executives contend that they're covering the pop genre during their evening jazz block. "We play all the major composers in jazz," says WGBH Vice President and Radio Manager Marita Rivero. "Whatever you call MusicAmerica's music, we call it jazz."

Ron Jones, the station's new program director, agrees. "The house of jazz has many rooms, and all of that is included in there," he says.

Indeed, many of the standards were used as melodic foundations for jazz, which was being invented by black Americans during the same period when Jewish immigrants, mostly Russian, were writing what fans call "the Great American Songbook." (Cole Porter was an Episcopalian exception.) This music "was written by Americans for Americans, not Jews for Jews," Low says. "Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington did music for Americans, not blacks for blacks. ... It united us," he adds.

Low, a public relations consultant and Brady, a media consultant and investigative journalist, founded Listeners for MusicAmerica and Ferrari, a folk-art consultant, created its Save MusicAmerica Trust Fund, which raised $25,000 through a benefit concert in April that drew 400 paying and pledging fans. "WGBH never could have anticipated this reaction from us," Low says, "nor did they anticipate the passion of the listeners, and they should have known that."

The campaign is sophisticated, as befits leaders who learned protest in the '60s and now sway public opinion for a living. They reach out through the web (http://www.aahome.com/savema), e-mail (savema@aol.com) and a hotline (617-662-0853). They put out a newsletter and bumper stickers and have a theme song: "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" They hired a plane to fly above the Boston Marathon for four hours, dragging a banner that said, "WGBH--Bring Back MusicAmerica." They plan a second benefit concert Sept. 29 and a third Nov. 10. One of the local cable channels taped the April concert and is carrying it in four segments this month.

"We aren't an angry group, just always moving ahead positively," Ferrari says. The Trust Fund could prove to be a big stick, or carrot. The money will go to WGBH only if the program is returned to the air; otherwise, it will go to another charity to be determined by Della Chiesa and the donors.

Low would like to raise the trust fund idea to another level, creating what he calls LSPTs, Listener Sponsored Program Trusts. In the present case, the LSPT might fund a MusicAmerica chair at WGBH. He cites WCRB, another Boston station, which was privately owned. When the owner died, he left a trust large enough to keep the station going for 100 years. "Essentially he set the station up as a cultural institution," Low says. Low believes that LSPTs could become public-interest groups with enough clout to balance the power of large underwriters.

"I don't really understand the trust concept," Rivero comments. "The air isn't for sale." WGBH donors are contributing to a public service, not to specific programming. Underwriters don't offer funding if a station will air six hours on a specific topic, she says. "Underwriters don't work that way, and neither do commercial stations."

Canceling MusicAmerica was going to be one of those infrequent but predictable format struggles: some aggrieved listeners complain, but the station moves ahead, building a larger, more cohesive or more satisfied audience than it had before.

"We had a very chopped-up format and we weren't able to devote enough time to either the classical in the morning or MusicAmerica in the afternoon," Rivero says. "We weren't doing a service to either format." So WGBH extended its morning classical music block and the two drivetime news blocks, aiming to hold audiences with longer blocks of programming.

But critics regarded WGBH's competitive strategy as a loss of diversity for Bostonians. On the day MusicAmerica ended, the Boston Globe ran an editorial bemoaning the loss. "[C]lassical music is already available on WCRB, and news programming will overlap the news offerings on WBUR," the Globe said. The change "makes no sense," it concluded.

"I continue to be sorry anytime we upset listeners," Rivero says, acknowledging that change is difficult. "I just hope they will find something to appreciate on our new format."

WGBH executives may hope they can wait out the protest, but it could be a very long wait, and Brady hints that the campaign will escalate. On Sept. 1, he predicts, Listeners for MusicAmerica will announce a new strategy, which he hints may not be so congenial. "What we have found in trying to deal with management over this small issue is a much larger issue--WGBH itself," says Brady. The group says station managers have been unresponsive to listeners, have not released data on listener preferences, and are betraying their mission.

"The wonderful thing about the old WGBH was that it really was diverse, and now it's gone," Ferrari says. Her colleagues contend the station has become "me, too" in its programming decisions.

Della Chiesa, who continues to host WGBH's morning classical music program, is not leading this insurrection. "There's a grieving process going on," he says. "It's painful to look back, [but] I've got a new challenge and I'm looking forward to it."

Though fans felt they had a personal relationship with Della Chiesa, campaign leaders say they're not just lobbying to save his old job. "This is not a Ron Della Chiesa fan club," Brady says. "It is not about the man, it is about the music."

"For me it was like a daily class in American music," Ferrari says. "It was always soothing and peaceful in the background or, if you brought it into the foreground--wow, what you could learn."

"Basically, none of this music for people our age is really nostalgia," says Low, who is 51. "We grew up with regular old rock 'n roll." Calling the standards "nostalgia" music, as counter-critics do, is a red-flag word comparable to "old fogey," Ferrari warns. The songs may be old, but they address the same human loves and longings today as they did when they were new.

The fans do look back in admiration at a kind of popular music that seemingly united the whole population. Low and Ferrari complain that today's narrow musical formats divide the public into demographic compartments rather than fostering a cohesive national pop culture.

The standards of American music "had come into New York around 1900 as Viennese operetta and would emerge, 25 years later, as something distinctly American," writer Jesse Green observed in the New York Times Magazine this summer. The songs "trade in specific and complex emotions, expressed through a prism of artifice that bends them toward irony and abstraction. ... distinguished by the predominance of melody over harmony and rhythm, by rhymed words that tell a dramatic story ... and by, in the best cases, exceptional wit and wrenching loveliness."

If Low is fighting a civil war for this music, for Brady it's a lover's quarrel with WGBH. "We want to patch up this marriage," he says.

But can WGBH and its fans get back together? So far, the struggle has been remarkably civil, but neither side shows any sign of backing down. Low, Brady and Ferrari say they're not going away. Ferrari gets checks every day from fans of the show, she says.

"I applaud them for their effort and commitment," Jones says, but he adds: "The program MusicAmerica will not return."

 

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Earlier news: Programmers at public radio stations show their scars from battles with listeners.

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