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(The following "Commentary" from The BerkshireEagle was published Saturday, June 3, 2000 and is reproduced here without permission. To read the interview in which Mr. Fanto defends this WAMC Apologia, Click Here!)

Commentary
Lurtsema's demise not WAMC's fault

By Clarence Fanto
Berkshire Eagle Staff
There's plenty of reason to be sad about the all-but-certain demise of Robert J. Lurtsema's "Morning Pro Musica" after a distinguished three-decade run on public radio in New England and New York.

As has been noted ever since it became clear early last month that Lurtsema's severe lung ailment would most likely preclude his return to the air on his home station (WGBH in Boston), Lurtsema bucked the cookie-cutter tide that has dumbed down the presentation of classical music on radio.

Many public radio stations -- though not WMHT (FM 89.1) in nearby Schenectady, N.Y. -- have adopted the Classical Lite format pioneered by commercial broadcasters in New York, Boston
and London.

But WAMC (FM 90.3, 105.1) in Albany deserves credit for having remained loyal to Lurtsema all these years-- as its Chairman and Executive Director Alan S. Chartock often points out, long after public radio networks in Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and individual stations like WFCR in Amherst abandoned him.

An earlier era
It's true that Lurtsema represents a throwback to an earlier era of broadcasting, and he refused to kow-tow to pressure from station managers for a trendier approach that would avoid long-form symphonies, operas and choral works in favor of a "Top 40" approach to the classical repertory.

His steadfastness -- stubbornness, his detractors would argue -- stemmed from his sense of mission, particularly aimed at younger audiences, to keep the tradition of great music alive.

But one senses that he was losing listeners in recent years, and his progressive ailment certainly made it difficult to hear him struggle through newscasts and descriptions of musical works.

Therefore, the managers at Boston's WGBH could not have been too heart-broken when he began an indefinite medical leave this spring. Despite their public statements keeping the light on the window, it would be surprising if the 68-year-old broadcaster ever returns to his weekend morning perch. (Though, in the volatile world of broadcasting, nothing is impossible.)

Tough choices Lurtsema's extended medical leave put WAMC's managers in a tough position -- they could hang in with the substitute hosts (a far cry from the master), or they could accede to the wishes of many listeners for more National Public Radio news and talk programming on weekend mornings.

In a well-fashioned compromise, WAMC moved "Weekend Edition" to prime mid-morning positions on both days (8-10 Saturdays, 9-11 Sundays), the same time most public radio stations around the nation carry it.

"Car Talk," arguably one of public radio's most popular shows, was given a new and better slot on Saturday mornings at 10, and the popular "Schickele Mix" now follows it.

No decline in classics
With all the changes, WAMC continues to air 10 hours of classical music during the day on weekends. The programs, from a Public Radio International satellite service, are listenable, though certainly not the distinctive, creative mix offered by Lurtsema during his halcyon days.

And Chartock has stood by the in-season live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and from Tanglewood-- again despite clear evidence of declining listener interest and support.

WAMC is just over a month away from conducting one of its tri-annual fund drives. Those who support classical music should put their wallets where their whines are and turn out in droves, especially during classical music time periods.

We few who make classical music a centerpiece of our lives (3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the best evidence) need to support broadcasters who continue to acknowledge the heritage of the world's great composers and musicians.

This means also backing WMHT, which appears always hard-up for money and conducts seemingly endless beg-a-thons every other month or so.

With WMHT airing classical music for most of its 24-hour broadcast day -- not the watered-down format so prevalent elsewhere -- and WAMC still holding steady with at least some music as part of its mostly-talk format, listeners in the Berkshires are especially fortunate to have two of the finest public radio outlets available anywhere in the nation.

So, it's time to stop the petty badgering and show some appreciation for what survives, not for what's gone with the wind.

© 2000 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and New England Newspapers, Inc.

Clarence Fanto is Managing Editor of The Berkshire Eagle.


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